Belgium Is the EU’s Capital, but Its Own Future Is Now in Doubt

Anton Jäger

Belgium was a pioneer of industrialization, and class struggle by its workers’ movement created one of Europe’s most impressive welfare states. But with regional divisions now dominating Belgian politics, the country’s long-term survival is deeply uncertain.

The Grote Markt in Brussels, Beglium. (Julian Elliott Photography / Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

Belgium may be one of Western Europe’s smallest countries, but its capital plays host to NATO and the European Union; indeed, “Brussels” has long been a shorthand term for the EU’s political and administrative machinery. One of Europe’s first industrial powers, it carved out its own colonial presence in the Congo during the “Scramble for Africa” of the late nineteenth century.

After World War II, Belgium developed one of Europe’s most elaborate welfare states, under pressure from the quasi-insurrectionary strike movement of 1960–61. In recent decades, however, regional identities have displaced class conflict as the main axis of Belgian political life. While its politicians have developed a complex system of multitiered federal government, there are still influential figures calling for outright separation between French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders.

Anton Jäger is a Belgian historian of political thought. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Daniel Finn

How did Belgium come to be one of the first industrial states in Western Europe? What was the political significance of that transformation?

Anton Jäger

That’s a very big question, to which there are several answers. I’m going to try and give what I think is the most plausible one. What makes the early industrialization of Belgium particularly puzzling is that it militates quite aggressively against Max Weber’s idea that capitalism only develops in Protestant countries or that you need a certain cultural base of Protestantism for capitalism to take off.

In the case of Belgium, which was still a predominantly Catholic country in the early nineteenth century, it became the most powerful industrial state on the continent and continued to dominate for a long period of time. Some Protestant neighboring states such as the Netherlands took much longer, until the end of the nineteenth century, to develop a proper industrial base.

I think the best way to see the early industrialization of Belgium is as a product of the French revolutionary occupation. The French invaded Belgium in the 1790s. There was an occupation which also called forth an indigenous agrarian uprising. Mainly because Belgium was at the strategic geographical point in Europe — with the port of Antwerp, but also Ghent, and armies passing through — they quickly realized that it would be a good idea to develop Belgian industry, both as a way of staving off a British threat, but also so that they could use industry to make their way into the rest of the continent.

In the 1790s, under that French occupation, you had a deliberate policy of protecting Belgian industry from foreign competition and nurturing it. When Napoleon fell and there was the Restoration, this policy continued. After the Dutch got Belgium back in 1815, they kept a lot of these protectionist measures; then, when Belgium became independent in the 1830s, there was a deliberate policy of economic liberalism, which built on the gains of that previous period. That political legacy proved to be crucial for driving Belgian industrialization in the nineteenth century.

The other thing you have to combine it with is industrial espionage, which is a contingent but interesting factor. Belgium was one of the first places where British capitalists arrived in the early nineteenth century, such as John Cockerill, for example. They found circumstances in the French-speaking south of Belgium that were quite similar to those in the north of England. Since Liège and large parts of Wallonia were very close to a river, it was obvious that developing industry there was a good idea.

In Flemish centers such as Ghent, a Flemish entrepreneur called Lieven Bauwens was able to subvert some of the limits on industrial engineering exports from the UK. In the early nineteenth century, it was forbidden to export certain industrial machines from the UK into Europe, because they knew this constituted a competitive advantage. However, through the manipulation of several local English brokers, Bauwens was able to get a mule-jenny with which to spin cotton. This proved to be a crucial technological innovation that also drove the Belgian industrial revolution.

There was also a more strictly social factor: the presence of a large and concentrated labor force that was being thrown out of agriculture. Belgian — mainly Flemish — agriculture entered a severe crisis in the 1830s and ’40s, so there was a massive labor reserve into which Belgian industry could tap. Since the demographics of the transition were so unequal and so many people were entering the labor force at the same time, wages were very low, and remained very low for most of the nineteenth century.

That aided Belgian industrialization, which maintained a competitive edge and became an export power throughout the long nineteenth century. Belgian exports went to Russia, India, and large parts of the imperial world at the time. It was only in the early twentieth century that competitors such as Germany and the US began to achieve total dominance of the world market.

Daniel Finn

What was the social content of the divide between Flanders and Wallonia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? How did it shift over time?

Anton Jäger

There’s a very simple way of explaining the contrast, which is in terms of industrial versus agricultural societies. In the nineteenth century, several socialists compared Flanders to Ireland, as Belgium’s internal, regional island. It was not a geographical island, of course, but in socioeconomic terms, it had a very similar makeup.

Flanders, partly because of geography, partly because of history, was predominantly agricultural. For most of the nineteenth century, apart from some urban centers, it remained so. It was a reserve from which proletarians could migrate to the industrial centers in the south. In the nineteenth century, Wallonia had the massive factories and was essentially a Belgian, European Manchester, while Flanders was an agricultural region with a language that the elite didn’t respect or speak.

That contrast persisted into the twentieth century. It still held in the 1920s and ’30s, even if Walloon industry was no longer that globally competitive. In the postwar period, as American capital flowed into Belgium in the 1940s and ’50s, that balance began to shift. Wallonia deindustrialized quite aggressively in the 1950s and ’60s, while Flanders began to industrialize on its own terms.

However, it did so in a very different way from the coal- and carbon-based legacy industries of nineteenth-century Wallonia such as mining and steel. Flemish industrialization was very much focused on services and the packaging or repackaging of products, either for an American market or for a bigger European market.

By the close of the twentieth century, the balance had completely shifted. Flanders was predominantly industrial and quite productive. Most of the money in Belgium was actually being made in Flanders, while Wallonia completely lost the economic race and became an equivalent of Detroit or Manchester, albeit with a more generous welfare state.

This, of course, means that the power balance within Belgium has also shifted. Most of the elite are now concentrated in the north, because that’s where economic power lies, while the legacy industries that propped up the French-speaking elite in the south have completely disappeared and taken away their power base.

Daniel Finn

How did the Belgian labor movement and its main political parties approach the regional divide? How did those parties fit into the wider Belgian party system?

Anton Jäger

That’s a very good question, and one that requires some historicizing. Since industry in the nineteenth century was so heavily concentrated in the south, except for those urban centers in Flanders, the beginnings of Belgian socialism were quite heavily Francophone and Walloon — with the exception of the capital, Brussels, which is a unique case.

That doesn’t mean that the first Belgian socialists did not realize that there was a language question and that, for example, social exploitation in Flanders always went hand in hand with linguistic exploitation, so the fight for Flemish language rights was also a social struggle. However, they still saw these industrial regions as the core area for their agitation. They didn’t really see the need to go beyond that particular sector.

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that you had a stronger linguistic presence within the Belgian Workers’ Party, as it was called at the time. That element started to agitate and make arguments for language rights for the Flemish majority. There were also certain voices within the party who still said that the movement should be striving for a unitary Belgian state based on one language, namely French, even though they realized that would mean alienating a large part of that agricultural voting bloc in the north.

That divide persisted, with the Flemish element as a minority within the socialist movement. It was only when the socialists realized that the Flemish nationalists had become an electoral force to be reckoned with, in the 1920s and ’30s, that they started to adjust to the situation and make overtures. In the 1950s and ’60s, Flemish nationalism was so tainted by its collaboration with the Nazis during the war that you saw the development of a severe split at the heart of the Belgian workers’ movement.

One part of the movement became openly Flemish nationalist and wanted to combine independence for Flanders with what they called a Social Flemish Republic. Another part of the movement became openly “Wallonianist,” if you want to put it that way, and said that Wallonia should secede from a predominantly agricultural and reactionary Flanders, because if you wanted to build socialism in Belgium, it was never going to be possible with that region attached to it.

In the early ’70s, Belgium became a properly federal state in which there were two communities, each with its own rights. The previously unitary parties with both Flemish and French speakers now started to divide into separate parties. You had a liberal Flemish party and a French-speaking liberal party, Flemish Christian Democrats and Francophone Christian Democrats, and the division of the socialist party into Flemish and French-speaking wings.

This development visualized the internal divide, which had always been there, but which was never expressed so explicitly on the level of party politics. At the same time, the Belgian labor movement had unions to rely upon as well as those parties. The unions didn’t undergo that process of internal division. They have Walloon and Flemish branches, but they are still unitary organizations, which means that while the Belgian working class as a whole doesn’t find itself represented in a cohesive way, it still has these institutional structures.

Daniel Finn

What impact did the process of colonization and decolonization in the Congo have on domestic Belgian politics?

Anton Jäger

This is a very tough question, precisely because, unlike France, Britain, or you could even say Germany, Belgium is quite unique for its record of not letting any of its former imperial subjects into the country. The Congolese diaspora in Belgium is extremely small compared to postcolonial diasporas in other countries. The Congolese communities that you do have, either in Brussels or other cities, are predominantly made up of Congolese elites, who mostly have sympathies that are not particularly progressive, or that are more amenable to the interests of the Belgian state.

This can make it seem as if, looking at Belgium today, there wasn’t really an impact: Belgium just dropped this colony in 1960 and forgot about it. Since then, they’ve been living in a different world where that imperial legacy no longer holds. In fact, that’s only the surface of the story.

The old Belgian Francophone elite had three bases to its power: industrial capital in Wallonia; the connection to the royal household, mainly based in Brussels; and the colonial goods extraction system with the Congo, which also meant that they were able to finance industrialization. Once that Congolese factor fell away with the sudden move toward independence in 1960, that meant there was a massive decrease, both financially and politically, in the power of that old elite.

The new Flemish elite which was rising in the north didn’t really have a connection to the Congo. It was never so heavily invested in colonial goods, but rather was oriented above all toward the US. That rising elite now saw a chance to push the old Belgian elite. There’s an argument one could make that the independence of the Congo made the federalization of Belgium in the late 1960s possible.

At the same time, the disappearance of the old elite didn’t mean that they were unable to reproduce their power in certain ways. After the end of formal imperialism, many of these Belgian capitalists tried to keep their stakes in these Congolese companies. When the European Economic Community was formed in the 1950s, the Congo was actually a territorial component of the European bloc. If you look at maps from the 1950s on which the new Community appeared, the Congolese territories were there, as were the Algerian territories of France.

There was a real desire to keep hold of the Congo for as long as possible. It was only when it became clear that the Congolese independence movement was too strong, and the Americans were insisting on independence, that there was a sudden move toward Congolese liberation. As we know, it was quite badly executed and done without the internal cadre who could manage the transition.

The disappearance of that old Belgian elite completed the postindustrial transition in Wallonia and made Flanders into the economic powerhouse of the country. At the same time, there was still a more informal, multinational form of imperialism, in which Belgian elites could continue to export all of these goods without maintaining that political power.

Daniel Finn

How did the strike movement of 1960–61 develop? Did it leave behind an enduring political legacy in Belgium?

Anton Jäger

Yes, it did. It was a paradoxical strike movement, insofar as it took place at the height of the postwar Belgian economic boom, when you had rising incomes, better social services, and more social rights for the working class. People like André Gorz, who was then a correspondent for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps modernes, reported on the strike wave. Gorz used it to debunk the integration thesis — the idea that the European working classes had given up revolutionary fervor, become middle class, and no longer wanted to engage in any form of militant or subversive strike action. The strike wave completely negated the idea of the acquiescence or quiescence of European labor movements.

One way of understanding the strike wave is as a response to two processes. The first is that after the war, you had the creation of social security and all kinds of social rights, at the instigation of communist militants, who almost invaded the Belgian parliament at the time. However, the old Belgian elite was still able to keep its grip on power.

That meant that while there were many promises of revolution in the air during the 1940s, they were never fulfilled. In the 1950s, you were looking at a country that had been promised big change, on linguistic, federal, and social levels, but which hadn’t quite achieved it. We can then best conceive of the 1960–61 strike wave as a way to restart that revolutionary engine from the 1940s, but in different circumstances.

The other aspect to it is that the Christian Democrats in the north had succeeded in diffusing a certain socialist threat by transferring a lot of Flemish proletarians into the countryside and doing a version of what you could call Belgian suburbanization, turning all of these Flemish workers into middle-class homeowners. This put a check on revolutionary activity in Belgian politics as a whole. We can then see the strike wave as an exclusively Walloon event — a way of saying “we want to secede from this conservative northern region, which is incapacitating any prospect for socialism in Belgium.”

The government of the time made enormous social concessions. The entrenchment of union rights and the increase in the provision of social services of all kinds was also the result of that strike wave. Even if it didn’t culminate in a revolutionary situation, it did have a massive impact on the social history of Belgium as a whole.

Daniel Finn

You’ve touched on this question already, but perhaps we can go into more detail — how did the reforms that created a system of regional devolution come about, and what political consequences have since flowed from those reforms?

Anton Jäger

This is again a question that needs to be treated in phases. Belgian state law, and certainly Belgian regional state law, is an insanely complex field, on which people will write PhDs and spend entire academic careers just interpreting and making sense of it in the first place. In general, there’s always a package of state reforms which are conceded on behalf of a certain Francophone elite to a Flemish voting bloc that has been asking for them.

The first step of the federalization process was in early 1970s, when Belgium became a properly federal state. You now had a Francophone community and a Flemish community. There were also cultural rights created for Flemings, which could now determine their own cultural policy at that level. Then there was a second step in the late ’70s, with the so-called Egmont Pact, in which more language rights were granted to Flemings. In the early ’90s, federalization took another jump: Flanders and Wallonia got their own parliaments, and even Brussels became a region with its own parliament. You had an absurd proliferation of all kinds of ministries and cabinets across the country.

These reforms had an interesting effect by creating different political cultures and arenas. Flemish politics did exist before 1970, in so far as Belgian politicians had to get votes in Flanders, but they didn’t see themselves as playing in the arena of a Flemish parliament. Political cultures now began to diverge and segment in a particular way. Belgians were still broadly reading the same newspapers and watching the same TV channels in the 1950s and ’60s, but that completely changed in the 1970s and ’80s, so you could talk of two political cultures.

Since most of the first batch of rights that were granted to Flemings were cultural rights, the Belgian workers’ movement didn’t suffer from that type of fragmentation. Most of the social security system was still instituted on a federal level, as were other forms of social provision. That explains why so many Belgian unions are quite hesitant about plans for Flemish or Walloon independence, because so much of their institutional power relies on a body of law and social rights that was instituted on the Belgian level.

In the 1990s, when federalization took another qualitative jump, you finally had the creation of what you could call a distinctly Flemish state, which was able to raise its own taxes and institute its own form of social provision. This created competition between different levels, and meant that you had a constant bargaining process, where politicians who had a foot both in the Belgian federal parliament and the Flemish or Walloon parliament constantly had to make deals with all kinds of players to make sure that all the parties were catered for.

For example, once you do an energy deal, the deal which is done in the federal parliament can’t be against the interest of Walloon politicians, while Flemish politicians want their own specific deal. There’s a constant bargaining process, which has a centrifugal effect on the Belgian state. Once you have some competencies on the Flemish level, you might simply say, “Why don’t we just transfer all of these competencies to the Flemish level, because it’s tending toward this?”

This puts the Belgian workers’ movement in a difficult position, because institutionally, the Belgian state is decomposing, and fewer and fewer delegatory rights are situated at that level. At the same time, so much of its institutional power — for example in the field of social security — is still situated on the federal level.

People say that if Belgium were ever to truly split, it will happen once the division of social security is complete. In other words, Flanders will raise its own taxes, Wallonia will raise its own taxes, and both regions will pay for childcare, medical care, and social services with their own share of the money. In that scenario, regionalization will be complete, and Belgium will fall apart into two different countries.

Daniel Finn

Belgium was one of the founding members of the European Economic Community back in the 1950s, and “Brussels” as a term has long been a shorthand for the EU’s political and administrative machinery in other countries. What impact has the Belgian role in European integration had on its domestic politics?

Anton Jäger

The presence of the EU, not only within Belgium but also within Brussels, is slightly strange in that it completely determines how the city is managed, and completely determines the country’s politics on so many levels, but visually, the EU is not present at all. If you come to Brussels, the European quarter is quite segmented and secluded from the rest of the city. Since the dominant language of that community is English — or “Eurish” as they say — they don’t interact with the rest of Brussels in a very comprehensive way. They have their own restaurants, their own schools, and their own social circles. Brussels, already being a rather tribal city, doesn’t have that strong a relationship with the EU.

That doesn’t mean they’re a parasitical or alien body within the city as a whole. But while the EU and Brussels are so connected in international debates — everyone can just refer to the EU by the metonym of “Brussels” — once you actually live in the city, it feels very strange to equate the two. You can see that the EU is just an institution that has landed here because they had to find a compromise between the French and the Germans, and they obviously couldn’t put the center of the institutions anywhere else.

The reason that Belgium was always a driving force behind European integration is because they realized in the 1950s and ’60s that the great age of legacy industry was over: coal was on its way out, and you could not maintain a nineteenth-century form of capitalism in a twentieth-century world. Since Belgium was a very small economy, extremely susceptible to the shocks of the bigger economies that surround it, they knew that they had to hitch their wagon to European integration immediately.

This was partly because they needed oil and good rates at which to buy it, partly because they needed a market for the specialized products that they were going to produce, and partly because they needed to protect domestic farming from international competition (this was very important for the Christian Democrats and conservatives). The EU, apart from being a steel cartel, was always a machine that would protect European farmers from a hostile world market.

Those three factors explain why Belgium embraced European integration so enthusiastically, and why, after hitching their wagon to it, they also got into the driver’s seat. They realized that the better the EU did, they better they would do. Unlike some of the other great capitalist nations of the nineteenth century, such as Britain, there is very little Eurosceptic sentiment, both in the elite and in the population at large. Almost in a cognitive sense, it seems impossible for Belgians to ever contemplate leaving this system. Even the Belgian Workers’ Party doesn’t quite talk about its skepticism in those terms.

Weirdly enough, the EU has often functioned as a transcendent horizon for Belgian politics. The decomposition or degradation of the Belgian federal state — its splitting into two separate, federal entities — has created this idea, certainly on the Left, that in the end we’ll all be integrated into Europe anyway. We don’t have to be Belgians in the long term — we’ll all be Europeans — so why not just make the jump toward a supranational state and absorb ourselves upward in the EU machine?

This view lasted into the 2000s and even into the 2010s. However, after the Eurozone crisis and the successive problems that the EU has experienced, whether economic or geopolitical, some of this enthusiasm has cooled in Belgian politics. There’s no longer an idea that Belgium can just transform itself into a region of the EU and it’ll be done with.

We now have a difficult midway point between the realization that the EU will never become a superstate, because it will never allow itself to be integrated in that way, and the realization that Belgium itself is no longer viable as an institutional settlement. Many Belgian politicians and even Belgian citizens find themselves in a situation where they can’t imagine an alternative to the EU, but they also can’t imagine an alternative to the Belgian federal state anymore. I think this deadlock will probably last for a long time, but it will have to be resolved in one way or another.

Daniel Finn

What political forces have recently been pressing for greater autonomy or even outright separation in Flanders? Is there likely to be a full break at some point under conceivable circumstances?

Anton Jäger

These are two extremely contentious questions. I’ll break them down into two parts: the Flemish/Walloon part, and then the question of whether there will be a breakup of Belgium in the conceivable future. On the Flemish side, there are two parties that have been pushing and agitating for Flemish independence over the last twenty years. The biggest is the New Flemish Alliance or N-VA, which is currently in the Flemish government but not in the federal one. It was formed in the early 2000s after the breakup of the Volksunie (People’s Union), which was a more left-leaning Flemish nationalist outfit that didn’t survive the 1990s because of internal divisions.

The N-VA was originally founded by Bart De Wever, who is also its current leader, as a way to reboot that old nationalist outfit of the Volksunie with a more centrist stance. In the 2000s, it was a small party that didn’t get that many votes, but then it had a big influx of more right-wing Flemish nationalists. With the explosion of a new regional or communitarian crisis after 2008, it swelled its ranks enormously. The N-VA almost got into government in 2011 and then finally entered the federal government in 2014.

The N-VA is definitely the most powerful Flemish nationalist force in Belgian politics. Interestingly, it’s also the wealthiest party in Western Europe as a whole. They’ve bought enormous amounts of real estate in the last ten years, partly because party financing in Belgium is so generous. They’ve managed to shrewdly maneuver themselves into a position where they have enormous amounts of capital to finance their campaigns.

Unlike the other parties, however, they’re not really a mass party in any way. They consistently score quite high tallies in elections, but they don’t have a very deep or broad member base, and they don’t have very strong ties to civil society organizations anymore. There used to be a Flemish national civil society, which was represented by the so-called Vlaamse Volksbeweging (Flemish People’s Movement). But they’ve cut ties with that civil society element over the last ten years and now become an almost exclusively digital party.

This process has gone hand in hand with their declining electoral fortunes. They haven’t disappeared from the scene, but they originally arose in the 2000s as an alternative to the other big nationalist force, the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest). The Vlaams Belang used to be called the Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block) until 2004, when they had to change their name after a lawsuit in which they were accused of racism. They had to completely transform the organization to survive politically.

The Vlaams Belang is a much older organization than the N-VA — a more classically far-right European party in the style of the French National Front or the British National Party. It was born in the late 1970s as an alternative to the Volksunie. Former fascists started the party, which was exclusively focused on Flemish independence. In the 1990s, after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, it also became a very strong anti-immigrant voice. The party was always on the far right, but it was only in the ’90s that its leaders discovered that xenophobia or anti-immigrant sentiment was a winning electoral strategy, and they have continued to play on it ever since.

They were cornered or marginalized by the N-VA in the 2010s. The N-VA presented itself as a party that had made Flemish nationalism hygienic again: they said that their big achievement was pushing the Vlaams Belang out of Flemish politics and allowing people to become nationalists without being fascists. But after the N-VA’s passage through government in the late 2010s, in which it was clear they didn’t have the personnel and weren’t able to deliver on any of their promises in terms of independence, the Vlaams Belang has again surged in popularity.

They’re now scoring even better than the N-VA in the latest polls. However, since there is a so-called cordon sanitaire around them, where no party will enter a coalition with the Vlaams Belang, they haven’t been in government, and they don’t have very much policy experience. They still have a big popular base, which is regionally rooted, and which is sturdier than that of the N-VA. They have a younger, more compatible leader, and they spend enormous amounts of their party financing on digital advertising. They are a party that continues to grow.

The N-VA has not disappeared from the scene, but they are feeling the breath of the far right on their right flank. When the next election cycle comes up in 2024, it’s not clear that there won’t be a coalition between the N-VA and the Vlaams Belang, because once they have over 50 percent together, they’ll feel far more confident about declaring independence.

Daniel Finn

The Workers’ Party of Belgium (PTB) has attracted a lot of interest outside Belgium in recent years as one of the more successful parties of the radical left in Western Europe today. How would you define its political character, and how has it approached the regional divide in Belgian politics?

Anton Jäger

Historically the PTB is an interesting party in the sense that it doesn’t come out of late-nineteenth-century mass politics. It doesn’t have very deep roots in Belgian party politics as such. It’s very much a product of the post-’68 moment in the 1970s, when as a Maoist party, it tried to form an alternative to the established social democratic parties, which had reconciled themselves with a variant of Belgian corporatism.

The PTB started as a quite sectarian outfit in the 1970s and ’80s. In the 1990s and 2000s, mainly as a response to the rise of the Vlaams Blok, it went on a more multicultural, openly pro-immigration stance. Its leaders tried to form a left-wing alternative to the rising racism in Flanders at the time. This led to some rather unfortunate election pacts, for example, with Islamic parties in the early 2000s, which caused them to lose several elections, except for some local, regional gains.

It was only after 2008 and the start of the financial crisis, which completely nuked parts of the Belgian financial system and escalated communitarian tensions, that the PTB was able to recompose itself as a strong political force and one of the most serious left-wing parties in Western Europe. They have moved away from that sectarian past to become a broad membership party.

They’re one of the few parties that has a growing membership, and they’re also the last unitary party as a single Belgian institution. They are bilingual, or at least they try to be bilingual as best they can. The PTB members of parliament are unique because they deliver speeches in both Dutch and French when they speak in parliament. They’re very serious about keeping together the party as a Belgian institution rather than as a PVDA which is Flemish and a PTB which is Walloon.

I think the biggest cause of their success in the last decade is the fact that the fracturing of the previous pillars, as they were called — the civil-society engagements between parties and unions — has created space for unions to move away from their previous father parties. For example, the Christian Democratic union in Flanders has cut its ties with the Christian Democratic Party: the union and the party have decoupled. This also holds true for the socialist union and the socialist party, which have become alienated from each other at a dramatic rate.

This means that the PTB can now operate as a political representative for an economic interest group, such as a union, precisely because the allied party doesn’t stand in the way anymore. Unions in Belgium are still quite strong — union membership is edging toward 60 percent — which means they still have a lot of power within the economy and the capacity to pose demands. It also means that the unions are grateful that the PTB can translate some of their demands into politics.

The PTB is also unique among left populists in the sense that it does rely on a densely organized civil society, both in unions and in its own party cadre, which makes it quite different from, for example, the digital party of Jeremy Corbyn or the one-man party that Jean-Luc Mélenchon has built, which find it far more difficult to maintain ties with left-wing civil society. I would say the two factors behind the success of the PTB are, firstly, their capacity to remain a unitary Belgian party and resist the increasing regionalization of Belgian politics, and secondly, their ability to capitalize on the surviving union strength in the Belgian economy and try to politicize civil society from the left.

You can add to that the fact that many PTB members come from a party which still has decent educational practices, a sense of internal discipline, and a research division which is of a very high quality. That means they haven’t fallen into the lazy PR or consultancy-style politics which is so prevalent in Europe today.