Journal of Contemporary European Studies vol:20 issue:4 pages:441-458
This article discusses the relations between the different layers of government in Belgium with regard to a typical multi-level issue, i.e. climate change. It addresses the question to which degree the characteristics of Belgian federalism shape those intergovernmental relations. Three major characteristics are identified: the constitutionally ‘dual’ but de facto ‘cooperative’ federalism, the Europeanization of competences and of relations, and the executive and politicized character of federalism. The impact of those characteristics are studied with regard to crucial cases in recent decision-making on (i) domestic climate change policy in Belgium and on (ii) the position and representation of Belgium in the international climate change debate. It is observed that intergovernmental relations on climate change are to a high degree institutionalized. That is the consequence of the fragmentation in many of the competence areas important for climate change (e.g. environment, energy, transport). The different cooperation mechanisms are based on consensus, as a consequence of the principle of no hierarchy between the two levels of government. Since climate change is a highly sensitive issue involving important interests, consensus-based decision-making has led to lengthy and difficult discussions. In the complex Belgian setting, the EU is often the number one reason to bring the different governments around the same table. Intergovernmental relations on climate change policy in Belgium are triggered by formal requests by the EU to take a stance or deliver certain policy outputs on specific issues. Yet international requirements and deadlines are unable to break domestic gridlock due to political stalemates. Intergovernmental relations are completely controlled by political parties and ministerial cabinets. That becomes problematic in a context of political asymmetry, where the distinct levels of government are ruled by different coalitions. In the case of climate change, the opposition between conservative and progressive climate goals has meant that Belgium was unable to take a stance in recent debates, and it increases the probability of policy failures.