Democratization Policy Council

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Waffling About Needed Institutional Reform in Bosnia – Considering the Belgian Approach

4 December 2019 — Valery Perry

From 2010 – 2011, Belgium earned a record by having the longest period of time in which a developed country was without an elected government – 589 days - after being unable to form a government following elections held in June 2010.

So it should perhaps be no surprise that shortly following an agreement on the appointment of a Prime Minister - following a 13-month deadlock in which the leadership of Bosnia and Herzegovina was unable to being to implement the results of the autumn 2018 general elections – an event was held in Sarajevo on how BiH can learn lessons in good governance from Belgium. (It is important to note that this is the only agreement; other than this position, a state government has still not been formed.)

While the event was presumably aimed at demonstrating that even the most fragmented polities can find a way to align themselves with the EU’s strict yet somewhat adaptable framework, one wonders whether proponents are aware of some of the features of Belgium’s system. Three elements of government provide interesting food for thought: justice, security and health.

For example in the judicial sector, Belgium has several state-level supreme judicial authorities. The Court of Cassation is Belgium’s highest appellate court, hearing appeals to ensure that the law is applied consistently throughout the entire state of Belgium, and determining whether domestic laws conflict with Belgium’s international commitments, including with the European Union. Belgium also has a Constitutional Court which, while initially established to resolve intragovernmental disputes, also provides an avenue for individuals to challenge laws they assess as harmful to their enjoyment of constitutionally protected rights, such as non-discrimination and equality. Further, the Council of State provides a state-level dispute resolution mechanism and serves as an advisory body for issues of administrative law.

Belgium’s Integrated Police Service (IPS) brings together federal and local police forces to ensure coordination and efficiency. It was borne from a comprehensive reform in 1998, as the old system suffered from significant overlap, rivalry, mismanagement and corruption, all of which were pointedly evident in the high profile case of serial murderer and rapist Marc Dutroux, who evaded capture for years in that dysfunctional system. There is also a Federal Police Service (FPS) which investigates violations of state law as well as crimes that involve more than one local police jurisdiction, a role broadly parallel to BiH’s SIPA.

In terms of defense, Belgium was a founding member of NATO, and hosts its key institutions. The Belgian Armed Forces falls exclusively under the jurisdiction of the state, with the Ministry of Defense developing policy. While admittedly imperfectly implemented, the Armed Forces ensure quotas that reflect the country’s demographics, and officers must speak both French and Dutch. Nearly all units have been transformed from unilingual units to bilingual, integrated units.

The health care system is a mix of public and private service, and the Ministry of Public Health and Environment defines healthcare policy at the state level. Citizens may supplement mandatory public insurance with additional private insurance, and they may use and doctor, hospital or clinic anywhere in the country regardless of their insurance plan.

Certain elements of government are more firmly rooted at local/community levels, including education and agriculture (though Belgium, unlike BiH, does have a state-level Minister whose competencies include agriculture though the portfolio is limited as most of this sector is managed by the regions). And other sectors and public services might be examined for the good practice that they can offer. However, one must continually remember that in Belgium – as in any country – these component parts form part of a system. Local competence in a variety of areas can be enjoyed because of the guarantee of access to justice at the state level. Checks and balances throughout help to reduce the possibility for abuse and malfeasance.

The event in Sarajevo had a strong focus on adapting EU legislation to the BiH environment. However, this is putting the cart before the horse. EU legislation, no matter how effectively “transposed,” will never be effectively implemented if the state and its component parts are unable to function.

If the EU believes that Belgium is a good model for BiH, then institutional reforms in the justice, security and health care sectors could be a good place to start.