“The language divide at the heart of a split that is tearing Belgium apart” – por Ian Traynor
Belgium doesn’t exist, only Flanders and Wallonia as Dutch and French communites live apart. By Ian Traynor in Brussels
Twenty minutes north of Brussels, in Belgium‘s medieval royal seat of Mechelen, there’s a science playground, just the place for the kids on a boring, wet Sunday afternoon.
Technopolis is stuffed with interactive gadgets and games, making education fun. There is also another message. When entering the complex, the paving stones are inscribed with a simple, direct statement. The message is in Dutch only, the language of Flanders, the bigger northern half of the country. You are told the size of Flanders in square kilometres and its population density.
There is no mention of Belgium. That does not exist. You are in a country called Flanders. That does not exist either, but if many of the politicians running this divided society get their way it is only a matter of time.
“Long live free Flanders, may Belgium die” was the battle cry ringing out in Belgium’s federal parliament on Thursday as the 150 elected deputies cleared their desks and returned home to prepare to fight an early election next month, triggered by the latest collapse of the national government.
Following the last election in 2007, Belgium went without a government for six months because of the divisions and squabbling between Dutch-speaking Flanders to the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. Three years later, the same conflict has brought down the government again.
In most countries of western Europe, the third prime ministerial resignation in three years would be cause for alarm. In Belgium, the latest resignation – of Yves Leterme, the Christian Democrat prime minister – after only five months has instead been greeted with shrugs of indifference and expressions of relief.
“We are incredibly lucky to be here; this is one of the luckiest countries in the world,” says a senior government official. “We are very successful.” Which is true in many respects. But the political class running this wealthy state of 10.5 million people gives a very good impression of caring little for a country called Belgium.
“I’m Flemish, not Belgian,” says Willy De Waele, mayor of the small Flemish town of Lennik, just south of Brussels. “There’s no loyalty to a country called Belgium. There has never been a country that has lasted so long in conditions like this.”
Only a few miles to the east, but on the other side of the language barricades, Damien Thiéry, a French speaker, is more sorry than angry, but similarly pessimistic. “We’ve been arguing about this for 30 years. I’m not sure we will ever find a solution.”
Language is the fundamental flaw at the core of Belgium’s existential crisis, taking on the role that race, religion, or ethnicity play in other conflict-riven societies. The country operates on the basis of linguistic apartheid, which infects everything from public libraries to local and regional government, the education system, the political parties, national television, the newspapers, even football teams.
There is no national narrative in Belgium, rather two opposing stories told in Dutch or French. The result is a dialogue of the deaf.
“When I was studying in Brussels in the 1970s,” says a Flemish former deputy prime minister, “I knew all the Walloon colleagues because we were on the same campus. But then they split the universities and now there’s no contact.”
Indeed, the two sides seldom interact. Intermarriage between Flemish and Walloons is low. Nor do they clash. They keep themselves to themselves.
The big exception is Brussels and its outlying districts, where the two cultures rub up against one another. Leafy, suburban, middle-class Brussels, a million miles from resembling a war zone, has become the frontline of the language conflict.
The city of two million is home to the EU and Nato, with tens of thousands of affluent foreign professionals and a large immigrant underclass of Turks, Moroccans and Africans living cheek by jowl with the natives. But Brussels is French-speaking, surrounded by Dutch-speaking municipalities. It is here that the language battles are fiercest. It is here that governments rise and fall.
“We won’t fall into madness, like Serbia and Croatia,” says Jeroen Vermeiren, a Flemish bookseller just outside Brussels. “But it creates great emotions on both sides.”
“It’s surreal, absurd,” says Thiéry. “And it’s not democratic.” He sits at the very heart of the conflict, in the town hall of Linkebeek, a comfortable town that is home to 5,000 and sits astride the city limits. He is a French-speaking Walloon, born and bred in Linkebeek, who has been elected mayor with 66% of the local vote in a town that is 85% francophone.
But Linkebeek is in Flanders, not Brussels. The Flemish interior minister has barred him from being mayor because he sends out election literature in French to French-speakers, and not in Dutch, as required.
Linkebeek’s municipal life is consumed by petty challenges, demonstrations and taunts. Separatists deface bilingual street names. The language police show up at monthly meetings of the local council. If the proceedings are conducted in French – 13 of the 15 councillors are French-speakers – the session is deemed invalid.
At the local primary school, French-speaking kids are downstairs, Dutch-speakers upstairs. The curriculums are different. The public library is denied Flemish government funding unless 55% of the books are in Dutch.
There are six such small towns on the fringes of Brussels, all with large francophone majorities, all in Flanders, three of them without mayors who defy the rules, three of them with French-speaking mayors who toe the line.
The problem is the result of urban sprawl. As middle-class professionals grow older, marry and have children, they move out of the city to the suburbs for a bigger house, a garden, a different quality of life. In Brussels, that means French-speaking couples “colonising” Flemish territory and upsetting the language balance in small Dutch-speaking communities.
“This is not a conflict where people will get killed,” says the former deputy prime minister. “But it has the same structure as most big international conflicts – the clash of the rights of the traditional population with the rights of incomers.”
This makes suburban Brussels the battleground, for the capital is the only officially bilingual bit of Belgium. For electoral purposes it has been connected with 35 Flemish surrounding districts, which means that francophones can vote across the language barrier for French-speaking parties in Brussels. The Flemish living in Wallonia cannot do the same. The constitutional court has ruled this illegal. And the politicians cannot fix it.
It is a question of political will, a problem of the repeated failures of Belgium’s political elites. There are 11 parties in Belgium’s federal parliament in Brussels. There are another five parliaments and governments in the regions and language communities.
“We have 600 elected deputies in this country of 10 million,” says De Waele. “It’s ridiculous. There’s no future for a country with this construction.”
In this crowded political scene, there is only Flemish and Walloon politics, no Belgian. Over the decades, the politicians have contrived to create a system where there is no unifying institution, barring the royal palace and King Albert II.
There are no national political parties, no national newspaper, no national TV channel, no common school curriculum or higher education. There is, however, the national debt, running at 80% of GDP. Like a couple trapped in a loveless marriage, eyeing divorce but unable to agree on the mortgage liabilities, the Flemings and the Walloons may be stuck together because of the cost of splitting up.
But the frustrations run deep. The main francophone newspaper, Le Soir, was bitter when the government fell: “Is there any sense in maintaining a country when there are no more men, women, or systems capable of reaching the compromise essential for Belgium to continue?” it asked.
Broadly speaking, the Walloons vote for the left, the Flemish for the right. Flanders is prospering, Wallonia is depressed, with twice the unemployment rate of the north. Flemish leaders are increasingly strident in demanding greater autonomy, while the Walloon leaders retreat to their bunkers and refuse to negotiate. Flemish separatism was once the stronghold of the extreme right: it is now much more mainstream.
If push came to shove, the preferred option would be velvet divorce as in Czechoslovakia, rather than Yugoslav violence. But Brussels sucks in tens of thousands of commuters from both sides and makes a negotiated unravelling of Belgium virtually impossible.
“Do we want to live together?” says Thiéry. “That is the question we have to ask ourselves.”
Belgium has a population of 10.5 million, split into the Dutch-speaking Flemings who make up 58% of the population and live mainly in the north, and the southern French-speaking Walloons who make up 31% of the population. The next most common language is German, spoken by about 1%.
Famed for fine chocolates and beers, the country is 75% Roman Catholic, with the rest either Protestant Christians or other faiths. Though Belgium is so clearly divided by language, Brussels is home to the European Union and Nato, making it a base for hordes of polyglot intonational diplomats and European civil servants.