Belgium is a thriving nation withstanding various political imbroglios in recent years. It’s ongoing battle between French-speaking and Dutch-speaking politicians both sparkled the imagination and troubled the minds of journalists and readers. What the hell was going on in Belgium, would it ever stop to exist and why were there no casualties at all. The following is an attempt to explain the unexplainable.
1. What the hell was the problem?
Somewhere in the 1970’s politicians decided to transform Belgium into a federal state in an attempt to suit both Flemings and Walloons in their ongoing language battles. Endless discussions and laborious institutional constructions gave way to extending autonomy for the regions.
Flanders and Wallonia received each their own parliament and a government. What these governments were going to decide autonomously could be established later on. For the time being, politicians were far too happy with the new employment: the number of deputies and ministers tripled, not to mention the opportunities to drop their protégées in the new administrations.
In their enthusiasm they overlooked some loose ends. For example: what would Flemings and Walloons do with the capital Brussels? Constitutional law professors, politicians and self-proclaimed specialists, eagerly divided the country in three language based communities (French, Dutch and German speaking) and four territorial regions. However they overlooked a very simple fact: constitution gives every Belgian the right to go, establish residence and live where he wants.
They had never given it a thought that more than a hundred thousand French-speaking Belgians would move to the Flemish region, surrounding the capital. Let alone that these ‘migrants’ were going to live there in a kind of reserve never would learn to speak Dutch and be elected in what would become mere French-speaking municipalities. The Flemings were innocently selling their homes and houses for good money during the real estate boom during the installation of the European Parliament. And there it was the Bermuda triangle of Belgian politics: Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV).
2. Did politicians search for a solution?
After the 2010 elections there were ‘some problems’ to form a government. The main issue was the completion of the institutional reforms. No problem, “five minutes of political courage – will solve all the problems”, the prime minister elected said.
But had the Flemings and the Walloons, for whom the solution was formerly figured out, still the same problem, 30 years later?
At the time it was thought that giving autonomy to the Flemish and Walloon region would be the warranty for a happy Kingdom. The Flemings by now claimed more than autonomy, they wanted independence. But Belgium without Flanders was not acceptable for the Walloons.
Previous governments had been predominantly formed and supported by federalist members of parliament, separatists were a minority. Things now changed on both sides. Flemish nationalists proclaiming to join federal government (only to abolish it) and French speaking counterparts defending a united kingdom and the rights of French speaking citizens in Flanders got the votes.
For the negotiations this was a very explosive cocktail. On March 30, 2011, 290 days after the parliamentary elections of 13 June 2010, Belgium became the country, which had the longest period without government in peacetime. And it took four more years of ‘political courage’ to finish the job.
3. Are there still any Belgians?
Of course there are Belgians. Officially eleven million of which just one-tenth just wants to be only Flemish. Most Belgians want to be Belgians and are united by their ‘ Belgitude ‘: a set of common characteristics regardless of the sub-nationality: tax evasion, distrust of authority, a debauched lifestyle, bizarre humor and an absolute lack of pride in all that is Belgian. Belgian is simply the most exotic of all European nationalities.
4. Are Flemish separatists?
Most of nationalist politicians have abandoned the extreme right and focus no longer on immigration bans but on an independent Flanders. The north is a booming region but would suffer from the costly solidarity with the deteriorating South. The one would be better of without the other. That is the perception that is spread and fueling that perception is much more powerful than encouraging a nuanced opinion.
Extremists and nationalists endlessly repeat the clichés about the ‘lazy’ Walloons. A group of fashionable economists and industrialists also believe that full economical independence is what Flanders needs. Always be careful when the elite joins in with the shock troops.
The silent majority of well meaning Flemish thinks differently and does not believe in an independent Flanders.
5. Are Walloons lazy bones?
The French-speaking part of the country has long been a prosperous industrial region with a strong trade union tradition. In the seventies a lot of those nineteenth century plants closed down. The socialist party who had been ruling Wallonia for decades installed its own kind of ‘client orientated’ well fare state. Everything decided by the federal government (mostly lead by a Flemish prime minister) seemed to be tailored to fit the flourishing Flemish, which were far much better off economically. They proclaimed there had to be solidarity.
In the mid-1960s a prominent trade unionist proclaimed that Belgium was based on a plighted troth. ‘The revolution of 1830 had abolished the supremacy of both the Dutch rulers and the Dutch language ‘. Reading between the lines: if Belgium had to be bilingual it was understood you had to be able to speak French wherever you went. Which meant that Walloons didn’t have to speak Dutch.
It turned out completely different. Dutch in French-language education is compulsory from kindergarten and who wants to find a job can better be bilingual. In the Walloon perception. Flemings are out in order to take over the place and, in case their plan fails, they are prepared to blow up the whole thing. And so it was: Flemish are separatists.
6. Why is it that we had so little notice of that language battle: no victims, no terrorism, and no civil war?
One upon a time, in the 1970’s, Flemish extremists got attacked by Walloons (or was it the other way around?) in a bilingual village; the images flew around the world. On the American channels it seemed as if the civil war had broken out. Anxious mothers called their son or daughter to announce that the return tickets were already booked. “ Why MOM? ‘ Well there is a civil war, isn’t there?” The first extremist serving the cause of the language battle, a few pounds of plastic explosive wrapped around his belly and standing, in front of a bar, has still to be born.
Except extremists Walloons and Flemings are rather apathetic to the political squabbling. The Belgian citizen knows his political representatives: if they nothing in the offer, they start to speak at length about the state reform.
7. Can Belgium not be a confederation rather than a federation, just like Switzerland?
The Swiss solution with independent ‘cantons’ under the umbrella of one Federal Government has often been suggested. The Swiss regions can however only decide on matters of local importance.
Switzerland has 7.5 million inhabitants and a multiple of cantons. Sometimes a canton deals about 15,000 inhabitants. That’s something finer-grained than 4.5 million French-speakers and 5.5 million Dutch speakers.
The official languages in Switzerland are German, French, Italian and Romansh. German is the most spoken language, but that does not alter the balance with the other minority languages. The language distribution In Belgium is a little different.
The search for that unique, conciliatory and everything so confusing, impossible Belgian model continues. Once found and completed it can be right away exported to Darfur, Beirut or the Balkans.
8. Will Belgium ever stop to exist?
Belgium may cease to exist in two ways. In a violent way or after exhausting the governmental capabilities. Who wants to let Belgium cease to exist is facing a double challenge. Belgium is a constitutional monarchy. Those are two things: a country that is recognized by the international community and a kingdom.
If a country functions better in two separate entities than that can be arranged internationally. Procedures are introduced to define the urge, in terms of victims, civil war, genocide or you should at least present a perfect plan for the separation, which means an agreement between the divorcing parties.
The idea that you call out the independence, without further notice, is at least naive. The best guarantee for the failure of any attempt to blow up Belgium: what do we do with that galloping national debt of 300 billion. The Dutch treat: each pays half?
9. And what about Brussels?
Well Brussels is not the problem, it is the solution. Brussels is both a bilingual city-state (Brussels DC) and a confederation of 19 villages. Brussels is a Switzerland in the small: nineteen autonomous municipalities topped with a parliament, a government and a prime minister.
But Brussels is not possible without the input of Flanders and Wallonia. Brussels is Berlin before the wall, without the wall. The Flemish and the French-speaking regions decide on matters such as culture, education, assistance to persons and health care.
Brussels is now a multilingual city where French and Dutch compete with the Arabic, Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, Polish and a handful of other languages. The inhabitants of Brussels feel they have a right to self-determination. The State reform gave Brussels the status third region but no full autonomy. Brussels is the capital of Belgium and of Europe and of … Flanders. If Belgium ever splits Brussels could become a UN protectorate…
10. Is the King still the King?
For a long time the Royal family has been seen as the cement of the nation. On the person of the king everyone agrees, a jovial guy, fit for the job description. But the job description is much discussed. Constitutionally speaking the king controls the country but doesn’t govern it.
As a matter of fact the king is the man that offers a cup of tea to a defeated prime minister. During political crisis he appoints mediators and informants. He gives shelter for many a storm. He is the bridge over troubled water. Sometimes it seems that the role the king is played out and that only a mere ceremonial function will hold. The king, say the nationalists and extremists, the king is our last concern.
Previously, the king had a little defense, when there was still some angling for an appointment as Minister of State (the reference on your resume). In case you were too recalcitrant you could also be elevated to the peerage, more than one republican has been silenced that way. But all that seems to be over. It is lonely at the top.
Gerrit Six is journalist, webmaster of http://www.sixlog.net and the man who sold Belgium on eBay in 2007.