Current Affairs Politics

The Two Belgiums

Every now and again I have a look at news and current affairs from Belgium, that most interesting of artificial nation-states. Sometimes it is hard to believe that the country exists at all such is the degree of extreme separation that exists between the French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemish. With two national communities sharing one state (not to mention a tiny German-speaking minority), outside of a few regions like the communal, bilingual (and much disputed) capital city of Brussels, people from both sides rarely meet and rarely mix.

The country is rigidly divided along linguistic lines with each community living inside its own ethnic bubble: they have their own separate administrations, municipalities, political parties, societies, trade unions, professional associations, schools, radio and television stations, newspapers… the list goes on and on. There are a few things that bind the nation together. A shared monarchy (that now means more to French-speakers than Dutch), a federal social welfare system, a national economy (sort of), a national armed forces (though even that is not immune to inter-communal tensions), and a few other things that keep the mismatched jigsaw in place. Just about. Yet many believe the strain of holding the centre ground is beginning to show and it is only a matter of time before a breakup occurs. But then they’ve been saying that for the last three or four decades.

So to a good overview from Michael Palo in the EU Observer, reviewing a new book examining Belgium and the nationally crucial institution of monarchy:

“When the language census of 1947 indicated a growth in the number of French-speakers on the periphery of Brussels and led to an increase in the number of the city’s municipalities from 16 to 19, Flemings protested. Spearheaded by a new Flemish nationalist party – Volksunie (VU) (the People’s Union) founded in 1954 – the Flemings began marching on Brussels and boycotted en masse the language census of 1961. The renewed militancy among Flemings reinforced the feeling among Walloons, in the wake of the abortive strikes of 1961, that the only way to limit the impact of economic and fiscal policies that they perceived were detrimental to the industrial heartland of their region was to encourage further devolution of power to Wallonia. Such was the background to the so-called Gilson Language Laws of 1962-63, which fixed the linguistic frontier, so that the bilingual district of Brussels-Capital City was limited to 19 communes. In six communes surrounding Brussels – Drogenbos, Kraainem, Linkebeek, Sint-Genesius-Rode, Wemmel, and Wezembeek-Oppem – facilities for French-speakers, such as being able to deal with officials in French and having their children educated in the language of their choice, were to be provided. Language facilities were also guaranteed for the 70,000 or so German-speakers in the eastern part of the country.

More controversial, despite the guarantee of language facilities, was the transfer of the Voeren (Fourons) from the Province of Liège to the Province of Limburg. As Van Goethem writes: “Between 1970 and 1990 the Voer district was constantly in the news, largely because of the refusal of the local burgomaster, a farmer named José Happart, to use the Dutch language. . . . Happart’s principled stand not only led to street fights in the otherwise peaceful villages of the Voer, but also became a casus belli between the Flemings and Walloons, splitting national political life neatly down the linguistic middle and occasionally leading to the fall of the government.”

The state reforms of 1970 came at the end of a decade that saw the appearance of two new political parties – the Brussels-based Front Démocratique des Francophones (not the Front des Francophones as called by Van Goethem) and the Rassamblement Wallon, which won their first parliamentary seats in the general election of March 1968. At the same time, radical Flemish student organisations succeeded in getting the French section of the Catholic University of Leuven transferred to Walloon Brabant (specifically to Ottignies, now called Louvain-la-Neuve) after a vehement campaign “with their insulting (but nonetheless popular) slogans, such as Walen buiten (Walloons Out!) and Leuven Vlaams (Leuven for the Flemish!).”

The key constitutional changes took place in 1970, 1980, and 1993. They created three Regions and three linguistic Communities with their respective Councils and Executives that would be able to issue decrees and sign treaties with foreign countries in matters for which they had competence. Legislation affecting the linguistic communities from 1970 on had to be the consequence of ‘special majority law’ that ‘could only be passed if there was a majority in favour in both the Flemish and Walloon groupings in both the Lower House and the Senate, on condition that a majority of the members of each language grouping was present during the vote and on condition that the resulting number of votes in favour of the law exceed two-thirds of the total number of votes cast.’ In addition, there was an alarm bell procedure: “If a proposed law threatened to seriously disrupt relations between the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities, it was possible for the parliamentary passage of this law to be temporarily suspended if this was requested by a motion of deferment signed by three-quarters of the members of a particular language grouping. In this case, the proposed law would be forwarded to the ministerial council, which would issue its findings on the matter in 30 days.” As Van Goethem stresses, these measures were designed to protect the Walloon minority, as was the rule that “there would be equal numbers of Dutch-speaking and French-speaking ministers.”

Following the elections of November 1991, which saw the breakaway Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) win 12 of 212 seats in the Chamber of Representatives, that is, two more seats than the VU, inter-party negotiations led to the signing of the St. Michael (St. Michel/St. Michiels) Accord on 29 September 1992. Article 1 of the Constitution amended in 1993 now read: “Belgium is a federal state, composed of different regions and communities.” From now on, members of the Regional and Community Councils were to be directly elected, while further responsibilities and powers were devolved to them.

In his “diagnosis,” Van Goethem stresses that Flemings increasingly see Wallonia as “a foreign country.” Hence, “it is indisputable that “Belgian-ness” belongs to a national past which is unlikely to ever return.” He cites a number of examples to make his point, including the fact that Flemings and Walloons almost never read newspapers or look at TV stations from the other community. Another feature that undermines Belgian national unity is the absence of national political parties.

In terms of what keeps Belgium together, Van Goethem lists public opinion itself, the monarchy, key government departments that have kept their “national” status, such as Social Insurance, trade unions, and lastly, Brussels. On the problem of Brussels, he admits that, “Flanders without Brussels would find it very hard to ‘go it alone.'” Still, Brussels and its peripheral communes, where French-speakers refuse to use Dutch even when they understand it, are destined, in our author’s opinion, to remain sources of dissension and division.

As for the future, Van Goethem states that, “Given the institutional and historical weaknesses inherent in the Belgian system, the maintenance of the status quo is not a viable option.” He sees some kind of ‘new confederal model à la belge,’ as the most likely scenario. He closes with a look at the situation in 2010 and concludes: “the nationality question is indeed still the gravest problem in Belgium.””

Bizarrely, looking at Belgium, one is struck once again by how united Ireland actually is, irrespective of one’s nationality or identity (chosen or otherwise). A shared British influence increasingly permeating all aspects of the country, a shared English-speaking Anglo-American culture, a shared Anglo-American neo-liberal view of society and the economy, a shared English-based sports following, a shared centre-right elite at the top of society, politics and the media. The only true markers of division in modern Ireland are in some ways language. Irish-speakers versus English-speakers.

But here is a twist to the Belgium story, via the Times of Israel:

“Few Jewish couples define their marriage as “mixed” just because bride and groom were born and raised 30 miles apart in the same country.

But Linda and Bernard Levy live in Belgium, a country whose long experiment in fusing two distinct cultures recently has been showing signs of breakdown. With the Dutch-speaking Flemish half of the country increasingly at odds with the French-speaking part, Belgium’s corresponding Jewish communities are finding themselves at loggerheads as well.

Linda was born in Antwerp, the capital of Flanders in the self-governing Flemish region. She rarely uses Flemish (similar to Dutch), the language of her youth, since she married Bernard, a Francophone from Brussels. They live just outside Brussels with their three children.

“Language is actually a non-issue in mixed marriages like ours,” she said. “Flemish Jews are usually bilingual.”

But a recent rupture in relations between Belgium’s Flemish and French-speaking Jewish communities, each with approximately 20,000 members, has exposed some profound ideological differences between the two communities, particularly on Israel.

The trigger was Belgium’s decision in March to join Austria as the only two EU countries to vote in favor of a UN-led investigation of West Bank settlements.

Belgium’s Flemish and French-speaking Jewish communities long have maintained a modus vivendi for cooperation under which they always approached federal authorities together. But on the vote on the UN probe, the two communities broke with each other.

Flemish Jews, represented by the Forum of Jewish Organizations, or FJO, met with Belgium’s justice minister and released a statement saying that “the Jewish community was shocked and appalled” by the vote.

By contrast, French-speaking Jews, represented by the Umbrella Organization of Jewish Institutions of Belgium — known by the French initials CCOJB — did not condemn Belgium’s vote.

The Jews of Antwerp and Brussels long have been different. Jews from Antwerp tend to be more religious, tight-knit and hawkish on Israel, while their Brussels coreligionists are more liberal, according to laymen and leaders from both communities. Antwerp has 13 Jewish schools compared to three in Brussels.

The split between the Jewish communities of Belgium mirrors what in recent years has become a national woe: the widening gulf separating Flemish and French-speaking Belgians.

One of the first big splits hit the Belgian Socialist Party in 1978, two years before the creation of the Flemish Region and the onset of Belgian federalism, when the party split in two. There not only are two socialist parties now representing Francophones on the one hand and the Flemish on the other, but two Christian Democratic parties, two liberal parties and even two green parties. The secessionist New Flemish Alliance wants the Flemish part of the country to pull out of Belgium altogether.

The very creation of a separate institution representing only Flemish Jews was itself a part of the same process. Founded 50 years ago, the CCOJB umbrella group used to represent — nominally, at least — Jews from both Flanders and Wallonia, the French-speaking region of the country. But in 1993 the Flemish community splintered off and formed FJO, reflecting the sentiment that Jews from Antwerp were not really represented in the main community umbrella group.

Michael Freilich, editor in chief of Belgium’s leading Jewish publication, Joods Actueel, says the two communities inhabit two distinct political universes.

‘It’s very difficult to lobby together when you inhabit two different, parallel political realities’

Due to the political system, “in Flanders you can only vote for Flemish parties and in Wallonia only for French-speaking parties, even though parties from both regions sit in government,” Freilich said. “This means politicians who matter to Wallonians don’t matter to Flemish and vice versa. It’s very difficult to lobby together when you inhabit two different, parallel political realities.”

Belgium’s political crisis resulted last year in a new world record: Belgium went for 541 days without an elected government because Flemish and Wallonian representatives could not reach a compromise. That was one of several crises since 2007 that has caused many in Belgium and elsewhere to doubt Belgium’s sustainability as a unified state.”

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