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Heading for a breakdown?

November 14, 2007

Heading for a breakdown is the title of a song by Swedish rock group The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. These days, it seems like it might as well be the national anthem of Belgium.

Les mer på norsk i Dagbladet.

In 1996-97, i spent 11 months in Flanders, Belgium. Although this was quite possibly one of the saddest periods in Belgian history since WWII, I learned to love the people of this strange land, and I even developed a deep affection for some of the quirkier aspects of the country itself. In a report from another strange country¹ in a completely different part of the world, I labeled Belgium “a contradiction in terms”. Although this was mainly meant as a joke, it certainly has some truth to it.

Historically, Belgium started out as a Roman province named Gallia Belgica. Since then, the region has been torn apart and reunited countless times, and occupied – totally or piece by piece – by everyone from France to Spain and Austria. Although it has been an independent country since 1830, Belgium can hardly be called a nation. The country straddles the cultural boundary between Germanic and Latin Europe, and its inhabitants have little in common when it comes to history, culture, politics or even economy. The country is divided not only in three administrative regions, but also in three so-called language communities². With three official languages and not less than six governments³, you would be hard pressed to find a common denominator for all Belgians. All this makes Belgium a very strange country, and quite frankly, this is exactly why I like it.

Bye bye Belgium?

According to British journalist Jon Henley, Belgium really is heading for a breakdown. In an article entitled Bye bye Belgium? he correctly points out that the country has not had a central government for 156 days. The June elections were won by the Flemish Christian Democrats and Liberals, but as the relationship between the Flemish and Walloon language communities is steadily deteriorating, politicians from the two communities cannot agree on a platform on which to build a central government. The Flemish election winners campaigned on a platform of far-reaching autonomy for Flanders, something the Walloons will never agree with.

The Belgian political landscape is actually two separate landscapes, each with its own party system. The Flemish voters vote for the Flemish parties, the Walloons for Walloon parties. In Belgium, the most important political fault lines do not necessarily follow the left-right axis, and parties do not primarily belong to political camps such as conservatives and liberals. Parties, to a much greater degree than people, are first and foremost either Flemish or Walloon. For the Walloon Socialists, being Walloon can in many cases be much more important to their identity and politics than being Socialists. Thus, not even the Walloon Christian Democrats are willing to support their Flemish namesakes when they claim more independence for Flanders. Now, both Flemish separationists and political commentators ask: when two peoples with different histories, cultures and languages cannot even agree on a common central government, is it reasonable to say that they live in the same country in anything more than the name?

Buisness as usual

While papers and politicians alike predict the fall of the Belgian state, Jon Henley does not think that Belgium looks like a country in crisis (although he does see the need for adding “At least, no more than it usually does”). The trains and trams are running normally, and people seem to go about their lives as usual. If I were to judge by my latest trip to Belgium, in 2003, I would say that he is right. There has always been some friction between Flemings and Walloons, but the last time I visited the country, things were looking up. In Flanders, the feelings towards the Walloon community seemed no more hateful than before, and in Brussels, people actually both understood my Dutch and at least tried to answer in the same language.

However, I do not think the media and the politicians are lying when they claim that Belgium is experiencing a crisis these days. The crisis may at least in part be constructed by media and politicians, but that, alas, does not make it any less real.

Going to extremes

While I do not think that most Flemings – let alone the Walloons – wish for or even believe in a disintegration of Belgium in the first five or ten years to come, lots of Flemings vote for Flemish autonomy. Sadly, for many, this means voting for the extreme right. Even though “mainstream” parties like the Christian Democrats also claim more autonomy for Flanders these days, the most outspoken proponents of Flemish independence can be found in the far right party Vlaams Belang. The party has its roots in Vlaams Blok, a rather extreme right wing party that in 2004 was found guilty of incitement to hate and discrimination. Vlaams Belang blames Walloons and immigrants for everything that is wrong in Belgium, and argues for a Flanders free from both groups. The popularity of this party shows that for many, the wish for Flemish autonomy and a division of Belgium grows in dark soil.

Vlaanderen boven?

In Henley’s article, Brussel’s Socialist, French-speaking minister-president Charles Piqué, calls a division of Belgium”a victory for selfishness”. Even though Piqué, a French speaking official in bilingual Brussels, probably has his own reasons for saying this, he does have a point.

For decades, even centuries, Wallonia was the strong, wealthy part of Belgium. The French speaking population had the upper hand in everything from business to politics and culture, and Flanders was in many ways treated like a simple rural cousin. In post-industrial Belgium, however, the shoe is on the other foot. While modern Flanders would probably prosper as an independent nation, a division of Belgium would spell disaster for the Walloons. Therefore, it is not very surprising that many Flemings today want independence and a division of Belgium. According to Forbes.com, 44% of Flemings asked by Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws say they want Belgium to break up.

It is a sad fact that as a society gets richer, solidarity dwindles. I see this happening at the moment in my native Norway, and I have no doubt that this is also what is happening in Flanders. Wealthy Flanders transfer huge amounts of tax money in subsidies to relatively poor Wallonia, and many Flemings see this as unjust. They do not want to pay the bill for their southern neighbors, whom many see as arrogant and lazy. It saddens me deeply that so many Flemish voters do not see further than their own language community, and that they feel no solidarity with their poorer countrymen in the south. The wish for Flemish independence seems for a great deal to be motivated by an ugly mixture of greed, selfishness, misunderstood nationalism and an age old grudge, and I therefore have very little sympathy for the Flemish separatists.

The death of a dream

Will Belgium as we know it today eventually come to an end? Inevitably. Will it happen within the next five years? I do not think so. First of all, dismantling a state – at least in a peaceful and relatively civilized way – takes time. Second, if we are to believe Het Laatste Nieuws, only about a fourth of all Belgians want the country to break up. According to Belgian newspaper De Standaard, 130.000 people have signed a petition for a united Belgium. At least 10.000 are expected to march for unity in Brussels on Sunday November 18.

A divided Belgium is clearly not something a majority of Belgians – or even Flemings – can agree on today, but will it happen during the next ten or twenty years? I, for one, surely hope not. Not only have I grown quite fond of this strange little country, but the fall of Belgium would also mean the death of a dream. If Belgium falls, so does the dream that people from different historical and cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages can live peacefully together in the same state. If modern, enlightened, peaceful, hardworking and relatively wealthy Flemings and Walloons cannot keep this dream alive, who on earth can?

Map: CIA / Wikimedia Commons

¹ I will spend a weekend in Belgium in December, and I will try to bring a short report from my visit to Flanders on the Gloria Muni-pages.

² The regions do not correspond directly to the language communities, as the (theoretically) bilingual Brussels is one of the regions, and there is a small German language community.

³Actually, in theory, it could be said to have seven governments, but today, the Flanders regional government and the Dutch-language community government happen to be one and the same. Does knowing this ease your confusion? My point exactly…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. telmcg permalink
    November 16, 2007 6:35 pm

    Thanks for the comment on my blog and for this very, very thorough analysis and history of the current state of affairs in Belgium. I was horrified that I hadn’t heard anything about this until a friend in France had mentioned it. The loss of a centralized government in an otherwise stable nation should’ve made major headlines, but I don’t recall ever hearing/seeing any. Thanks again.

    Like

  2. November 17, 2007 5:17 pm

    The fact that you find this a ” very, very thorough analysis” is a bit scary. After all, it has been ten years since I lived in Belgium, and four years since my last visit. Therefore, this blog post is based on what I have read in other (Flemish, British and American) media, and that, as you point out, is not much.

    However, compared to what other non-Belgian media present, this might probably be called an analysis, maybe even thorough. Once again, my blog finds an audience of people looking for information on a specific topic that ought to be all over the front pages. I would like to believe that people land at this blog because of what I write, but I guess many of my readers end up here more because of what other media do NOT write.

    As you point out, it should make bigger headlines when a nation does not manage to put together a central government after more than 150 days.

    However, while this is clearly a very difficult time for Belgium, I do not think that the country is falling apart just yet. Something clearly must be done about the Belgian state, but I sincerely hope that a solution can be found that leaves Belgium intact.

    Like

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