Belgium: The End Is Not Nigh

21 September 2007

Belgium: The End Is Not Nigh

 By Gwynne Dyer

Everybody knows some long-married couple who quarrel constantly but never break up. Squabbling does not mar their relationship; it IS their relationship, and they are addicted to it. Belgium is a bit like that.

It is now over a hundred days since the last election in Belgium, and Belgian politicians have still not managed to put together a new coalition government. Another three weeks, and they will overtake the recent record of 127 days set by Iraqi politicians in 2005 (although not the all-time record of 148 days, set by a previous generation of Belgian politicians in 1988). The Dutch-speaking Flemings and the French-speaking Walloons who have shared the country for the past 177 years are barely on speaking terms — and yet Belgium will probably survive.

“There’s no Belgian sentiment,” says Filip Dewinter, the leader of the separatist Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party, which recently proposed a referendum on Flemish independence. “There’s no Belgian language. There’s no Belgian nation. There’s no Belgian anything.” And while that is not quite true — there is a Belgian king, and a Belgian national football team, and even a Belgian army — he does have a point.

When the great powers carved Belgium out of the southern Netherlands in1830, they had the support of both the Flemings and the Walloons, whose shared Catholic faith set them apart from the mostly Protestant Dutch. But religion matters far less in today’s Europe, and language a lot more. Belgium, straddling the linguistic divide between Germanic northern Europe and Latinate southern Europe, was bound to be pulled in opposite directions, and local politics have made matters a lot worse.

For a century and a half, French-speaking Wallonia was the country’s economic powerhouse, the richest coal and steel-making area on the continent. The poorer inhabitants of mostly rural Flanders were largely excluded from power, and Flemish, the local version of Dutch, was seen by most French-speakers as a peasant dialect unworthy of respect. Then, as often happens in history, the worm turned.

After the Second World War Wallonia’s economy went into long-term decline, like other heavy industrial regions in Europe, while the Flemish population grew much faster and the economy of Flanders boomed. Now there are six million Flemings and only four million Walloons, and the unemployment rate in Wallonia (17.6 percent) is almost twice that of Flanders (9.3 percent). In fact, the Belgian federal government is now mainly a vehicle for transferring revenue from rich Flemish areas to poor Walloon areas, and “subsidies” from taxes paid in Flanders account for 15 percent of the income of Wallonia.

This was bound to cause great resentment in Flanders, especially given the previous history of Walloon arrogance. Prosperous Flemings vote heavily to the right, poorer Walloons vote more to the left, and there are no political parties that appeal to both language groups. Making a government always involves putting together parties from both sides of the language divide, and it is never an easy process. This time it seems close to impossible, and so the speculation about the break-up of Belgium has taken wing again.

For the past thirty years, a series of Flemish politicians who had mastered the art of appealing to their own group’s nationalist impulses in code, while still sounding reasonable enough to command some support in French-speaking areas, have managed to keep the show on the road, but the current prime minister-designate, Yves Leterme, has not. He campaigned on a promise to weaken the federal government further, which Walloons see as a threat to their subsidies, and so the coalition-making process has stalled.

It is a genuine political crisis, in a low-key Belgian sort of way, and the media at home and abroad have delighted in painting scenarios of partition. The civilised divorce of the Czechs and the Slovaks in the 1990s is offered as a precedent, and there is no doubt that it could be done: an independent Flanders, an independent Wallonia, and the city of Brussels, a French-speaking island within Flanders, as a city-state that continues to serve as the capital of the European Union.

But it almost certainly won’t happen. Even though the successor states would continue to share a common currency and the EU’s single market, the cost and disruption of separation would be considerable, and most people just don’t feel that strongly about it. If you needed one word to sum up the Flemish-Walloon relationship, it would be not hatred but grumpiness.

Sooner or later they will find some way to create a coalition government, or else they’ll have another election, but there will be no secession, not even a referendum on independence. When the far-right Vlaams Belag proposed such a referendum in the Flemish regional parliament in early September, not one other Flemish party was willing even to debate the issue. And of course an overwhelming majority of French-speakers oppose a split.

In the longer run, the worm may even turn again. The Flemish population is ageing much faster than the Walloons, and there is at last an economic recovery of sorts underway in Wallonia. So Belgium will trundle on, unloved, over-governed (nine regional and linguistic parliaments plus the federal government) — and generally a very comfortable place to live. Too comfortable for most people to get really passionate about politics.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“When…worse”; and “For the past…stalled”)