'Belgium? Something that does not exist' Political fault lines divide nation
Long-running crisis could lead to nation separating into Flanders and Wallonia
Ian Traynor in Steenokkerzeel
Monday September 17, 2007
Willy the florist has had enough of his kingdom. He is an unwilling subject of an unloved country. A middle-class father of 12-year-old twins running a thriving flower business in this small Dutch-speaking town on the eastern fringe of Brussels, Willy is reduced to obscene gesturing by the very mention of his country.
"Belgium?" he splutters. "That's something that doesn't exist. The national anthem? Nobody knows it. Nobody can sing it. The king? A parvenu. A dysfunctional family. We're not going to take it any more."
Willy is Flemish and proud of it. His native language is Dutch but like many Belgians he also speaks French and English. When he goes into Brussels on business, he complains, they call him a racist if he speaks in his own tongue.
He says French-speaking nurses wouldn't help his Dutch-speaking boy in hospital recently. And his comatose 80-year-old neighbour who was rushed to hospital? Same story. His wife didn't speak French and the doctors wouldn't speak Dutch. And if Willy - "don't use my full name, I've got a business to run here" - needs to go to court, that too will be in Brussels and the judges will speak French.
"The Flemish have shut up for too long. But now it's come to the point where we're not stupid any more. This country's sick. It's dying. Not right away. But it's terminal. Little by little, it's over. We will separate in the end."
A whiff of the Balkans is wafting through the heart of the EU. Belgium, a kingdom created by the great powers 177 years ago to keep the Dutch in their place and as a buffer between France and Germany, is falling apart.
It has always been a battlefield. From Waterloo to Passchendaele and the Ardennes, the superpowers of their day brought their wars to Belgium. Now Belgium is under attack from within.
"There's no Belgian sentiment," says Filip Dewinter, the leader of the Vlaams Belang party of extreme Flemish nationalists. "There's no Belgian language. There's no Belgian nation. There's no Belgian anything."
... ... ...
Failings that left Belgium at the mercy of nationalists
By Stefan Schepers
Published: September 25 2007
From Mr Stefan Schepers.
Sir, Robin Shepherd ("Lessons for Europe if fragile Belgium goes down", September 19) rightly points to two lessons for the European Union. Perhaps there is a third one: a lesson on good government.
The Belgian federal constitution does not provide for the usual checks and balances in federal states: there is no hierarchy between federal and regional laws, no rational division of powers, no regional fiscal responsibility. On top of that, only regional political parties are left, as a result of an electoral system based on a sort of linguistic apartheid in Flanders and Wallonia. Only in the Brussels region can people still choose between Dutch- or French-speaking candidates, an exception that Flemish nationalists now wish to abolish.
The absence of federal parties allowed Flemish nationalists (there are francophone extremists too) to present every political issue through a regional prism and to use it to seek an increase of power. Like Serb nationalists, they followed a tactic of systematically criticising everything still shared with other regions (the monarchy, the social security system, etc) and denigrating them in order to justify their growing demands. The French-speaking minority is rightly worried, given that the same people have prevented Belgium adhering to the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Leading Flemish academics have repeatedly warned against the manipulation of opinion polls or against the simplification of politics to one issue.
Last year, then, the Flemish Christian Democrats made an electoral alliance with the nationalists, and now they are their prisoners (quite the reverse of the Austrian Christian Democrats, who linked up with Jörg Haider but stayed away from his rhetoric). They did so purely to regain power and further dismantle the federal state in favour of their regional power base. Many people voted for them only because they wanted another coalition government, not because they supported their regional nationalism.
Once the mechanisms of good public governance are deficient, the road is open for electoral adventures. In Belgium's case it was ill-thought-out decentralisation and linguistic nationalism, but in Europe's case it may be ill-considered centralisation.
1000 Brussels, Belgium
(Former director-general, European Institute of Public Administration)
This posting is like watching Deutsche Welle tv news in English. The newscaster is younger, I think, on tv (and has fairly good chiselled features, I believe).
Foofie wrote:This posting is like watching Deutsche Welle tv news in English. The newscaster is younger, I think, on tv (and has fairly good chiselled features, I believe).
You know Ian Traynor, Foofie?
If that's the name of the newcaster, I wasn't aware.
PBS just broadcast a segment on Belgium. I didn't catch the expert's name, but the expert agrees with Walter.
Belgium tries for new government
By Robert Weilaard, Associated Press Writer
Published: 01 October 2007
Belgium's king yesterday asked the head of the Flemish Christian Democrats for a second time to form a centre-right government, hoping that rival linguistic camps of Dutch and French-speaking politicians were ready to end a nearly four-month deadlock.
The royal palace said in a statement that four weeks of exploratory talks have revealed "enough elements of convergence" among Christian Democrats and Liberals to resume their talks to form a government.
The country is divided between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and Francophone Wallonia in the south. In the middle lies the capital, Brussels, which is officially bilingual. About 6.5 million Belgians speak Dutch, compared with 4 million Francophones.
The Christian Democrats and Liberals, each split into Dutch and French-speaking parties, won a majority of the 150 legislative seats in June 10 elections.
What keeps them from taking office is a demand by Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats and Liberals for more regional autonomy in health, justice and transport for Flanders and the redrawing of a bilingual Brussels-area voting district that the constitutional court has declared to be illegal.
Francophones say enough powers have been shifted to Flanders and Wallonia in the last 25 years. They accuse Flemish politicians of engineering the demise of Belgium as a unified state.
King Albert asked Yves Leterme, head of the Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats, to try again to form a government. The first bid failed after five weeks of fruitless talks.
Leterme made no comment yesterday. But Bart De Wever, head of the Flemish nationalist party allied with his Christian Democrats, said several disputes remained, adding, "I bet no money on a date for a new government to take office."