Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The situation in Belgium

Mostovljanin asked me to write something about the situation in Belgium that held elections in June and still hasn't been able to form a government. I haven't followed the situation very closely but I hope to be able to provide some background. Warning: as a Dutch my point of view may be a bit colored.

The population of Belgium is divided in Flemish (Dutch speakers) and Walloons (French-speakers). There are also some 74,000 German speakers in the East but they don't play a role in the political conflict.

Some history
In the 1500s the Netherlands and Belgium were one and the whole was known as The Netherlands. The name Belgium dates from the independence in 1830. Before that the area was known as the Southern Netherlands. At that time the Netherlands were the richest area in the Western world.

In the mid-1500s the Dutch started an independence fight that was motivated both by religion (protestantism became popular in the Netherlands and the Spanish king tried to crush it with the Inquisition) and by complaints over too high taxation. This is the 80-years War (1568-1648). In the end the North became independent while the South stayed with Spain. Later it became ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs. It may be good to remember that in those times French was the language of the elite just as English is now, so in those times Belgium was ruled by a French speaking elite.

In 1795 Belgium was annexed by Napoleon. It stayed with France until 1815 when it became part of the Netherlands. However, in 1830 Belgium seceded and became independent.

Much has been written about why Belgium seceded at that moment. The Netherlands had at that time an activist king Willem I who did a lot for the economy but the rather backward Belgian areas felt that his policies favored the North. Then there was the language. The king established Dutch as the dominant language in Flanders and that was resisted by the French speaking elite at that time. Just as 200 years before religion was still important too and the Catholic Church was a major source of resistance (in the North at that time there was still a protestant state church, although religion was mostly free). Finally there was the support of France and from French immigrants who had settled during the Napoleonic times. France would have loved to annex Belgium again but Europe's other great powers resisted that at that time.

Belgium became now a country dominated by the French speaking. Despite a Dutch speaking majority French became the only language for the government and in education. It would take more than a century to turn that back and in fact the struggle is still going on.

The present conflicts:

- money

At the beginning of the 20th century Wallonia was by far the richest part of Belgium. It had a lot of coal mines and heavy industry and most government investment was there. But - just as elsewhere - the Steel Belt changed into a Rust Belt and after the closure of the mines and the modernization of the steel industry Wallonia became an area of high unemployment.

While Wallonia sank Flanders rose and modernized and it is now the richest part of Belgium. From the point of view of Flanders the Walloons now are aid addicts who refuse to take the painful steps to modernize their society. The Socialist Party is by far the biggest in Wallonia.

So Flemish politicians are now asking for more financial autonomy. When Wallonia would have to pay its own unemployment benefits - instead of getting them from Flanders - it might be more motivated to reform. Predictably Walloon politicians resist. They like to point to neighboring northern France where the situation is rather bad too.

- territory
French is one of the world's most important languages and was for centuries the language of diplomacy and the international lingua franca. Dutch is a regional language spoken by some 22 million people. Inside Belgium French was the language of the elite and you had to speak French for the better jobs. Add to that the nationalism promoted by the French government and you understand that it is for a French speaking Belgian a bigger step to learn Dutch than for a Dutch speaking Belgian to learn French.

This plays out when the two groups meet each other. Shopkeepers who don't hear you when you speak the wrong language, restaurants that won't serve you, etc. It is not violence, but it is pressure and the French speaking usually are pressing the hardest. As a consequence the French language slowly won territory.

In reaction the Flemish have demanded the language border - introduced in 1962. North of that border Dutch is the language and if you don't speak Dutch it is bad for you but you have to adapt.

But there are holes in the language border. One are the "facility municipalities". These are municipalities where there was a significant minority of the other language before the language border and they got special minority rights. The other was Brussels, that officially became bilingual.

Brussels was originally as Dutch speaking city that after the independence in 1830 slowly was frenchified. Nowadays only 7% of the the inhabitants of Brussels speak only Dutch. Another 9% is bilingual at home.

Due to better job opportunities the frenchification among native Belgians has largely stopped and an increasing number of French speaking Belgians is learning Dutch. However, at the same time immigration has increased and the immigrants overwhelmingly favor French. So the frenchification of the area around Brussels goes on.

As Brussels is thoroughly frenchified the real problems are now in the suburbs. The conflict about the BHV (Brussel-Halle_Vilvoorde) voting district is about this problem. At the moment the French speaking minority in the area around Brussels has the right to vote for French speaking politicians in the national elections. Flemish speakers don't have similar rights in the French speaking areas. So the Flemish want to have this right abolished.

This may seem like a rather arcane matter. But as the Flemish see it this is about the French speakers recognizing that they live in Flanders. At the moment some French politicians seem to aim to frenchify the region around Brussels and specially the area between Brussels and Wallonia so that when Belgium splits there will be a French-speaking corridor and Wallonia and Brussels can become independent as one country "Wallo-Brux".

The present crisis
The present problems started when the nationalistic N-VA got 28% of the Flemish vote. Near Brussels it got even 40%. The other Flemish parties saw this as a signal that they had to take the message of the N-VA seriously and they gave it a leading role in the government formation.

The question is why the support of this party increased so much. The issues of financial decentralization and BHV had been high in the news for some time but otherwise I don't see any special incident(s) that might have caused this. But I do see a similarity with the Dutch elections 4 days earlier. In the Dutch elections the PVV of Wilders, another nationalist party, got a record number of votes. And both in Flanders and the Netherlands the Christian Democrats scored very bad - lower than ever before. The N-VA is a much more mainstream party than the PVV, but it might be (partly) a kind of protest vote related to the economic crisis. Another factor may be the rise of national consciousness under influence of continuing immigration. This can also be seen in the increasing popularity of national symbols. For example: where in the past pictures of windmills and clogs were considered as kitsch for tourists they are becoming increasingly popular for normal use.

Anyway, the proposals sponsored by the N-VA were flatly refused by the PS, the biggest Walloon party and now there now seems to be an impasse. The PS didn't even show an openness to negotiate.

I get the impression that the PS and the Walloons hope that they can seduce the other Flemish parties to consider the N-VA as nationalist extremists whose proposals should be ignored. However, it is a risky play as it looks like the other Flemish parties feel insulted by the rude PS response to the proposals - that they support.

If the Flemish parties stick to their guns the Walloons have a problem as they will have to take the Flemish position seriously. The most logical response for them would be to do some concessions to placate the Flemish as they have most to loose when Belgium falls apart. The Flemish have a vibrant economy while they depend on money transferred from Flanders.

Belgium has been through a lot of struggles between the Flemish and the Walloons. This feels just like one more and no one seems to be too worried. There is the feeling of having a common culture and a common heritage so the situation isn't too antagonistic. At both sides there is a wide majority to keep Belgium together. That could change if the political conflict might somehow escalate but that seems improbable. What is worrying more Belgians is that with each constitutional reform the ties between the two parts become weaker. They wonder whether falling apart will be the logical last step.

After breaking up
A final question is what would happen if Belgium falls apart:

Will the Walloons join France and the Flemish the Netherlands? Both independence and joining have considerable support but most people don't seem to care very much at the moment. I think that the chance that the Walloons will join France is greater as that way its politicians might avoid painful budget cuts that would be necessary when it no longer receives money from Flanders. Wallonia has also a smaller population and is landlocked.

The fate of Brussels is also uncertain. Brussels is a mostly French speaking enclave inside Flanders and its economy is tightly integrated with that of Flanders (some 250.000 people from Flanders work there). Most people in Brussels would prefer to be independent but that brings its own problems as the Brussels population is rather poor.

Postscript: the Economist had a Charlemagne post about the situation in Belgium. The article itself is not very special but it has an elaborate discussion with 350 posts.


Pieter said...

"The N-VA is the successor party of the Volksunie and that party was long seen as too extreme by the other Flemish parties who refused to cooperate with it (the now infamous "cordon sanitaire"). In the end the party was forbidden and N-VA came in its place."

Volksunie never was forbidden (Vlaams Blok was at one point an transferred in Vlaams Belang); it 'died' from internal twists and N-VA is the only new party which rised up (and survived) out of the ashes of Volksunie.

Wim Roffel said...

Oops, I will correct that. I hope you agree that the rest accurately describes the situation. I don't follow Belgium as closely as former Yugoslavia.