Les risques du métier

december 5, 2007

Belgium, a country in crisis

The land of compromises can no longer find a consensus

By Lien De Leenheer

The tenth of December will mark the grim six-month anniversary of no government in Belgium. According to some, the country is on the verge of separation. The Belgians meanwhile stay relaxed, many urge the politicians to cut to the chase and bury their egos. At least there is still chocolate and beer to forget all their worries.

Lately Belgium has been making the headlines with news such as ‘Belgium on the verge of a civil war’, ‘language groups hate each other’ and ‘the richest region, Flanders, is on the verge of declaring its independence’. None of this is true, but in order to understand the real dynamics of what is going on, a small history lesson is needed.

A country of governments

Belgium was established in 1830, fifteen yeats after the battle of Waterloo, as a buffer state in between the sworn enemies France and Germany. Great Britain was keen on a status quo in the lowlands of Europe. Up to then Belgium had been part of France, the Netherlands, French Burgundy, Spain and Austria.

Although the Kingdom of Belgium covers only 33000 km2, it houses 10,2 million people, making it one the most densely populated countries in the world. Belgium has 3 official languages: Dutch, French and German. 60% speak Dutch, French is spoken by 39% and only a small minority speaks German.

Since 1993 the Belgian federal state has been made up of several regional powers based on language groups. The Flemish government lies in the North for the Dutch-speaking community, the French speaking Wallonia is in the South. The Brussels bi-lingual community lies at the heart of the country and a government for the German-speaking community resides in the East. All of the communities are ruled by minister-presidents. The federal government covers national matters such as defence, foreign politics and social security. The regional levels are in charge of everything related to language-use – education, culture, media, housing, services for children and the elderly. The constitution also prevents that one language group can propose new legislation that could harm other language groups. This is called the ‘alarm bell procedure’.

The council of ministers also consists of a good balance between all language groups, with someone from every province of the country. The parliament is also divided into fixed seats for language groups, in order to avoid that one of the regions would get too much voting power. Even in the European Parliament the German minority, worth only 70.000 inhabitants, has a seat next to the elected MEPs from Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia.

Language groups

The cultural connotation of language use has always been a sensitive issue in the flat country of singer Jacques Brel. French was spoken until the 1970’s by the upper classes. In order to be a civil servant, a teacher, a doctor or a lawyer you had to speak the language of Voltaire. Dutch, similar to German, represented the voice of the common people and the rebellious. Wallonia had been for centuries the richest part of the country, with its steel factories and coalmines, looking down on the ‘commons’ from Flanders.

But when the economy changed in the 1960’s and Flanders became the richest region thanks to its services economy and the presence of three major seaports, a cultural revolution resulted. Flemish universities and schools where forced to teach in Dutch and civil servants had to be bilingual. The Flemish people found their culture to be respected again. Little by little they became one of the richest regions in the whole of Europe with today an unemployment rate of only 4,7%. Wallonia has 10,8% unemployment. Brussels has 17,8% even though it is the strongest economical area. This is because the majority of those working in Brussels come from outside of the city, mainly from Flanders, as most of the Flemish manage both Dutch and French very well.

Since the 1970’s Flanders has been asking for gradual changes to state structures, with transfers to regional institutions. The last step was in 1993 with the creation of the regional governments. But now Flanders wants to go even further – social security and some taxes should move to the regional level too. Yves Leterme states, “it is the only way we can provide the Belgians the best suitable solution for their problems based on the economical and social reality.” On the Wallonian side the public thinks otherwise. “They want to become independent and get rid of the poor part of the country,” is the general belief. Many fear that a shift of the social security system to the regional entities will result in high medical costs, to the extend that some will not be able anymore to pay the doctor.


Together but not the same

Culture is language related. Do not try to ask a Wallonian what he thinks of Flemish news anchor Goedele Wachters or popgroup Clouseau. Chances are also high that a Flemish does not know news anchor Nathalie Maleux or singer Christophe Willem. But they will be able to give you lists of VIPs from France or The Netherlands.

Voting habits are also totally different between the different language groups. Former Flemish prime minister Guy Verhofstadt was immensely popular in Wallonia prior to the federal elections. “He did a good job, if it were up to me he can stay,” Rosie Malingraux told me in June in Wallonian capital Namur. Who did she not want as prime minister? “Yves Leterme, I simply hate that guy, the way this Flemish minister-president thinks about the Wallonians disgusts me. And what is even worse: he is a Wallonian himself!”

If you asked the same thing on the other side of the language border you would hear that Guy Verhofstadt was not able to deliver what he promised and that Yves Leterme, until then ruler of the Flemish region, would do a much better job.

The role of the media

How is this possible? The media have a huge influence on public opinion. It does not help that lots of Flemish and Wallonian politicians do not cross the language borders when it comes to pre-election debates, after all they will receive their votes from the people from their own community. Some suggest the establishing of a federal electoral district as a solution.

Frictions between the both sides of the countries became clear after the airing of “Bye bye Belgium” of the Wallonian national broadcast RTBF in December 2006. In the middle of a popular TV-program, a special news edition was broadcasted. “Good evening, tonight in a special reunion of the Flemish parliament, Flanders has declared itself unilaterally independent. The king has fled the country, citizens cannot cross the borders anymore.” What followed was an hour of fake interviews and reports of happy people in Flanders and sad people in Wallonia.Panic fell over the south of Belgium. Some emptied their saving accounts, others booked tickets out of the country. Elderly people called to their grandchildren in Flanders crying that they would never see them again. In Flanders no one was aware of what was going on on the other side of the country. Afterwards people in Flanders thought it was funny. How could the Wallonians be so naïve to think that Flanders would really declare its independence and in such a way? If it would happen one day it would be with clear negotiations. What the Flemish did not digest well was the way they were portrayed by the French-speaking journalists – as neo-Nazi, extremists, and arrogant materialists without a decent culture. Reminding them the ‘good old times’ where the South looked down on them. Prime minister Guy Verhofstadt stated, “This was a sick joke.”

In the months following the broadcast the language groups became more and more antagonised. The Flemish were irritated by the way they were portrayed on a daily basis by the Wallonian press. Flemish like to think of themselves as being really relaxed, hardworking, social people with a Europe minded mentality, open to all languages and cultures. After all, most of the people in Flanders speak at least three foreign languages fluently, so the international news reports stating that Flemish do not speak French, are far from the truth. They are based on the political situation in some of the surrounding cities of Brussels, where lots of French-speaking people moved to in search for a wealthier life, but did not want to learn Flemish. The state offered them a service by granting them ‘facilities’ f.e. every official document can be offered in French to them. Now recently, after the communal elections, several of those city councils have a majority of French-speaking representatives who want to address the city council in their native language, which is against the language legislations.

The media also had a strong influence on voting behaviour in June. In Wallonia the violet coalition was still considered a winner, although questions remained if the socialists were going to loose big time after several fraud scandals. In Flanders the media were bashing the violet coalition of liberal Guy Verhofstadt and his ‘fraudulent’ socialists partners, introducing Yves Leterme as “prime minister to be”.

It was also obvious that all parties from the north agreed to demand more power for the regional governments, backed up by the public opinion after the recent fraud scandals in Wallonia. In the South however a united “French” front was created, agreeing to say “NO” to every attempt of the Flemish to change the structure of the state.

The formation of a new government

On the tenth of June the public voted. Yves Leterme got the largest amount of personal votes in Flanders, leaving no other option than asking him to form a new government. The natural partners would have been the socialists but they got a severe blow having one of their lowest results in history. An olive coalition was out of the question. The only other possible majority was a coalition of Christian democrats and liberals.

Since June six parties have been negotiating for the formation of a government. As national political groups do not exist anymore on a federal level, political partners find allies in their natural partners on the other side of the language border to form a political family.

For the Christian-democrats the CD&V and N-VA on the Flemish side and CDh for the Walloons sit together. They have been in opposition on a federal level since 1999. Their collaboration is characterised by distrust, as CDh is not keen on prime minister-to-be Yves Leterme (CD&V). He stated last summer in French Libération that “he can only assume that either the Wallonians do not want to learn French or that they are not intellectually capable to do so.” Nationalist NVA, cartel partner of CD&V, has an openly separatist program, and is not keen on working together with CDh, who is saying “no” to every attempt to have a reform of the state. The liberals (Open VLD in Flanders and MR+FDF in Wallonia) seem to be able to agree on much more, trying to find a way out of the status quo.

And what now?

The last six months have been characterised by ‘negotiations to sit together to negotiate’. Up to now no agreements were found. The Flemish parties only want to form a government if state reforms are possible; the Wallonians keep on saying “non!” They have one solution. Expand the borders of Brussels, where a majority speaks French, so the capital will reach to the borders of Wallonia, giving the Wallons the right to claim Brussels if the country falls apart. A non-negotionable proposition for the north.

Last Friday Yves Leterme went to the King to put down his role as formation leader. The former Prime Minister got a mandate to rule a government of “current affairs” with limited powers. Meanwhile he is looking for new solutions out of this crisis. It is no secret that he would like to continue with his former coalition partners. Recent polls show that sixty percent of the Belgian population would love to have him back as prime minister. Only the future will tell if Guy Verhofstadt, who dreamed of retiring, will be succeeding himself as prime minister.

For those wondering: I am Belgian, living in Flanders, child of a Flemish father and a Wallonian mother. So I am aware of both sides of the discussion 😉

To know more details on Belgium please visit the website of the Belgian Federal government.

Picture: Anthony Albers

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