Why is Belgium such a political circus?

I assume my last couple of posts about the Belgian elections and its aftermath must seem very difficult and complex and crazy for outsiders. Since I know I have many North-American readers, I thought I might try to explain a bit of the Belgian complexities that could clarify a bit what is going on here. Yet I am not a politician, not a historian and is so complex, so I don't even grasp it all. I'll just try to type down my understanding as good as I can.

So our tiny little country of Belgium holds 3 language groups (yes 3, not 2!): in the North is Flanders and the people there are Dutchspeaking (or a Flemish dialect version of Dutch). The South is Wallonia and the people are Frenchspeaking. After WWI, Belgium also inherited some German border towns and as a result, German is Belgian's third official language. There is 6 million Flemish, 1 million people living in Brussels (mainly frenchspeaking) , 3,5 million in Wallonia and 60000 Germanspeaking people near the German border.

The split between French and Dutch/German dates back from the Romans who have occopied 'Gallia' (current France/Belgium and part of the Netherlands) up to the Rhine river in the Netherlands. Their divide and rule policy invited some Germanic tribes to cross the Rhine and settle south of the Rhine. The Romans trusted that those tribes would protect their new territory against more hostile other Germanic tribes in north of the border. As a result, in the north of 'Belgica' the inhabitants started speaking germanic languages, in the south the rulers spoke Latin and local dialects which over the ages grew into French.

Over the ages these territories have belonged in the west to French kings and in the east to German kings during the middle ages, to the Spanish during the Rennaissance and contra-reformation , to Austria in the 18th century (transferred from the spanish Habsburgers to the Austrian ones). They got occupied by Napoleon and afterwards given to the Netherlands in 1815 by the allies who conquered Napoleon in Waterloo just south of Brussels. In 1830 we gained our independence in the middle of the industrial revolution. Steel industry and coal mines were flourishing mainly in Wallonia although Flanders was known for its textile industry. Nevertheless Wallonia was the richer region. Also the high society of Flanders (as was the case in the UK and other countries) was Frenchspeaking and the fact that we had just kicked out the Dutch only reinforced that anti-Dutch influence. So this brand new little country got a constitution in French and political institutes that governed in French.

Nevertheless the distinction and differences between Flanders and Wallonia has always been present. A well known anecdote is a letter sent by a Wallonian politician in 1912 to the Belgian King stating "Sire, il n'y a pas de Belges"..."Sire, you are ruling over 2 populations. In Belgium there are Walloons and Flemings. There are no Belgians. Belgium is the result of diplomacy".

It is a fact that Flemish and Wallonians don't interact a lot (unless professionally if you work in Brussels). We watch seperate tv stations, have completely different hit parades (and I don't know any of their artists and they don't know ours, whereas the Flemish do listen to a lot of Dutch artists and the Wallonians to the French!), ...When many countries organise a tv election on the Greatest Brit, or Dutch...the Belgians organise 2 elections: one of Flemish tv and one of Wallonian tv. Our top 10s didn't ressemble at all. Now we have 2 greatest Belgians :p. That's also why events like this summer where Leterme mistakingly sings the French national anthem rather than our own, makes us laugh and doesn't shock us the way it has shocked the foreign press.

Since WWI the Flemish movement has grown, unfortunately linked in both wars with collaboration to the Germans. Nevertheless resistance was growing to solely French political institutes, to a solely Frenchspeaking army top, ... After WWII economies shifted as well: the old industries like coal mines and steel industries were deteriorating whereas Flanders got to benefit from its location with 3 sea ports and its international trade and services industry.

Linguistic quarrels in the 60ies and 70ies lead to multiple changes: the constitution got written in Dutch as well, the university of Leuven got split into a Flemish university still in Leuven and a Wallonian version of it 30 km further in "Louvain-la-neuve" (Literally the new Leuven). In the 70ies all policical parties that had been up to this point covering all of Belgium , split up in a Flemish party and a Wallonian counterpart eg a Flemish socialist party and a Wallonian one. In the beginning they collaborated closely but they evolve now totally independent from each other.
In 1962 the official language border has been drawn as well making Flanders an official dutchspeaking region, Wallonia an official frenchspeaking region, Brussels an official bilingual region (being an island in Flanders!!!). Towns around Brussels with considerable Frenchspeaking minorities as well as some other towns were given "facilities". These facilities give the minority the rights to schools in their language, communication with their local government in their language etc... however the local government must function in the official language. The exact interpretation of those facilities continues giving tension: for the Flemish they were temporary to allow the minority to adjust and they have to fade out...for the Frenchspeaking they are a conquered right.

From the 70ies onwards some Flemish political parties have risen with their main goal to re-organise Belgium into a federal state with levels of self-government for the different regions and ultimately to the indendence of Belgium. Under their influence, the Belgian institutions have been reformed and in the 80ies a Flemish region, a Wallonian region and a Brussels region have been formed (for economical 'hard' matters linked to the surface) and a dutchspeaking community, a frenchspeaking community and a germanspeaking community (for the soft matters such as schooling, cultural reinforcement etc...). The Flemish region and the dutchspeaking community have merged into one political instute. As a result we now have one federal government and parliament governing over the entire Belgian region and additionally 5 local governments and parliaments/councils with self-governing powers in well defined matters.

Whereas in the 80ies multiple goverments never made their full legislative term since they fell over linguistic quarrels, whereas Belgium before was known for its political unefficient compromises (oh if you close a coal mine in Wallonia...you have to close one in Flanders too regardless its efficiency as we have to guard the equilibrium in Belgium at all times!) (if you renew a highway in Flanders, you have to renew one in Wallonia, regardless the fact that flanders is twice as densily populated, ...)..... the 90ies were known for much less quarrels in between regions and federal governments that did make their programs and ended their entire term. Belgium had become more stable than the decades before! Our political structure was studied by many other countries 'in difficulty' such as Tsjechoslovakia, South-Africa, Israel, ... And it was working.

Yet not all problems have gone away.
1) The more affluent Flanders became, the more criticism arrose towards the poorer 'lazy' 'inefficient' 'corrupt' Wallonia. Despite the fact that the Flemish demands for self-government had been greatly realised, a (growing???) group wants to go further to the ultimate independence. A political party known for its racism , extremism and radicalism doesn't stop spreading the prejudicsm against Wallonia in the media whereas in Wallonia the suspicion grows that the Flemish only want to break-up the country, stop all country wide solidarity, that they are arrogent and hautain, etc...

Last winter the Wallonion tv stations have reflected that Wallonian paranoia/justified fear by a special news broadcast that the Flemish parliament had unilateral voted its independance. As they had not specified it was not real and a "war of the worlds" similar panick grew in Wallonia with people going on the street etc... However we are apparently so enstrangered that none of them had the reflex to switch to a Flemish tv station to notice there that we were ignorantly still watching the same soaps and soccer games, oblivious to their panick.

Also after last weeks unilateral vote in the federal parliament, 43% of the Frenchspeaking think that this is truly the kick-off of a process that will result in the split of the country. So this fear is really alive in the southern part of the country.

2) Whereas Brussels is officially bilingual, in reality it has become mostly frenchspeaking, secondly englishspeaking (as being the european capital) and to a much lower degree dutchspeaking. Officially courts, hospitals, etc...need to be bilingual, in reality it is a struggle there to live if you don't speak french. And even when most the dutchspeaking also speak French, on vital moments like eg being taken to the ER for something, being charged in court, ...you do want to be able to communicate in your own language. This situation has already been studied by the European union and each comment and study is always the base for much more heated quarrels in the Belgian politics.
In companies and government agencies it is quite common (and I have lived through that much to my frustration!!!!) that an entire meeting needs to be conducted in French because one Wallonian person is present and openly declares not to understand Dutch, so the other 39 people need to adjust. You find less and less stores where you can get served in Dutch, out of inability...or out of refusal to speak Dutch to you. I've always heard that you become 'Flemish extremist' in Brussels and to a degree I can follow this. When you are confronted personally which such a lack of respect (I cannot call it any different), you get mad!
However the true original population in Brussels speaks a dialect that is a perfect mixture of Dutch and French and they feel no tensions at all. Sometimes I wonder if it is only the 'commuters' in who cannot adjust and make a fuss over nothing? Probably to a degree yes, to a degree no
3) The edge around Brussels (so legally in the Dutchspeaking region of Flanders!!) is also growingly frenchspeaking. Some towns have in reality a majority of Frenchspeaking people. here the tensions rise up really high (see my statement about the facilities). The political parties officially need to be dutchspeaking there...but they aren't in reality.
The voting district her is also part of the Brussels voting district (where frenchspeaking parties can compete as well) and as a result in 'Flanders' people can vote for frenchspeaking politicians whereas elsewhere in Flanders this is not the case.
This frightens the Flemish politicians and they fought this in court and the supreme court has indeed judged this electoral district illegal. It needds to be split between the Brussels region (bilingual) and the Flemish region. The Flemish claim that this is illegal so it just needs to be split like that...the French demand a compensation eg enlarging the Brussels region and to merge some of those flemish towns into the bilingual region and make them de facto officially bilingual.
=> This is in fact one of the main points whey we don't succeed in making a new federal government right now. They need to find an agreement on it, since they can't organise new federal elections before having executed the court order.

It is my personal opinion that here the Flemish overreact and that we are trying to hold on desperately to something we've already lost: the flemish status of some towns in the edge of Brussels. yet this is soooooooo sensative here to say that out loud!

the voting about a split in my previous message is all about this problem.

5) Since we have regional governments that influence our daily lives more and more, politicians in Belgium also make more and more career in the different regions....where they can make bold statements without consideration of the other language group.
This is now painfully proven in last election where in Flanders Yves Leterme (the former minister-president of the Flemish government) has won a monster score and cannot be ignored in federal negotiations. He won based on his bold pro-flemish statements and as a result he is totally distrusted on Wallonian side. The fact that he still has not been able to find a national agreement and has needed the help before of old 'federal' politicians shows that the new generation has not learned the skillset to gain federal consensus, the art of national compromises etc...

6) In many nuances that escape the Wallonian press and the foreign press , the Flemish quite like the federal state with self governance for the different regions and they really want to eleborate this self governance to different degrees.
- Some just want to rationalise some things (there sure can be made some improvements, I totally agree with that!),
- some want to split up some things because in some matters we simply need different measures (Flanders is densily populated and therefore wants to reduce the default speed limit from 90 to 70...Wallonia refuses. Since this is a national decision to take, Flanders has put exception signs on all their roads. So we have reduced the speed limit, just not in a very efficient way!) (Flanders is economically flourishing and has an unemployment rate of 5% which is for economists 'no unemployment'. Flanders needs measures to attract new labor, etc.... Wallonia has an unemployment rate above 15%¨and clearly needs different measures...and no the Wallonian can't get a job in Flanders since they don't speak dutch well enough).
- some want more self governance just because they think "what we do ourselves , we do better'
- some want to evolve further to the independance of Flanders

Yet there is a total Flemish consensus that a new state reform is needed and there is a total Wallonian refusal to that since they see it as a declarance of hostility and a start to break-up the country.

...Hence the difficulties to form a new federal government in Belgium :). Hope this clarifies a bit and also brings some necessary nuances.

In foreign press we see remarks like "it is as if there is no blood in the Belgian veins: they see their country falling apart and nobody demonstrates in the streets"
=> well, first of all, there are no "Belgians" remember? So what do we need to go on the street for: for the split of Belgium, for the split of the electoral district with or without compromises, for more regional autonomy, ... We all have different opinions and in these troubled times they are already polorising quickly enough. Any demonstration would trigger a reaction and that one would as well, etc... so I surrely hope things don't escalate more than they already do in the parliament!
I do see that moderate comments on blogs get quickly flooded by extremist comments, in cursing and shoutings. I do think this struggle at the moment is hurting the relations in this country very much and that we are now growing apart even quicker than before! New elections will probably result in bigger score for the most extremist parties, making it even harder to form a new federal government. So please, lets all remain serene!

We read in the foreign press that we are strangely not worried, indifferent etc... Maybe that is because this is not new for us. All my life I've known the tensions in our country. We all know this is a country that exists still by the grace of a delicate equilibriums and if that breaks, that it takes time to rebuild the equilibrium. All my life I've heard bold speeches of non tolerant politicians all my life, I've seen seperistic graffiti slogans spray painted on buildings etc... We are used to these tensions in contrast of foreign press who only (re)discovers them now.

Although we've never experienced a government formation that took so long and that at > 150 days is at a standstill again. Not good! We need urgently some mature politicians, as others claim as well. Some that do not only have ambition like Leterme but some that also show leadership. Help.


Wow. I can't tell you how fascinating I find all of your posts on this subject. This was extraordinary, and very appreciated by those of us who are completely ignorant in such matters!

Absolutely fascinating stuff. I still wish we'd have a split in the U.S. The Bush White House (ie. Bush and his "boys") can go off and form their own country and the rest of us can try to reestablish the constitution and economy of the United States.

I think Bush and his cronies can have that part of the Alaskan national forests that have turned into oil drilling spots. The Bushies will be happy there, in proximity to so much oil. ;-)
Dedee said…
Fascinating. I like reading this kind of stuff.
anno said…
This is amazing -- thanks for explaining all of this!
Anonymous said…
Thanks very much for your summary. We live in Vienna. I'm helping my 17-yr-old son (American) prepare a short presentation for his French class on the current political situation in Belgium. Tensions are certainly higher than when I lived there as a foreign exchange student, 1971-72, in Wallonia.

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