Sunday, January 30, 2011

The 'trouble' with Belgium

Picture taken from the European Journalism Centre.
The idea behind yesterday's post was to simply link to some websites that were mocking the political deadlock in Belgium, but after bumping onto the column "The trouble with Flanders" in the Economist, I got caught in a web of misunderstandings about my nation. It even persuaded me to read every single comment on the column and of course I agree with some and disagree with others.

So.... I got seduced to write my own opinion about it. What started as a simple fun post, has now turned into a slightly political piece of writing.

First of all: yes, I am a Fleming and proud of it, but no, I am not a seperatist, I'm still a Belgian first. My dieing wish is to have a simplified Belgium, with just one federal government, everybody can vote for any party and without seperate regional governments. In that way we safe a lot of tax money (and a lot of time *snicker*).
But nationalist commentator JohanRollez has a point by saying:
The main problem is that there are [...] two communities, that have politically developped in opposite directions. In Wallonia [...] 64.5% [...] for left wing [...] In Flanders, 62.4% [...] for  right wing parties.
These are basic and massive ideological differences that block virtually every decision in every political domain. Probably, both [...] have solutions that are suitable for their region - as each region has its specific problems, but they are not applicable for all of Belgium.
So I am afraid that my wish is very unrealistic.

As I already mentioned earlier, the The Economist column irritated me especially because of the subtitle: "Why Belgium’s unending linguistic disputes matter to Europe".

Is Flanders the devil?
Picture taken from Matt Stone's blog.
It is not about linguistics. Nobody should care about the fact that his fellow country men speak French, German or any other language at all. The problem in Belgian politics at this moment is about the division of federal funds and that is a regional dispute.
Above mentioned JohanRollez gave me a good refreshment as well that both regions (Flanders and Wallonia) have both developed in different ways and bringing those two ideologies together is of course not easy.

Although everybody knows me as a big lover of the 60's era (caveat), I see that the ideological breakup for Belgium starts there. Although the era brought the Dutch version of the constitution, it also brought the breakup of the University of Leuven. In se not a bad thing: a bilingual country should provide education in its people's mother tongue, but that breakup was also the start of breaking up the political parties, the media, ... into a Flemish and a Walloon part.

Picture taken from RESEDA:
"The end of mussels and frites?"
Because of the different mentality of both regions of the country , the political parties progressed in different directions and the media brought separate news coverage, forming different opinions. A side effect of seperating the media is that it divides contemporary culture as well stimulating different cultural "likes". Although everybody in Namur knows Eddy Wally, I don't think many people have seen De Mol or movies like Anyway the wind blows and De zaak Alzheimer. Of course also the other way around: I'm sure that there are people in Antwerp that have seen at least of movie of the Dardenne brothers, but don't ask me who wrote Stupeur et tremblements, what is popular on Walloon television or which single is selling best at the moment?

As Us Europeans puts it (concerning popular music, but you can see it in a broader picture) :
Only a handful of [Belgian musicians] managed to break through the language barrier to become successful in all of Belgium. [...] Overlappings are fairly rare.
which I personally regret as there is never enough good music to share.

Still, even if it is clear that both parts of our country has its own identity, this is not what is standing in our way of forming a government. The problem is indeed the different ideology on both sides: Flanders is striving for a more regional governed Belgium (in order to keep it's tax income for itself) while Wallonia wants to protect the current subsidies of the federal government (fearing that it's own tax income won't be sufficient). Both sides can't be completely satisfied at the same time, this is impossible and so again, a comprimise has to be sought.

Typically Belgium... 

Comprimise: Wallanders and Flallony
Screenshot taken from Cafe Babel

There are some very interesting comments to the column. I have already mentioned (three times?) JohanRollez's comment about the (general) difference in ideology. One of my favourite simple remarks is the one that Swedane rightly mentions:
if Belgium cannot (or will not) stay united how do we expect a European Union of 27 individual states with 23 languages [...] to work?
There is discussion about this topic, but I prefer Swedane his way of thinking. In the original column, Charlemagne writes:
Changing national borders only rarely resolves nationalist and ethnic disputes. Where communities overlap, tolerance, minority rights, autonomy and cross-border co-operation are better democratic tools.
This has crossed my mind as well, imagine that we would separate Belgium, after a while the people from Antwerp won't want to live with those in Limburg and we can keep on cutting, I am sure we will always find our differences.

Just one more thing: Charlemagne, please do not compare the Belgian political problem with Spain or Italy where, quoting you, "rich regions [are] pulling away from poorer ones".
As you are referring, for example, to a certain political movement of Catalunya: that is a total different scenario. I am moving on very thin ice now as my knowledge is very limited in this field and I hope not to insult Catalan people, but the usage of their language català, was strongly discouraged until the death of Franco in 1975. Therefore, I can imagine that language is an issue in Catalonia (in contrast to Belgium).


  1. Ik vind het moeilijk om een eigen mening te formuleren over de politieke toestand van België omdat ik daar geen verstand van heb. Bovendien is het wel een lang stuk om te becommentariëren en dan nog in het Engels! Ik denk dat het nog minder vanzelfsprekend dan voorheen is om zich daar een objectief oordeel over te vormen omdat je altijd spreekt als kind van je eigen (taal)-gemeenschap. Politici spreken alleen voor eigen publiek en hoeven de taalgrens niet meer echt te overbruggen in een gemeenschappelijk forum waarin we hen met elkaar in debat verwikkeld zien. De media, vooral televisie en radio, lijken, in competitie tussen de verschillende zenders, meer belust op spektakel, dan gericht op objectieve duiding. Als ze een geurtje ruiken, zal dat uitvergroot worden. Voor nuancering en eerlijke uitleg is in flitsende televisie geen plaats meer. Conflict en schandaal trekken meer aandacht dan overleg en samenwerking. De media zullen de politiek desnoods hierin souffleren, olie op het vuur gooien, want rook zien ze snel. De polarisering vindt wellicht veeleer of toch allereerst plaats in de media en alzo in de geesten van de burgers, en secundair bij de volksvertegenwoordiging.
    We zijn met een romantisch nationalisme opgegroeid in het katholiek Vlaamse onderwijs; Heimat literatuur, Ijzer-bedevaarten. In de vakken Nederlands en geschiedenis werd veel aandacht besteed aan het cultuur-specifieke van Vlaanderen. Liefst vergetend dat Frans een lingua franca is, een beetje zoals het Engels, kreeg de Vlaamse beweging in de zestiger jaren een zetje van de wereldwijde emancipatoire beweging. In Parijs had je de studentenbeweging rond Sartre. In Amerika had je de ontvoogding van de zwarten, die ook hun bijdrage hadden geleverd in Vietnam. Trouwens, vaker hebben volkeren autonomie geëist voor compensatie voor hun oorlogsinspanningen. Dat is ook wat de front-beweging voor Vlaanderen jaarlijks vroeg in Diksmuide. En zijn de meeste Afrikaanse landen ook niet na de tweede wereldoorlog onafhankelijk geworden? Vlaanderen moest ook een juk van zich afwerpen, dat van de Francofone bevoogding. Terwijl de Duitse bezetter dat al gedaan had met de Gentse universiteit, werd nu Leuven helemaal vervlaamst. In onze later tot echte federatie hervormde Belgische staat is het intussen onomkeerbaar geworden dat beide deelstaten zich onafhankelijk van elkaar ontwikkelen en uit elkaar groeien, omdat je min of meer kan spreken van twee aparte gemeenschappen met een eigen taal en geschiedenis.
    Maar als je echte feedback wil, kan je dat misschien eens vragen aan echte specialisten of althans medemensen die er zich over bekommeren als probleem.

  2. I must say – dear cousin – that your allocations regarding the root of the problem are probably quite right and stable as well. Sticks and stones aside, I even concur. Nevertheless, I completely disagree with the way of resolving the problem. I would prefer – or maybe even look only at – the further secession of the country. By any means, of course not directly or violently. You do know what I mean? The different – and quite opposite – ways of solving this problematic equation that we would both seem to have, well that isn’t a real problem. I sincerely believe that a rather pure concurrence with regards to the problem can bring us far enough to go one of those two ways. The solution differs, but we see the same problem. Surely democracy can find a way out of that predicament?

    The problem with Leuven was real, at least I believe it to be. The same counts for the measures we took to ensure further correct use and, most of all, acknowledgement of our language. It is – to my opinion – a very dominant culture and language, but I’m not attacking that. We do simply need to secure our own rights. BHV is a silly example for most people, but the principle is so important! We must not bow simply for the sake of a solution. Why can’t they do that? They shouldn’t! Never should anyone do that. You can concede some factors to create a positive atmosphere and in return secure some of your own points. Thàt is a possibility. For once the Flemish are not conceding for argument’s sake – not in a small part due to the N-VA – and I’m thoroughly glad that they aren’t. For once, we’re holding ground. Until they take a further step, we won’t take another. Just the same way they – no evil personification intended – think. Naturally this creates a stalemate. Solutions will come. They have to. But I’m glad that N-VA isn’t doing a ‘Letermeke’ – with all due respect for Leterme.

    Your second to last paragraph, well that ìs rubbish. You can say the same about being part of the European Union, which would mean that a few years later we will have a union that stretches all over the globe to decide about our politics. With only one language and one culture. That’s running faster than one can breathe.
    And how can Europe work? Well it works now, doesn’t it? If Belgium can keep on existing (as a republic!) with two parts who decide almost everything on their own, isn’t that than the main principle of the European Union? And my wish… N-VA doesn’t hate Walloons, never have and never will. Good neighbours are better than arguing housemates.
    This is not an attack on your opinion, simply a challenge ;)

  3. Welcome! No, it doesn't feel like my opinion is being attacked, I do enjoy the challenge (as it keeps our minds busy :-)).

    I understand that my dream of a "unified Belgium", with only one federal government and an abolishment of all the other governments that our taxpayers are supporting, is actually naive. We have already come so far in federalising our country that the separate regions have also had different developments (and therefore established different political beliefs). This will make it very hard, let's say impossible. So yes, I am aware of that.
    But if you look carefully to it, I think that deep down we want the same: less waste of our tax money. I am a left winged Flemish man, I am very willing to give part of my income to the state, but in return I demand that something useful is being done with it.

    The decadence that I have seen in the several parliaments (as a student, I have been a waiter on a party of the Flemish Parliament) is an insult. Of course, as a body of the state, you should be able to reflect some "power" through wealth, but the mere luxury had hurt my eyes. If this is true for all the 6 (am I counting right?) governments in Belgium, then that is the biggest thorn for me.

    Besides that, I have never made a secret out of it that I am no monarch, but I honestly believe that a republic won't be a solution either. Although it will be more democratic, we shouldn't forget that president will cost even /more/ money to the people and in the end, what difference will it make? The power is already in the prime minister's hand, why shift it?

  4. Why not? Forgive my directness, but it ìs a stupid fact. A monarch without any power, and the power he has, is surely not in any way rightful. It's not about the costs, it's more about the principle. We're done with monarchy, let's move on. That's all I'm saying :) Our house did have its importance in the early stages of Belgium's development - it has quite frankly served, in its time, the whole purpose of inventing this ludacris state. But not any more...

  5. Then here we are strongly disagreeing :-)

    Although I am all in favour of "moving on" and the monarchy indeed is an artifact of former times, to me the costs do matter.

    But at the other hand: meh, I'm in Ghana :-)

  6. Yes, but what costs? Wouldn't a president even keep the nation together - in whatever way we want it to? And is it not right to pay someone for his work?

  7. No, a monarch is more likely to keep a nation together as he is unpolitical and therefore more a personification of the nation than a president. A president is elected and therefore you have winners and losers (look at the heavy opposition that Obama gets), it is extremely hard to satisfy the full population.

    And the costs involved: normally the monarch should be able to live of its own private income and only receive public money for official expenses (the way monarchy in The Netherlands and the UK works), a president has to get a salary on top of these extra expenses.

    Now of course, the Belgian king gets money from our state, but this is for the most part a payback on the loan of Leopold II, so we got it coming.

  8. And it saves on elections :-)

  9. I have just read the interview with JP Rondas (Knack) and I believe it explains very clearly what Karel and I have a different opinion about:

    "[...] there are two possibilities to solve the political deadlock in Belgium: or we return to a strong federal government, but then we will have a government that is only active on the federal level, there will be no more Flanders or Wallonia, but we are all equally Belgians; Or we continue with the current devolution and you give the necessary powers to the regions."

    "Wilfried Martens en Jean-Luc Dehaene have started the process of working to an 'institutional federalism' to save the country. But the consequences are continuously more autonomous regions and this process is unstoppable".

    This is where my opinion differs, my preference goes to empowering the federal level instead of the regions. Rondas says this is impossible as the wheels are spinning since the sixties, but I disagree.

    It is clear to me that it will be difficult to continue our comments as we will tend to a yes/no discussion (welles! nietes!). It was very interesting to read the different opinions and it has forced me to think deeper about this political problem, so thank you!

  10. Extra nieuws:

    Acht vooraanstaande Franstalige Brusselaars hebben uitgehaald naar "het verkrampte immobilisme en de kortzichtigheid bij de Franstalige politici". De groep pleit voor de splitsing van Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde en voor een sterk tweetalig Brusselse gewest. Ze publiceren een opiniestuk in De Standaard en Le Soir onder de kop "Pas en notre nom!".

  11. "De Rand" has launched a website answering 10 common questions about the usage of different languages in Belgium:

    It is an interesting read, although I don't agree with all their answers. For me it is plainly too headstrong to say: "it is like it is and other countries do it like that also." That is not a valid argument.

    I quote from question 8:


    Belgium is not the only country whose federal model is built around the principle of territoriality. It is also applied in other multilingual countries, such as Switzerland. The underlying rationale there is the same as in Belgium. A living language is inextricably linked to a territory and to the people living in that territory."

    But I have to correct myself, it is easy to comment on parts of the work while forgetting that the idea about the website is to inform expats about the language situation in Belgium, and for that they are doing a good job.


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