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Where no one's in the saddle

Mark Mardell | 19:56 UK time, Monday, 26 November 2007

In the centre of a roundabout going into Vilvoorde, on the outskirts of Brussels, is a statue of a horse, a monument to the tradition of buying and selling the beasts in these parts.

Belgian farm-horse

Until the advent of the tractor, farm-horses were one of Belgium's biggest exports. But the Belgians aren't such expert horse traders in modern times. Ever since the election in June, coalition talks have dragged on and on but without a resolution.

It is now 170 days since there has been a Government and some are beginning to notice the effects. My colleagues on BBC News 24 are doing a series of broadcasts all day on Wednesday 28 November to illustrate this.

Two places

Belgium is two very distinct places. The French and Flemish speaking areas have different attitudes, cultures and, above all, economies as well as different languages.

One of the blocks to forming a Government is places like Vilvoorde/Villevorde, originally a Flemish town, where French speakers have moved in and vote for their own parties. But the main problem is the Flemish desire for more political power for their region, and a desire to stop subsidising rust-belt Wallonia, with its high unemployment and rather unfashionable, statist approach. But does not having a Government actually matter ?

Power vacuum

The former government is, of course, carrying on, in a caretaker role. But this caretaker doesn't have the right to rearrange the furniture or even turn up the heating.

On the streets I don't find anyone who thinks it matters much. One woman tells me that it's a good thing the politicians are taking a long time to solve such difficult problems which have bedevilled Belgium since its creation. Another woman says that it's an awful thing and sends out a very bad signal.

But both agree it hasn't made any real impact. A man tells me "I think we can handle it without a government. I think it's obvious we don't need a government." A woman says "it's made no difference, we don't need it," and she concludes with a cry of "anarchy!"

But does divorce become more likely, the longer this goes on? The Flemish Christian Democrats in cooperation with the smaller, separatist New Flemish Alliance won the largest number of seats in Parliament in the June elections. The NFA say support is growing for their vision of a peaceful separation.

Their deputy leader, Jan Jambon, says: "At the end of the day there is no reason for Belgium to exist. But a lot of people in Brussels and Wallonia want to stick with the Belgium state. It's a bit of a paradox, the guys who want to stick with that framework are doing more and more things that make people in Flanders think "no, it can't work this way".

"People see when Flanders asks moderate things, to bring some powers from the federal level to the regional level, the French speakers don't want to move. So people are saying if they won't move the only solution is to split up. After this the formation of a federal government will become more and more difficult each time."

Another Belgium

A former Mayor of Brussels, Francois-Xavier de Donnea, doesn't agree. A minister of state in the last Government for the Mouvement Réformateur, a Francophone liberal party, he says: "Flemish people would lose a lot if Belgium did not exist, but we need another Belgium.

"The request for more powers for the regions is not a silly request. If you want to live together it's good to sleep in separate rooms in the same house."

I point out that can be the first step towards divorce. He says "in Belgium it wouldn't lead to divorce, but better understanding and dialogue."

But he is worried the lack of Government is having an impact: " The increase in oil prices, the increase in food prices puts the question of purchasing power on the table and people are getting really impatient.

"Prices are going up and something has to be done, the caretaker government cannot take the drastic measures that are necessary, lifting some taxes and increasing small pensions and so on. People are starting to suffer now."

Brabant horse

Remembering that sturdy shire horse on the Villevorde roundabout, I also talk to the politician who was nick-named "the Brabant Horse" - the former Belgium Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene.

He says "we have two communities that have been put together in 1830, nearly by accident, with a different economic situation, different languages, who live together for more that one hundred years and who will still live together tomorrow. But it's a question of agreeing on the house in which you live.

"It is clear that after such a long period there are problems. It's not very good for the image of Belgium. With the new year approaching, we need a new budget. With high petrol prices, people are beginning to feel it more. In the past they would have felt it by now because the Belgian Franc would be under pressure, but with the euro that sort of pressure doesn't exist any more.

"Those who think the Flemish people dream of going to the Netherlands or the Walloons to the French are wrong. They have more in common together than the neighbours. History has made something real and you have Brussels in the middle and that will be one of the main reasons to stick together."

What unites the people I've spoken to is a complete and absolute lack of a sense of panic. They are all pretty convinced, that somehow, despite all the failures and breakdown of talks, something will eventually be cobbled together, that the cart-horse will get there in the end.

Perhaps it's time to start organising a sweepstake.

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 08:54 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • D. Fear wrote:

Nice article, again - but the comment about separate bedrooms being the first step towards divorce probably reflects a very modern (and probably mistaken) attitude. In the bad old days, only poor people had to share rooms. The well-off could afford separate rooms, which only means that they could retire to these separate rooms if there was a spat or tiff or whatever.
The modern family (well, married or unmarried couple) actually have to share a bedroom for reasons of economy. That leads to too much 'togetherness', I think, at least in some cases. Has anybody looked at the causes of high divorce rates lately, and connected such high divorce rates (if they exist) to questions of living space? If not, it's time to do so.
Belgium may have 'separate bedrooms', but I do think it a bit much to suggest this is the first step on the road to divorce. However, I gladly accept well-founded correction on this!

  • 2.
  • At 09:04 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Geraldine VdA, Brussels wrote:

Another thing that is worth mentioning, and I believe it ties in with the lack of a sense of panic, is that there is a significant disconnection between the excessive posturing seen in the media and political discourse, on the one hand, and the general feeling of the population who do not feel so strongly about the so-called key issues, on the other. Belgians are not given to extreme movements, we basically want our mostly comfy life to go on as usual; so there is a kind of diffuse hope that things will sort themselves out eventually. The strongest feelings I've perceived lately is a growing exasperation with the political class and a sense of "Oh will they just quit squabbling and sit down to talk, already? This is getting ridiculous!"

  • 3.
  • At 09:28 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Lawrence Cappelle wrote:

Though it may seem to the world around us that the conflict between the Flemisch and Walloons is raging around bringing more or less responsibilities to the regions, for the Flemisch, the main question remains our identity which we feel is threatened.

Throughout history, we have been a culture always governed by a foreign souvereign, by nations trying to impose their own system and culture upon ours. The French under Bonaparte, The Austrians and the Spanish, then the Dutch, and finally, and let us not forget this: our southern neighbours from Wallonia, under whose aristocratic rule we had to fight a social battle to gain our rights.
That made us who we are: a rather introvert people with a stoical set of mind, maybe even scared at times of the outside world.

Although we live together now, Flemisch and Walloons, in one country, and have build up a modern, liberal and prosperous society together, we Flemisch still need the feeling that our culture is safely guarded and cannot be touched. We have our freedom and want to keep it.

I'm not a Flemisch nationalist. I love Belgium and I think we gain a lot more by working together. But this is just who we Flemisch people are, shaped by our social history.

The problem should not be in giving so called Flemisch but now French speaking territory to Brussels. The problem lays in how the question is being addressed. There is no use in it for the Flemisch to keep those communities, for they are now longer Flemisch. We would do better adding them to Brussels. After all, Brussels is what unites us, a territory for both Flemisch and Walloons.

The profit will be for the Flemisch speaking all ready living in Brussels but being in the minority. What's left of Flemisch residents in the new communities will come in their support, in support of their rights.
Let us face it: Brussels is a world city, a city growing and always evolving. We cannot keep it restricted within it's preset boundaries of so called language barriers. We need to give Brussels the room to evolve and expand and represent our country. It will be for the better of all of us.

It will be hard to make the Flemisch people understand this point, but they should be convinced by some Flemisch politicians which they trust, not by the French speaking imposing ever more agressive ways to reach their goal.

Go out into the streets, and you will hear and see that Belgium still loves it's residents. All of them.

  • 4.
  • At 09:32 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Chris S. wrote:

'The French and Flemish speaking areas have different attitudes, cultures and, above all, economies as well as different languages'.

Thank you for your article. It is unfortunate you do not use the correct terminology when referring to the language spoken in Flanders. Its official name is Dutch. (Substitute Walloon-speaking area for French-speaking area to appreciate the effect of incorrect terminology).

  • 5.
  • At 10:08 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Rollo wrote:

Another excellent post, thanks. I agree with Dehaene. Simply sharing a history can make a nation. And why can't nations overlap? Flanders and Belgium; England and Britain; Catalonia and Spain and (why not?) Europe. The trick must be to find institutional arrangements which reflect these overlaps. In Belgium's case (like Switzerland's) the rough solution is surely a confederation.

  • 6.
  • At 10:50 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • P. Råman wrote:

'A complete and absolute lack of a sense of panic' sums it all up very well. That is how it feels here. It must be frustrating being an extremist in Belgium - however hard you try to stir up fear and hatred, most people are just too sensible for that kind of thing. This healthy, unhurried attitude may yet turn out to be the greatest strength that this country possesses.

  • 7.
  • At 11:25 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Geert Scheys wrote:

Very good objective report. Not evident as most international journalists in Brussels do understand French, but not Dutch (Flemish) which leads easily to biaised reporting.

  • 8.
  • At 11:38 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Lindsay Parker wrote:

What does this situation say about the usefulness of politicians? Personally I dont vote as I am unable to choose a party/politician that I am comfortable giving my vote to - it always seems to be a question of who's the lesser of two evils?
Well Belgium, I'm happy to say, seems to be proving that we don't actually need any of the evils on offer. just get a bunch of experienced economists together to set the budget and do away with the lying, promise breaking, ignorant, xenophobic, scandal ridden (etc etc - add whatever adjectives you like) politicians altogether!!

  • 9.
  • At 11:52 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • karen wrote:

the situation in the country is highly embarassing. We haven't felt the consequences yet but I fear that we'll feel it soon enough. How, for example, can we have anything to say on an international level if we don't have a government? We are small enough country as it is. I hope this will all be over soon.

  • 10.
  • At 11:55 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Fluffy Thoughts wrote:

It may be a long-shot, but given the lack of democracy in the colony of England it is all we have....

As Belgium is a party to the EU Constitution/Treaty the failure of that state to ratify - let alone exist - should bury the document. Good luck to our Flemish cousins. As for the Walloons, remember what the St Bartholomew Massacre and avoid France!

  • 11.
  • At 12:40 AM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Jon wrote:

I once had to write an essay on the theme 'Brussels: Cockpit of Europe?' This has been an ongoing theme for many years...

  • 12.
  • At 12:59 AM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Lukas wrote:

Further fragmentation in Europe may perhaps be necessary for everyone to see the point of uniting behind a bigger institution as Europeans. Maybe we all first need to shake off this faulty concept of nationhood and see regions, such as the UK, (which is essentially four different nations) Belgium, Italian Tyrol, Kosovo, Basque nation etc. to separate and form their own small entity before they can all confidently say: I am European. If thats what it takes, then bring on Wallonia and Flanders.

  • 13.
  • At 05:26 AM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Mirek Kondracki wrote:

Mark Mardell wrote:
"They are all pretty convinced, that somehow, despite all the failures and breakdown of talks, something will eventually be cobbled together, that the cart-horse will get there in the end."

By extrapolation the same can be said about whole EU. Here's hoping it'll succeed as long as it stops trying to put a cart before a horse.

Union of European Socialist Republics? I don't think so, considering disastrous historic antecedents.

  • 14.
  • At 09:19 AM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Daniel wrote:

I am very glad, Mr Mardell, that you have addressed this issue. Indeed the issue of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde split is quite prevalent in Belgium and I am glad that finally it has been given a public airing.

Many thanks,


  • 15.
  • At 11:17 AM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Malcolm wrote:

Good article Mark and spot on for the people I talk to near Charleroi, everybody is pretty bored with it all and totally fed up with the Politicians of both sides who have made this mess in the vain attempt to increase their power. Just a thought, should the King eventually call a new election wouldn't it be poetic justice if all voters gave their vote to the politicians at the bottom of the list they support. Can you imagine the shock to all those politicians currently with their snouts in the public trough.

  • 16.
  • At 11:20 AM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Bernard wrote:


The profit will be for the Flemisch speaking all ready living in Brussels but being in the minority. What's left of Flemisch residents in the new communities will come in their support, in support of their rights.
Let us face it: Brussels is a world city, a city growing and always evolving. We cannot keep it restricted within it's preset boundaries of so called language barriers. We need to give Brussels the room to evolve and expand and represent our country. It will be for the better of all of us.


I have no other option but to call this nonsense.
Adding those communities to brussels would equally bring in the more frenchies. Francophones that vote for the FDF, a party that has no interest at all in flemish rights. The FDF is the party that thinks the flemish have stolen flanders from teh francophones because they managed to get dutch recognised as the sole official language of government.
No, adding anything to brussels is not the solution. The solution is for the francophones (who fled brussels in the first place) to do what any good immigrant does: integrate!

  • 17.
  • At 11:29 AM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Max Sceptic wrote:

Some observations:

1) The people most concerned about the lack of a government are politicians as it demonstrates their irrelevance. If the idea that we can survive without politicians caught on they'd probably panic and start a war just to justify their existence.

2) The EU obviously supports the fragmentation of established nation states as the resulting new entities can only really survive under the 'protective wing' of a federal Europe. These new state-lets will find that their new-found 'independence' is limited to flags and banners and other ceremonial fluff and that real decisions will be taken for them in Brussels. (The old, Roman, empire used to call it 'divide and conquer').

3) Fluffy Thoughts #10 has hit on a marvelous irony: it would indeed be wonderful if the new Treaty was scuppered due to the fact that the country at the 'heart of Europe' was disfunctional and didn't have a government. Oh Bliss!

  • 18.
  • At 11:54 AM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Rodrigo Calvo wrote:

Lawrence Capelle makes very good points, but unfortunately falls in a historical fallacy that is, unfortunately, all too popular in Flanders. Flanders was indeed ruled for a long time by a French-speaking aristocratic elite. However, these were not your "Southern neighbours from Wallonia" (indeed, Wallonia is more notorious for its bolshy trade unionists than for its aristocrats), but thoroughly Flemish patrician families that just happened to speak French. These posh French-speaking Flemish either switched to Flemish, or moved to Brussels or its now much talked-about outskirts. It is more than significant that the family names of two of the three Francophone mayors in the suburbs of Brussels are distinctly aristocratic Flemish.

  • 19.
  • At 11:58 AM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • John H. Wilde wrote:

Good report. I spent many delightful days in Bruges over fifty years ago and have followed events in Belgium ever since. I hope that Belgians remain calm. There are nuts lurking in the wings. Some of the rhetoric Vlaams Belang spouts sounds like the sort of wild talk you hear from Southern separatists in South Carolina, where I live. I wouldn't want to see either group get much credibility.

  • 20.
  • At 12:01 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Joris wrote:

Maybe Eurotopia is a sort of solution for Belgium (and the EU)?

Eurotopia is an idea that was put forward by Freddy Heineken in 1992. See:

"Mr. Alfred Heineken did more than brew beer. Convinced that European political integration would fail due to the differences in size between its participants, he proposed redrawing the continent into equally small states, 'which could thus form a more balanced union'."

And here a site with the map of Eurotopia (in Dutch):

  • 21.
  • At 12:56 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Expat in Brussels wrote:

I agree that most Belgians are more sensible than the politicians they vote for, but the number of people willing to buy into the arguments of the more radical parties also seems to be on the rise. Besides, if you read Belgian newspapers you might be forgiven for believing that the country has already split: there is almost no reporting of facts on the other side of the language border, and especially Flemish newspapers don't even bother to post the results of national elections in Wallonia any more, or to use the word "Belgium" for that matter (except when Justine Hénin wins at Roland Garros).

And the fact that the country has not had a proper government for so long only plays into the hands of the separatists: the regions already have their own, functioning governments, so there is a case for claiming Belgium does not need to exist after all.

As usual, the problem is not the majority, but the more radical fringe, and that seems to be growing as the country's problems also become more acute (ageing workforce, companies and factories moving to eastern Europe, higher cost of living, social security in bad need of reform, etc.). Tensions between Flemings and Walloons have always existed, but it is not surprising that they only come to a head in times of recession or social turmoil. When in trouble, blame your neighbour. Disinformation and the unwillingness to listen to the other side are the real barriers to reaching an agreement.

It would help, for example, if the Flemings understood that French was not imposed on them by the Walloons in the past, but rather eagerly adopted by their own bourgeoisie (Victor Horta, Emile Verhaeren or Maurice Maeterlinck were all Flemish, but they chose to speak and write in French, even at a time when there were active cultural circles in Dutch); some Flemish professors at the university of Leuven even preferred to teach in French well into the 20th century, because they did not consider Dutch a language of science and culture. It would also help if Flemings realised that Flanders is not homogeneously rich and that not all Walloons are poor: Limburg is actually much poorer than Walloon Brabant, for example.

And it certainly would help if a particular group within Walloon society realised that they cannot expect the state to go on subsidising their region forever, that some reforms might indeed be beneficial and that Flanders might be an example to follow if they want to solve their economic problems.

  • 22.
  • At 02:13 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Lukas wrote:

Further fragmentation in Europe may perhaps be necessary for everyone
to see the point of uniting behind a bigger institution as Europeans.
Maybe we all first need to shake off this faulty concept of nationhood
and see regions, such as the UK, (which is essentially four different
nations) Belgium, Italian Tyrol, Kosovo, Basque nation etc. to
separate and form their own small entity before they can all
confidently say: I am European. If thats what it takes, then bring on
Wallonia and Flanders.

  • 23.
  • At 03:18 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Malcolm wrote:

Isn't it interesting? All over Europe, peoples who have been forged together into single nations are seeking their own identities, and independence as individual nations. The Balkans nations are unrecognisable from a few short years ago, the Scots are talking up breaking with England, the Basques are at it, and now right under the noses of the EU architects in Brussels the Belgians are joining in. Is there perhaps a lesson in this for the EU, which is as determined as ever to swim against the tide and wrap the whole continent up into its smothering embrace? "Ever closer union" trips well off the tongue, but the human spirit will always prove stronger than an artificial political contruction which is already unloved by so many of its citizens.

  • 24.
  • At 04:02 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Mark Richard wrote:

Dear Flanders,
If you wish to commit economic suicide thats your choice. There are 3 million French Belgians, 60 million French in France, 2 million in Switzerland, 6 million in Canada and SURPRISE 15 million French-Americans. Your petty excuses are a disguise for independence for your little country nobody really cares about anyways. You will be BOYCOTTED and the subsidies you pay the French side will be peanuts in comparison. Furthermore Britain, Spain and many others could begin to breakup. Thank you Flanders for possibly breaking up Europe. What a joke. With all the world's problems and this is what you spend your time on ?? You are opening a can of worms and Europe should stop you. Its very sad that we tell the shiites,kurds, and sunnis and can live together when a country like Belgium can't !!!!!!!!!

  • 25.
  • At 04:15 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Austin Lane wrote:

Good rule of thumb - Dutch is the language taught in all schools in the Netherlands and the region of Flanders, from Groningen to Hasselt to Leuven to Brugge.

Some inhabitants of the Flemish region may choose to speak a variant of standard Dutch known as Flemish. But it is well worth ascertaining which language variant they think they are speaking before making generalisations about it, as a huffy blogpost oiften offends.

BTW, last time I checked, Jean-Luc Dehaene (who, if I recall correctly, also went under the soubriquet "The Plumber") was mayor or burgemeester of Vilvoorde, which presumably explains the carthorse . . .

Next time you are up in Vilvoorde, count the number of bilingual Vilvoorde/Vilvorde roadsigns (in a commune in Vlaams Brabant where the French community is afforded limited linguistic rights) - and then count the number of signs where a) the Dutch/Flemish form and b) the French form has been spray-painted out.

  • 26.
  • At 04:16 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Gert wrote:

The fact that Belgium is still working after +170 days without governement says more about the burocracy than the governement.
I am sure that only a tiny minority in Belgium wants to split up the country.
On the other hand the flemish community is slowly getting tired of the ongoing debate on authority and responsibilities of the seperate communties that is ongoing for several decades now.
They are slowly reaching critical mass and a permanent solution will have to be divised.
Article 35 in the Belgian constitution has been quoted lately in the media as potential solution to break the stalemate.
Basically it means that you start off with all authority and responsabilities in the hands of the communities and come to a consensus on the things you still want to do together (i.e. defense, foreign policy, etc ...)

  • 27.
  • At 06:12 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Carl wrote:

Another great post Mark.
Here's an idea: Flanders and Wallonia split and become countries in their own right. Brussels becomes a 'Washington DC-like' independent European capital. The only drawback being, all three would have to re-apply to join the EU, leaving the question as to whether they would all still qualify, and the fact that temporarily, Europe would have a capital that was not in the EU...

  • 28.
  • At 08:40 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • john somer wrote:

Mr Mardell,
Maybe you should have waited until tomorrow to write your blog as the French paper Libération has a whole team of journalists preparing a 25 pages special on Belgium due to come out tomorrow.... To illustrate Larwence Chappelle's comment, there is a valuable article in today's La Libre Belgique explainng to French speakers the feelings of the flemings about their language, As many Flemings, Chappelle forgets that his own gentry and nobility were also French speakers (they had beeen subjects of the Kings of France since the 15th century while the Walloons and Brusseleers were subject to the much less centralized German empire). A recent phenomenon that is seldom mentioned is the rising antipathy among the Flemings in the vicinity of Brussels towards the English speaking expats whom they acccuse of integrating as badly as the French speakers. That article in La Libre does not mention the phenomenon but explain its subconscious symbolism,
All the foreign papers zero in on the federal government not workig but forget tp mention that the regional flemish, walloon and brussels governments are working at a normal pace and they have consideraable areas of jurisdiction besides the fact that we have numerous "quangos" that are also working at cruising rpm

  • 29.
  • At 09:10 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Caspar Heetman wrote:

Nationalism is a lie. How can Mr. Dehaene be serious when he's essentially saying that the the people in the southern Dutch provinces of Noord Brabant, Limburg and Zeeland are actually different people than the people who live a few miles south? That's like saying that the people around the corner are really different people than those living in one's own street. The Dutch province of Noord Brabant has its counterpart Brabant in Dutch-speaking Belgium. And both countries have a province called Limburg. In both these provinces, people speak Dutch (Flemish and Dutch are officially the same language). The people living here have the same customs, the same religion, the same language, they even have relatives living on the other side of the border and yet these people would be different? Ask the Belgians in Lanaken whether they spend more time in Belgium or in the Netherlands, and they will have a hard time to answer, because the nearest city is the Dutch city of Maastricht, where they speak the same language as in Hasselt, in Belgium, the second-nearest big city. What about the people in Zeeuws Vlaanderen, the northern piece of Flanders that is part of the Netherlands? I bet they make regular visits to the Flemish city of Gent. To what extent are these people really different? Why do they fly red-white-blue flags on one side of the border and black-yellow-red flags on the other? It is a mix of resentment, religious inequality, opportunism and lies about nationhood.

Back in 1830, different issues played an important role: the emancipation of catholics in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Until then protestants and catholics were not treated equally, even if freedom of religion had gradually been introduced to the northern Netherlands, formerly the Republic of the United Provinces. Also in this kingdom, constructed at the Vienna Congress in 1815, the ruler, King William I was a Dutch-speaker. Moreover, the capital was in the Netherlands and the seat of government was then (just like today) in The Hague. Meanwhile the heavy industry in southern Belgium was the industrial heartland of the country: the Dutch were profiting from the Belgians. Belgium had been added to the United Provinces, but had not been integrated with it. The resentment of the Belgians with their inclusion in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was born out of a religious, linguistic and political/administrative and economic grounds, not because of cultural difference.

In fact, during the war between Belgium and the Netherlands that followed borders moved in all directions, causing people in Brabant, Limburg, Zeeland and Vlaanderen to then belong to one country and then to the other. The borders of today could just as well have been different.

Only afterwards were nations constructed, when political leaders learned that the population of their country was more prepared to fight for it in a war when they had a sense that they all belonged together and were different and superior to the people at the other side of the border, did they teach us the above. And we believed it, even though the evidence proving the contraty was right in front of us: the same language, the same religion (catholicism), largely the same history and the same culture and customs, all key aspects of what we call a nation. Nationalism has blinded us and is continuing to blind Europeans. It was and still is a social construction made by politicians to gain power they would otherwise not have, by playing people of against one another. Nationhood is not real, it is only there when you want to see it. I am a Dutch citizen, but I could be English for all I care, that is part of the English nation, if I embraced English culture. Because culture is not a social construction, it is rooted in the people themselves and it is not changed so easily by politics.

Back in the 18th century and before people did not experience this 'nationhood' that we know of today. Flemish was spoken even in northern France, as old names of towns and cities still show: Lille is known as Rijsel, Arlons as Aarlen and Dunkerque was originally named Duinkerke. Some people in French Flanders still speak Flemish, but their generation is passing away.

Sadly for the Flemish, after 1830 they were betrayed: French-speaking Belgians seized power. Dutch/Flemish did not become an official language. The language of education was french and flemish-speaking belgians were convicted by Frensch-speaking courts, where the Flemish had no way to defend themselved because they didn't understand the language. Meanwhile in the Netherlands the catholic southerners emancipated and became a powerful political force that dominated Dutch politics until the 1980s and in some respects still today. In short: the same people underwent a completely opposite fate in the two different countries.

French-speaking Belgians are today confronted with the result of the arrogance and madness of superiority of French-speakers over Dutch-speakers. Flanders is now enjoying its time in the sun and is essentially saying one thing: pay-back time. One could call that regrettable, but looking at the history of the Flemish since 1830, which speaks of repression, one can't say it is entirely unreasonable. In any case different times, with different, less peaceful and tolerant norms, they would have been a lot worse off at this pay-back time.

After World War II, the countries developed similarly, with heavy industry losing its dominance, mining being terminated, and light industry and services starting to dominate the economy. Rotterdam and Antwerp became major ports. Flanders and The Netherlands began to dominate similarly. Secularization struck in both countries, and both countries adopted a liberal vision on ethics-related issues, such as abortion and gay-rights. Similar issues are being discussed in domestic politics, foreign politics is mostly made up of European politics, which is essentially the same for both.

On top of a common cultural heritage, Flanders and the Netherlands are increasingly becoming similar: The same language, the same culture, a similar society, a similar economy, what else could make them more similar? The contemporary Dutch and Flemish are one people divided over two countries, in a time when European integration is causing the concept of the nation to fade.

See there the opportunity to repair what went wrong in 1830: to re-unite the respective peoples and create larger communities with the same culture: Wallonie can go to France and Flanders and the Netherlands can be united in a new kingdom. A large majority of the Dutch was in favor a few months ago, back then almost a majority of the Flemish was in favor (46%). If we wait a couple of months, or perhaps years, this might become a real option.

Who knows, perhaps the leaders of Flanders and the Netherlands are already secretly discussing this option.

  • 30.
  • At 09:34 AM on 28 Nov 2007,
  • Bob wrote:

If you are going to identify Flemish Belgians as "Flemish speaking," please be consistent and also identify Scottish Brits as "Scottish speaking," and Australians as "Australian speaking."

  • 31.
  • At 07:39 PM on 28 Nov 2007,
  • peter stuart wrote:

When will Belgians finally realize that they live under one rule? That one rule is 'Divide and Conquer'. This rule is propagated and maintained by two groups of people: politicians and the press. Both need an audience, and this audience needs protagonists and antagonists, according to these two groups. The people are fed stories of differences rather than stories of consensus. If there only was consensus, who would want to read those stories? It would mean the end of the press. And if the press would cease to exist, who would know about the existence of politicians?
Points of view may differ, but politicians and the press have a tendency to polarize the issues into oversimplified stories for their readers/voters. No wonder people are getting fed up with both groups.

  • 32.
  • At 08:16 PM on 28 Nov 2007,
  • Jozef wrote:

# 29 Caspar,

your post is really great. I'm Belgian, but fully endorse your point of view. It's no co-incidence that we have provinces with the same name in south Netherlands and in Belgium. I'm a very moderate Flemish and I would never have thought of a split some time ago, but the continuing arrogance of the French speakers (and I do speak French fluently as well) drives more Flemish to more radical solutions. Two examples: 1) French speakers moving into Flemish territory refuse to integrate (this isn't Flemish bourgeousie, John Somer. To be clear, everyone should be allowed to speak the language they want, but corresponce with official instances should be in the official language) while the 300000 Flemish living in Wallonia (rightly so!) properly integrate. 2) the socialists who dominate Wallonia happily continue to built their subsidized state socialistic model with Flemish money. If that money would go to true economic development, I actually wouldn't have any problem with it.
Everybody is afraid of what would happen with Brussels, but the benefits of economic cooperation between the Netherlands and Flanders (e.g. Rotterdam/Antwerp/Zeebrugge, or the Euregio in Limburg) would by far outweigh the loss of Brussels.

  • 33.
  • At 09:15 PM on 28 Nov 2007,
  • fendley wrote:

Any one have any idea what the German speakers in Belgium feel about things?

  • 34.
  • At 01:02 AM on 29 Nov 2007,
  • Peter Davidson wrote:

I must admit to an increasing sense of bewilderment regarding the implicit orthodoxy of the Nation State as the sole and exclusive unit of political organisation.

The current constitutional limbo, in which Belgium find itself, demonstrates quite clearly that life goes on as normal in the absence of political coordination at the National level.

There has not been rioting in the streets, rampant inflation or hoarding, mass breakdown of law and order, pestilence, plagues or a retreat into any form of anarchical society.

Belgium's experience should therefore elicit a profound question; what exactly do Belgian citizens need Belgium for? In a wider European context, one is also tempted to ask, what exactly do Spaniards need Spain for? the British need the UK for? the French need France for? etc. etc.

Centralisation of power is an inherent flaw of "bigness". We can perceive such basic criticism quite readily within the context of the European Union, concentrating (unaccountable) power in Brussels, far removed from the citizens affected by decisions taken there. The negative impact of this trend is precisely what the principle of subsidiarity was supposed to address but has it? The potential for remoteness also applies to individual member states and their respective forms of governance.

If we assess the current constitutional arrangements within member states across the Union we find that in those member states seemingly most hostile to the idea of closer European integration are the very same ones displaying the most centralised, bureaucratic and unaccountable forms of governance - bizarre but true!

Sweden plus the UK, which excluding Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London still remains an exemplar of unitary and centralised governance are routinely branded as the most awkward counter-integration publics.

The current impasse in Belgium and potential of the European Union to act in a quasi Nation State form leads me inexorably to a conclusion in which the primacy of traditional European Nation States within its institutional structure is increasingly impractical.

Defence, Foreign Affairs, Macroeconomics, Global Trade, Global Environmental Policy, Immigration - all these policy areas and more are remorselessly moving outside the remit of individual European Nation State administrations.

For Healthcare, Education, Law & Order, Housing, Intra-Regional Transport, Culture/Tourism and many other important policy portfolios, old style Nation States like France, UK, Sweden, Germany, Poland are proving too large to efficiently manage in a responsive, coherent and above all homogeneous fashion.

What's left in the middle for government administrations such as those in Whitehall, Elysee or Reichstag to manage and control? Not a lot and getting less every year would be my objective answer!

As we proceed into the 21st century Europeans (collectively) might need to reassess by looking objectively and dispassionately at where the Union is going, how it will be structured in the future and what form the default building bloc of its construction might take?

  • 35.
  • At 07:28 AM on 29 Nov 2007,
  • A Govaert wrote:

Best Mr. Mardell,
A very good and finally an unbiased article on the Belgian crisis. You may allways trust the BBC to look a little bit further.
I must agree that most Belgians (especially in Flanders)are little emotional about the current crisis. This does not mean however that Belgians are not concerned. Belgians simply never had the tradition of being involved in their own history
and are as such very unbelieving and out of depth about the whole thing that is today happening.
As one liberal politician noted: 'all this is very surrealistic'.
But I also believe that most flemisch people (of which I am one)hope that Flanders will become more independent, or at least will recieve control over its own economical and political tools.
Herewith the concept of belgium as it was untill present has to come to an end, if not today then tomorrow.
Is this a test for Europe or for minority populations in europe ? I do not believe so, as there are few similarities.
What still unites Belgians is the same what unites us with the Dutch and British or Swedes.
As Dylan (Bob) said: 'the times they are changing', and this sums up most of our current Belgian crisis in the heart of Europe. I guess we are more or less catching up with the democratic rules of the rest of the world.
Little emotions ? Yes, but also no hard feelings, only common sense.

  • 36.
  • At 01:54 PM on 29 Nov 2007,
  • Chris S. wrote:

I would like to elaborate on my previous post (#4) and explain why the phrase Flemish-speaking has the potential to offend. In the past, the French-speaking bourgeoisie in Belgium often referred to the language spoken by 'ordinary' people in Flanders as le flamand in a deliberate attempt to set it apart from the language used in the Netherlands, i.e. Dutch. By doing so they condemned the language of the Flemings to the status of a regional dialect, disenfranchising the inhabitants of the northern part of Belgium of the rich literary culture they share with the Dutch.

In 1980, the Dutch and Flemish governments established the Dutch Language Union (Nederlandse Taalunie), defining Flanders and the Netherlands as a single linguistic entity. This means, for instance, that no spelling changes in Dutch can be implemented without the approval of both governments.

People in Flanders and the Netherlands use the same dictionaries, grammar books, and spelling guides. Of course there are some minor differences between Dutch spoken in Flanders and Dutch used in the Netherlands but such regional variation can be found in virtually any language area, including the francophone area (French spoken in Wallonia differs from Parisian French, for instance).

The official name of the language spoken in Flanders is Dutch (Nederlands), as codified in the Belgian Constitution.

  • 37.
  • At 03:52 PM on 29 Nov 2007,
  • Olivier Laurent wrote:

The real problem is the lack of understanding between the two communities.

Media & entertainments are now totally different. I try to be bilingual and I watch Frenchspeaking/Flemish channels. Most Flemish celebrities are totally unknown in Wallonia....The opposite is true.

Being a Frenchspeaker I must say that I find some Flemish propositions quite sensible. I'm not particularly happy with my native region management and I do think that more independance brings more responsabilities.

The real problem is that there isn't any "federal" party anymore. Political parties are only responsible in front of their own regions.

The result is a lack of diplomacy (in both communities), A form of xenophoby, generalisations and populisms.

It is a pity that a flemish party refused the "mixed" election proposition (allowing a flemish politician to receive frenchspeakers votes). I thought it was a very wise idea.

  • 38.
  • At 06:55 PM on 29 Nov 2007,
  • Lawrence wrote:

To Mark Richards:

1. If I would ask you how many times you have been to Flanders or Belgium, the answer would probably be: not to often. Right?
Well, then the only thing I can say to you is that your truly simplistic view of the world and arrogant approach to problems which you know nothing about might be a bit out of place...

2. Even if Flanders would separate, which is by no means what I want and think that will happen, boycotting us would do as much harm to your country, wherever you live in the world, as to us. So, not an option.

3. Just so you know, it's not because you think kurds, shiites and sunnis belong together that that is the standard. Before the British came in the First World War, they never were one nation anyway.

  • 39.
  • At 02:36 PM on 30 Nov 2007,
  • Ex-Pat in Wallonia wrote:

It seems that almost every post from a Flemish person ultimately conveys the same message, that Flemish are very moderate and hard working, and that the Walloons are Socialist, lazy, wasters, and incapable of speaking other languages or integrating. Having been in Belgium many many years and having worked with many Flemish people in Brussels I have never found either to be the case. As far as work goes there is no difference. Concerning languages I've known as many Flemings who can't speak French as Walloons who can't speak Flemish and I never cease to be amazed at how many speak some English in Wallonia. When it comes to being moderate, well the election results show how moderate the Flemish population are, remember that to a fanatical far right facist anyone slightly left of them is a moderate.
Finally, if Flanders should go it's own way and think that it will benefit from Dutch business, just remember the Dutch have no reason to lose their businesses to Flanders (like Wallonia did) or to use Antwerp, in fact the reverse could be the result. Likewise the French and Germans will be very happy to take the market of Wallonia from Flanders, and the French ports of Calais and Dunkirk are already being expanded for that it seems.

  • 40.
  • At 01:37 AM on 02 Dec 2007,
  • David Morrison wrote:

As an American, I am far removed from this issue; I've just visited Brussels once. However, I find it ironic that as the EU is increasingly growing together, Belgium is growing apart. As the EU is showing, countries can be together in a group despite language and cultural differences. So why can't Belgium, since the two regions have been together a long time? I just think it is weird how Belgium's attitude is moving in the opposite way of the rest of Europe--toward division, instead of unification.

  • 41.
  • At 02:05 PM on 03 Dec 2007,
  • Marcel wrote:

Doesn't the lack of emergency in Belgium prove that the federal government isn't needed there? The regional governments are doing just fine. Belgium should copy Czechoslovakia and separate peacefully because this matter of regionalism is going to come back time and time again.

  • 42.
  • At 04:58 PM on 03 Dec 2007,
  • John Smith wrote:

What's happening in Belgium is proof of one simple thing: 19th century national governments are irrelevent. London, Madrid, the Belgian capital of Brussels (as opposed to Brussels as the European capital) are the wrong level for everything. Matters are either continental, climate change, trade, security and defence, or they are local, health, policing, etc. The old capitals we used to know are too far away from the people to respond to what we need, and yet not far enough removed to be able to act with any scope.

Our politicians will come to learn that the peoples no longer need them. The artificial constructs of the nation-states will wither, and our identities will return to their true states; we are all European, and beneath that we are Flemmish, Basque, Lombard, Devonian. 'English', 'Italian', and 'Belgian' never had worth, and no longer have function.

  • 43.
  • At 01:49 AM on 04 Dec 2007,
  • MarkRichard wrote:

Mark Mardell,
You are silly, Flanders and Wallonia are 2 distinct societies ???? Outer Mongolia and Lesotho are 2 distinct societies. Sometimes I think you Brits like stirring up the pot. The UK is afraid of the EU because they know eventually power will gravitate away from your rain soaked island. The English should stop bashing European unity. Your Belgian stories enrage all sides on this issue. England would love to drive wedges between continental nations. Get your umbrella out and go get some fish and chips at your local eatery and leave the rest of Europe alone. Tomorrow do an article about the sad state of english teeth. Just joking, keep up your entertaining blogs. I love and enjoy reading comments that you bring out in people. Petty politics to me is humor at its best.

  • 44.
  • At 10:39 AM on 04 Dec 2007,
  • Diederik Knaeps Manderfeld wrote:

Dear Mark, I would like to point to one big lie that I often find repeated in the BBC's reporting on Belgium: the fact that Walloons make up 40% of the population, and Flemings 60%. Not on error, or a factual inconsistency, but a downright, nationalist right-wing lie.

According to the last census 61% of the Belgians now live in Flanders, 31% in Wallonia and 8% in Brussels. The only way to get close to 40% Walloons is by labelling every inhabitant of Brussels a Walloon, something to which most Brusselers would object strongly, whether they speak French in the home or not (and most, indeed, do not).

Some politicians like Maingain may like to portray it that way, but repeating a lie doesn't make it true. Same for the "hard-working efficient Flanders" myth: trains are a little more punctual in Wallonia.

  • 45.
  • At 11:16 AM on 04 Dec 2007,
  • Norbert wrote:

As a foreigner living in Brussels I have very little understanding of the current crisis and its political implications. I can only say that it seems to me that the notion of "Belgitude" (Belgianness) primarily exists in the minds of French-speaking Belgians. Most Dutch-speaking Belgians don't really seem to identify with Belgium, they're first and foremost Flemish. If one were to investigate how many of those people that have put a Belgian flag out their window these days are French-speaking and how many Flemish, I would guess that the result would be around 90% French-speaking.

What is remarkable is that there is hardly a lot of cultural exchange between the two linguistic communities. I think there isn't even a single all-Belgian TV channel, there are only French-speaking and Flemish channels. That wouldn't be an issue if people from each side would care to watch the channels from the other side, but they just don't (or do they?). A Belgian colleague told me that the rate of Walloons studying at Flemish universities is around 5% (I don't know the rate vice versa). I read an interview with a Brussels politician from the Green party recently who listed what great cultural interchange projects existed in Brussels, such as theater groups with Flemish and French-speaking in it. It makes you wonder: if she needs to mention these exceptions in a Belgian publication, then the rule is the opposite, no?

I might be mistaken, of course, but it seems that between the two communities, there isn't really a feeling of togetherness or brotherhood, simply because by and large (exceptions do exist, of course, but they are just that: exceptions) French-speaking and Flemish don't live together, they live next to each other. And I have the feeling that while the French-speaking Belgians don't really mind keeping the old model, the (moderate?) Flemish that don't want separation want at least that the living-next-to-one-another is also reflected in the structure of the country: to each its own tax system, its own social security, its own healthcare, etc. What will be left in the end is just a hull of Belgium: a common military, common representation abroad and common national sports teams.

  • 46.
  • At 12:15 PM on 04 Dec 2007,
  • Albert van der Schueren Devèze wrote:

One tends to forget that Belgium is not as homogene as it looks. First there are still 10%-15% of people living in the Flemish region who consider themselves as "francophones" (whether speaking French at home and sending their children to Flemish schools or French schools on the other side of the "language" border). Secondly, one can consider that there are more than 2 million Belgian couples where a Walloon (or French-speaking person) lives with someone of the other "language" group. Which political party is ever speaking for them?

  • 47.
  • At 10:31 AM on 05 Dec 2007,
  • Stefan wrote:

Belgium will muddle through as it always has. Few people here in Brussels have so far noticed any noticeable differences from the lack of a government, apart from all the Belgian flags hanging from (francophone) houses. The Flemish and Walloons do not love each other, but many couples continue together for reasons other than love (especially when separation is so complicated), and a modus vivendi will be found. Separate bedrooms are a must in this case, or even better, separate appartments in the same block.

By the way, I recently watched Belgium play Finland at football in the national stadium here,and there were almost as many Finnish supporters as Belgian ones. That rather sums up this strange international place.

  • 48.
  • At 03:36 PM on 19 Dec 2007,
  • Richard wrote:

I've noticed that all the comments the blog starter have forgotten, the last minority group, that is the German Speaking Belgium's! They deserve recognition something the French ones don't wish to give them. Lets hope that Belgium, does split up and that particular region can go home!

  • 49.
  • At 03:31 PM on 20 Dec 2007,
  • Limeyintheburbs wrote:

Once upon a time, the southern part of Belgium was the one supporting the country with all the 'old' industries (mining, steel etc). Now those traditional industries have died out and the blue-chips are in the north showing their thanks by demanding a split from the south. Typical. Like an ageing relative, the Walloons are being shoved into an old peoples' home. Shame on you Flemish to show your thanks for the previous 150 years in this manner.

  • 50.
  • At 01:29 PM on 23 Dec 2007,
  • Gert Van den Berghe wrote:

It's true that the common people are more concerned about rising food and fuel prices. They feel that the government should cope with those problems and they're right.

The paralysis we're facing today is one of politicians and the matter is very complex and administrative. But in my opinion the Flemish people are right to stress that they want to finish a voting system that the Constitutional Court has condemned as being illegal a few years ago. If French-speaking citizens living in Flanders would accept to vote for French-speaking politicians living in their own region instead of another region, ending an illogical, irregular and illegal construction from the past, we could end the crisis and concentrate on more practical issues.

Secondly, if two parties, two communities in this case, have to compromise, one might think that they will meet somewhere halfway. Sadly the Walloons refuse to compromise in the middle (a minor but still substantial reform of the federal state) They are now faced for the first time with a Flemish public opinion that prefers to let the crisis continue then give in to 'save the country'.

I don't really care if Flanders would declare independance or stay within a Belgian framework. But to go back to the image of two married people separating: if they agreed in the past to stay in the same house, but to have seperate rooms in which they can organise certain matters independantly, it would be fair for people living in one of those 'rooms' to comply to the rules of that 'room'. Especially when some politicians refuse to apply the language laws and rules, they don't really follow the federal logic. It's not surprising that the Flemish majority then feels that their French speaking co-citizens are not quite following the rules and thus will harden their points of view.

  • 51.
  • At 09:54 PM on 23 Dec 2007,
  • Kepler wrote:

To "Ex-pat":

I must say what you say is not right.
I live in Brussels, I have lived in both parts of the country for many years, my mother tongue is Spanish and I am now Belgian. I speak both Dutch and French now. Most Flemings speak French (even if less and less are inclined to do so after so much frustration) and most Walloons do NOT speak Dutch. Flemings also tend to speak better English than Walloons.
When the French-speaking TV sent a programme last year indicating Flanders had declared unilaterally its independence and the king had fled, lots of Walloons believed that. Why? Because they know much less about Flanders than Flemings about Wallonia and they did not check the news in the Dutch channels (few would understand them, anyway).
As far as "moderate Walloons" and the eternal story of the racist Fleming: I have African, Native American and European ancestors and I have to say I have found as much racism in the French speaking part as in the Dutch speaking part (and for that matter, I have seen less of it in Belgium than in the UK or in Germany). The only difference is that racists in the French area vote for just any party (including the Socialist Party) whereas in Flanders they tend to concentrate more on Vlaams Belang.

If Flanders were to become independent (which is not what most Flemings support, rather more accountability and separate accounts for several areas), it definitely would not lose as much as the French part. We are in the European Union. It is the French speaking part that would need to see how budgets work and it would become clear how urgently they need to do something about their education levels (just check out the PISA results for Flanders and compare them with those for the French part)

  • 52.
  • At 01:18 PM on 24 Dec 2007,
  • Mark Richard wrote:

Oh my god !!!!! Miss Belgium can't speak Flemish !!! Run for the hills !!! Next year's pagaent may need UN peacekeepers !!! Oh the humanity !! Oh la la !!!

  • 53.
  • At 03:47 PM on 26 Dec 2007,
  • Mirek Kondracki wrote:

And in the meantime, just before Christmas, a Turkish conglomerate quietly bought famous Belgian chocolate manufacturer (Godiva).

Speaking about Turkish delight! :-)

  • 54.
  • At 02:44 PM on 04 Jan 2008,
  • Ex-pat in Wallonia wrote:

to Keplar:
As an Ex-Pat yourself you would seem to have gone truly Native on the Flemish side. What I said before is most certainly what I have experienced in Belgium for the last 17 years. Many in the old coal mining areas of Wallonia are already bi-lingual French-Italian, plus they have had Dutch forced on them at school making them trilingual. My own children and grandchildren were/are obliged to learn both French and Dutch with availability to English being in the latter stages of secondary education.
When it comes to racism I have never experienced one negative event in Wallonia, but when I have visited Flanders I have on many occasions. Shops, sports clubs etc make out they can't understand you if you don't speak perfect Dutch, in Wallonia I find they fall over themselves trying to practice their English.
ps. I speak French but my accent gives my origins away.

  • 55.
  • At 10:01 AM on 07 Jan 2008,
  • Wallonia supporter wrote:

To Kepler #51
Judging by your comments you would seem to be one of those who dwell largely in the past and finds racism everywhere because of that attitude, which is probably why you've felt at home in Flanders. If Flanders stopped thinking of the middle of the last century and before, and started concentrating on being European and moderate it would maybe achieve a long term success, but until that happens its fanatic politicians and their supporters will be largely ignored by other European countries, and more importantly business investment. I've also been told that business investment in Wallonia has surpassed investment in Flanders during the last couple of years and one only has to remember the problems unions & Socialism caused the UK in the 1960's/70's before Thatcher acted to realise that Wallonia is likewise quickly getting over being a 'sick man' in Europe.

  • 56.
  • At 10:52 PM on 08 Jan 2008,
  • jozef wrote:

to #54: I'm flemish, and I find it very narrow minded what flemish politicians like Leterme are trying to do. His 800000 voters voted for 'good government', not for chaos.
But in order to understand both sides of the story, I'm also daily reading the Francophone press en participate in blogs, and I must say that I see there more racist comments than I was used to see on the Flemish side. The problem in Belgium is that less than 1% of the population read the press at both sides, and they represent things very differently.

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