The ingredients of the Belgian cocktail

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 19, 2007

Finally, here is the promised post on Belgium – delayed not only by personal circumstances, but even more by the time it took me to talk to a dozen of people more knowledge on the Belgian situation. Writing this post made it very clear that one should never trust one single source when he or she is talking about Belgium – chances are very high that only a partial (and thereby biased) analysis is offered. So I talked to people from both sides of the language border, spent hours on websites from both Flemish and French Belgian newspapers and other media, and tested my draft ideas on Belgians from all persuasions.

Below the fold my list of the main ingredients of the Belgian cocktail (warning: very long post!).

But I have to start with two disclaimers. First, there will be virtually no mentioning in what follows of the German-speaking community in Belgium, which comprises about 70.000 inhabitants; as far as I could see, they are not playing any significant role in the current crisis. Second, I want to stress that I am not an expert on Belgian politics, federalism, nationalism or any other of these related matters: professionally I have never looked into these issues. So what follows is written by someone who simply tried to understand what is going on, but who has no personal stake in this (such as: I have no politically active family members and have no intention to return to Belgium in the foreseeable future so don’t have to mind my words). And I am more than happy to be corrected for any factual mistakes or significant omissions by those more knowledgeable.

So what are the ingredients of the Belgian cocktail that explain the current crisis and the more structural and long-term political tensions in this country?

1. Institutional background: Belgium has a complicated institutional structure. It is a federal state with three communities and three regions: the Flemish, French and German-speaking communities, and the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels-Capital region. The federal state is responsible for all affairs that are independent of language, culture and regional territory (such as foreign affairs, justice, finance, social security and public health), the communities are responsible for all issues related to language, culture and education, and the regions for issues related to the territories (such as the environment and employment policies). Important to note is that the regions and the communities overlap but do not coincide: the French-speaking community lives in the Walloon region and comprises a very large share of the Brussels-Capital region; the Walloon region entails not only a large share of the French-speaking but also the entire German-speaking community; and the Flemish community is present in the Flemish region and also (a little bit) in the Brussels-Capital region. There is no German-speaking region: for the regional issues in the areas where the German-speaking Belgians live, the Walloon region has jurisdiction. And there is no Brussels Community: the people living in Brussels can choose whether they want to rely on Flemish and/or French community institutions, such as schools and cultural centres.

2. Demography: There are 10.5 million inhabitants in Belgium. About 1 million in the Brussels-Capital region, 3.4 million inhabitants in the Walloon region, and well above 6 million inhabitants in the Flemish region. So the Flemish are the majority group in Belgium; however, they are only a very small fraction of the inhabitants of the Brussels-Capital region. I haven’t been able to find official statistics, and have been told by several political scientists that the census no longer asks whether a person considers herself to belong to the Flemish- or Frenchspeaking community, but that the best indicator is the percentage of the votes given to the Flemish parties in the Brussels-Capital region: this would be about 10%. In short, the Brussels region belongs to both the French and Flemish communities, but the absolute majority is Francophone – although one should also not forget that a significant share of the inhabitants in Brussels is not Dutch- or Frenchspeaking at all (they may or may not hold a Belgian passport, but their primary national identities would be non-Belgian). Yet, to complicate matters further, the share of the Flemings among the people who work in Brussels is much higher: many Flemings commute daily to Brussels to work, but don’t live there.

3. A federal state without federal political parties: In Belgium, the parties that take part in the federal elections are the same parties that take part in the regional elections. There are no Belgian-wide parties: there are only Flemish, French and German parties. As a consequence, the political agenda of the federal elections is very prone to be influenced by regional interests and agenda’s. At the last federal elections, several of the main Flemish parties were running on a strong Flemish-interests agenda, and made promises that if elected they would defend some specific Flemish interests that are not in the interests of the French community (such as splitting the voting district Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, see below). As a consequence, the parties that are now negotiating about the formation of the federal government are having regional interests in the backs of their heads. In addition, this also leads to some remarkable dynamics in the case of the man who got the most votes, Yves Leterme, on which more below.

4. The Flemish border communes around Brussels: Geographically speaking, Brussels is an enclave in Flanders. However, in the Flemish border communes around Brussels, the share of inhabitants who do not speak any Dutch is very high. These are not just francophone Belgians, but also foreigners who are working for the many international organisations and companies based in Brussels – and these people generally speak English and French, but no Dutch at all. The are often well-paid employees, and prefer to live in the green areas around Brussels, rather than in Brussels itself; as a consequence, the descendents of the original Dutch-speaking inhabitants of the Flemish border communes claim that they are no longer able to afford living there. But it should be added that at the personal level this is as much a problem for descendents of the original French-speaking Brussels inhabitants: Eurocrats earn about double the wages of ordinary Belgians in similar functions, and thus they are crowding out the ‘natives’. Since Eurocrats are much more likely to speak French than Dutch, the area becomes more French-dominated.
Another problem is that in 1962, when the language border was fixed, certain ‘facilities’ (special rights) were granted to the French-speaking inhabitants, which formed a minority at that time. But what has happened, is that these special rights were not, as some argue they should have been, rights that would slowely fade out; instead, they have basically turned Flemish territory into an area where French inhabitants have special language rights, which took away the incentives for them to learn the official language of that territory – Dutch.
So there is resentment from the Flemings regarding the Flemish border communes around Brussels on several grounds – one being the fact that people live in their territory but don’t bother to speak Dutch; the other is that the purchasing power of some of those people is making it impossible for ordinary Flemings to continue living there. But there is also irritation from the Francophone Belgians. They argue that the local administrations in those communes are making the lives of those who don’t speak Dutch unnecessarily difficult, and are enforcing the “language laws” very strictly. These Flemish border communes have been and continue to be the stage of lots of political contestation – as the next point will show…

5. Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde/Bruxelles-Hal-Vilvorde: Flemish politicians do not like the fact that the increasing number of francophones in the border communes around Brussels are changing the demographic-linguistic profile. But there is more going on. According to the 2002 laws concerning the Belgian electoral system, the 19 communes that constitute Brussels and the Flemish communes of Halle and Vilvoorde (recall, in which live many Francophones), together form one election district, called Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde (in Dutch) or Bruxelles-Hal-Vilvorde (in French). BHV, as it is often abbreviated, has become a pivotal battle ground in the current political crisis. In 2003, a Belgian constitutional court decided that the current voting legislation in BHV is unconstitutional, since the inhabitants of the Flemish communes Halle and Vilvoorde can also vote for French parties, which is not possible in other Flemish communes and hence citizens are treated unequally. So the Flemish parliament has urged the immediate split of BHV, with Halle and Vilvoorde becoming part of the Flemish electoral districts. This would reinforce (or perhaps better, restore) the Flemish character of these communes. But for the Walloon and Francophone Bruxellois (inhabitants from Brussels) this would be an unfavorable development, since it would strenghten the enclaved character of Brussels, and deny what they regard as the rights of the francophones in those communes. Of course, it is clear that something has to happen, since the unconstitutional nature of the current laws makes it impossible to organise the next elections (in 2009). Some francophone politicians are unwiling to negotiate about the split of BHV, others are only willing to negotiate about splitting BHV if the Flemish are willing to talk about compensation, for example they could give up some officially flemish communes around Brussels that are dominated by the francophones, which would be added to the Brussels-Capital region. Interestingly, the Flemish politicians present this case as if there can be no negotiations, since this is a legal verdict that has to be implemented. But that is simply not true. There are a range of different ways to solve the unconstitutional nature of the current situation in BHV, and the Flemish parties present it as if the split of BHV is the only possible solution, and doesn’t require any negotiations about compensations (I’ll spare you the dizzying details of the other legal solutions that are possible – perhaps someone with a better stomach for electoral laws will be happy to explain more in the comments sections). I’ve been surprised to see that the Flemish journalists tend to copy this view as if the split of BHV is an unavoidable consequence, that simply follows from a legal verdict; that seems to be just another instance of the uncritical attitude of the media in Belgium towards anything said by the politicans from their communes (this, unfortunately, is as much true for the French press, in my experience). The upshot of the incredible complicated case is at least twofold: first, the two communities are basically fighting for territory, and second, it illustrated the key role of Brussels in the Belgian drama.

6. Non-coinciding regional and national elections: In Belgium five different kinds of elections are held: at the local level, the provincial level, the regional and community level, the federal level, and elections for the European Parliament. But these do not coincide. Federal elections are held every 4 years, but elections for the regions and communities every 5 years, together with the European elections. Local elections are every 6 years. A possible consequence is that the coalitions formed at one level are different from those at another level: the problem of asymmetric governments.

7. Asymmetric governments: Governments in Belgium, both the federal and the regional ones, are always made up from coalitions. But these coalitions are not the same in all governments. In part this is due to the non-coinciding elections, in part this is also due to the fact that the parties do not have the same size at both sides of the language border. For example, the Flemish Christian democrats are the biggest party in Flanders, but are a rather small party within Francophone Belgium. Flanders also has a considerable extreme-right seperatist party, Vlaams Belang (which, ironically, is receiving some votes from Francophones in Brussels thanks to their security and anti-muslim agenda), whereas there is no such political factor in Wallonia. So these asymmetries create difficult situations. For examples, at the last regional elections the Christian Democratic Parties became part of the regional governments in Flanders and Wallonia, but they were part of the opposition in the Federal Government (which was made up from the (Flemish and French) Social Democratic Parties, and the (Flemish and French) Liberal Parties). This can lead to strange party-dynamics, which in the present crisis of the negotiations the federal level are also an explanatory factor why there is still no Belgian government. For example, the French Christian Democratic Party (CDH) is currently part of the government of the Walloon region, together with the French Social-Democratic Party (PS). But at the last federal elections, the PS (and its Flemish sisterparty SP) lost many seats, such that the current negotiations at the federal level are between the Christian Democratic parties and the liberal parties. This leads to the difficult situations for parties that are in different positions at the different levels. CDH is part of the center-left coalition at the Walloon regional level, but is negotiating to become part of a center-right government at the federal level. Since the voters are likely not to make a distinction between whether the acts of parties are made in their capacities as rulers at the federal versus the regional levels, it may be very difficult for any particular party to be in a center-right coalition at one level, and a center-left at another level.

8. Elections 2007 – two cartels: To make matters even more complicated, the Flemish Christian Democratic party CD&V formed a cartel with NVA, a small nationalist Flemish party (which, however, should not be confused with Vlaams Blok, the large extreme-right Flemish nationalist party which is not only nationalist but also racist, islamophobic and extremely conservative). At the French side, the French liberal party MR formed a cartel with the small Brussels French Party FDF, which is a radical party defending the interests of the French speaking community in Brussels. Perhaps this was a voting-maximising strategy for CD&V and MR, but when last month they were trying to negotiate at the federal level, these two smaller radical French and Flemish parties were making the negotiations much more polarised and difficult. Two small radical parties that are vigorously defending the interests of only one language community are now around the federal negotiation table, and cannot be simply put aside since they established cartels with large Center-parties.

9. Yves Leterme and the rest of the leadership: Another factor adding to the current crisis are the personal character and behaviour of some key politicians. The leader of the biggest party, the Flemish Christian Democratic party CD&V, Mr. Yves Leterme, was until recently the prime minister at the Flemish level. He ran in the last federal elections, and received 800.000 votes behind its name, which is (even historically) a lot for a small country like Belgium (however, he was the head of the list, which means that many people who simply want to vote on the party in general will also have voted for him). But he ran on an explicit Flemish-agenda campagain. Both his past and a range of statements he has made in the press make it clear that his heart lies in Flanders and not at the federal level; and even though the Francophone press are doing their best of only highlighting his pro-flemish attitudes, one can reasonably wonder whether someone who is so focussed on the regional level and displays very little sympathy for the perspective of the other community should aspire to be the prime minister of the entire country. But the problem lies not just with this one man: the present generation political leaders in Belgium are virtually all leaders who developed their careers at the regional level. Moreover, in the past the politicians of both communities met and talked to eachother frequently; there was a national political elite, who were trained in making compromises and putting the interests of Belgium first. Among the new generation politicians, these people are very rare – which also explains why at the federal level the current negotiations are being so difficult at present.

10. Divided socio-economic worlds: Belgium is an affluent society. But this aggregate image hides what Flemish politicians have increasingly stressed in the last years: Flanders is doing much better socio-economically than Wallonia. The previous prime-minister of the Flemish region, Yves Leterme, published a document (called Belgium is doing better thanks to Flanders) in which a number of key social and economic indicators were disaggregated by region. Here are some of these figures (all amounts are in Euros) from this report (page reference of the report between brackets):
GDP per head (purchasing power parity) in 2005: Belgium: 27.700 – Brussels 54.905 – Flanders 27.300 – Wallonia 19.800. Now this is interesting, since it gives the impression that the really rich people live in Brussels. But this is a deceiving conclusion: Brussels has many relatively poor people, but it also has many companies whose employees live in the Walloon region and, especially, in Flanders. And even this needs to be nuanced, since most large Belgian companies who have, say, 2000 offices or shops spread over the country, have their headoffice in Brussels, which is where the sales and profits are officially put into the books. So these regional GDP figures do need to be interpreted with care.
However, the fact that the inhabitants of Brussels and the Walloon region are on average worse off, can be seen if one looks at other social indicators, such as unemployment and poverty rates:
Unemployment rate early 2007: Belgium: 11.8% – Brussels 20,4% – Flanders 6.9% – Wallonia 11.8% (p. 7).
Long-term unemployment rate in 2005: Belgium 4.4% – Brussels 9.2% – Flanders 2.2% – Wallonia 6.9% (p. 26).
Poverty risk after financial transfers (2004): Belgium: 14.9% – Brussels 27% – Flanders 11.3% – Wallonia 17.7%. (p. 26).
There are also inequalities in educational performance listed in this document:
Quality of secondary education: according to the results from the PISA study, Belgium has relatively good rankings for mathematics, reading, problem solving and science (8, 12, 11 and 14th position) – but these results are much better in Flanders (1, 3, 4 and 5th position) than in Wallonia (24, 31, 24 and 33th position).
Percentage of the population between 20 and 24 years old who have finished secondary education (2005): Belgium: 81.8% – Brussels 72.5% – Flanders 85.1% – Wallonia 79%.
What should one make of those figures? It’s unlikely that they are plainly false – the only one where I know there is lots of debate about the actual size will be discussed in the next point; but what is not unlikely is that the Flemish government has only presented those figures that are positive for her own image. I haven’t been able to find a similar report on the website of the Walloon region, but invite anyone who has found interesting (and preferably non-contested) statistics to add them in the comments section. In any case, what those figures (and others that are in scholarly books that are not on-line) do indicate is that in terms of where people live, Flanders is richer than the Brussels-Capital or Walloon region, but that in terms of productive units, Brussels is the chicken with the golden eggs. Inhabitants of both Flanders and the Walloon region both profit from the employment (and thus income generating) opportunities in Brussels – which, as some argue, is one reason why neither Flanders nor the Walloon region wants to split the country if that means they have to give up Brussels.

11. Financial transfers and solidarity: Given the inequality in economic welfare, it is not surprising that there are significant financial transfers from Flanders to Wallonia and Brussels. One way to look at this issue is to look at the total personal taxation revenue collected in the different parts of Belgium: 2.8 Billion is collected from households in Brussels, 9.2 Billion from Wallonia, and 21.3 billion from Flanders (p. 34). To the best of my knowledge, this concerns tax incomes for the federal level. Not surprisingly, the Flemish parties have put on their electoral agenda a partial split of the fiscal system. In the popular political discourse, the reference is often made to the “North-South transfers” within Belgium. The figure on hears most often in the media is that the financial transfer through the fiscal and social security systems from the Flemish to the Francophone would amount to 12 billion euro annually; but this figure has been calculated by a separatist group of Flemish entrepreneurs, and its methodology is strongly contested. Yet this figure is repeated frequently in the Flemish media and thus is shaping the public discourse and political attitudes of the citizens. I think it is much safer to look at official figures. According to the above mentioned report by the Flemish government (p. 10), the transfers from Flanders would be 5.4 billion Euro to Wallonia, and 1.2 billion Euro to Brussels, totalling 6.6 billion Euro in 2003. The big question is whether these transfers should be considered large or not. Most Flemish political parties think that they are too large, and that something needs to be done about them. For American (and other) readers who may perhaps wonder what the fuss is about: these amounts may be peanuts on the budget of a large country such as the USA, yet recall that Flanders has just above 6 million inhabitants, so the “solidarity from North to South” (as it is often called in the press) amounts to more than 1000 Euro per person annually. The Flemish nationalist parties, both the democratic ones and the extreme-right one, continue to remind the Flemish electorate of this constantly. On the other hand, it is far from clear that these are excessive transfers when compared with other inter-regional transfers within Europe. In addition, there have been occasional references to transfers in the other direction in the past. But when searching for hard facts, I haven’t been able to find any reference, nor have the people I’ve asked been able to direct me to a reliable source. So it remains unclear whether this is a true fact, or rather a myth. What is certainly the case is that the Walloon region was much more economically prosperous than Flanders around 1850, and that Flemings were working in the prosperous industrial economy of the Walloon region. But there was no social security system in place that created direct income transfers between individuals and households. A final remark on the topic of financial transfers and solidarity: the Flemish political parties who are constantly reminding the electorate of these fiscale transfers never mention that Brussels is indirectly a significant source of welfare generation for both Flanders and the Walloon region, in terms of the employment it provides to flemish and walloon people. A partial discourse on fiscal transfers may perhaps look different, even politically, if it is complemented with other dimensions of the strong inter-regional interdependence in Belgium. Of course, job creation is something else than direct financial transfers, but the impression that some Flemish separatists try to create, that Flanders can do everything by itself, is dubious. If the country would split up and Brussels would no longer be partially part of Flanders, then either those companies and jobs would have to move from Brussels to Flanders, or else the economic welfare of a significant number of Flemings would depend on jobs “abroad”.

12. The politics of language: Language is a strong point of resentment and injury for the Flemish. In the history of the country, the elite was French-speaking: until 40 years ago, the Flemish students were taught by professors who spoke French. It was almost impossible to get a job in the federal public service or in politics if one was not able and willing to work in French. The message that Flemish pupils and students received until not so long ago, was that it was absolutely necessary for one’s future to be fluent in French. This situation has not been symmetrical: the French-speaking Belgians often knew very little or no Dutch. Philippe Van Parijs (p. 38) cites 1999 data on the linguistic competence of Belgians in the second major Belgian language: francophone Belgians are much less likely to state that they master Dutch compared with Flemish reporting they know French, and among younger generations this divide is only bigger, rather than smaller. There are signs, though, that the Flemish are investing less in learning French, and are much easier satisfied with their intermediate level of knowledge then in the past. And figures such as those just mentioned are always a little suspect, since self-reported data can be biased in many ways. Nevertheless, I think there is little disagreement that many more Flemish master French compared with the knowledge of Dutch among the francophone Belgians. At the symbolic level, it doesn’t help that the royal family, probably the symbol of Belgium, is entirely Francophone, and that many of the key Royals speak rather poor Dutch. The Flemish are irritated for at least two reasons. Firstly, they feel as if their language, and thus their culture, is treated with disrespect (for readers who have no empathy at all for the notion that language can be political and can be an issue of justice, go and read Philippe Van Parijs.) Secondly, the Flemings argue that the Francophone Belgians would improve their employment chances and economic prospects if they would invest more in learning Dutch. But, as one commentator on the website of Le Soir wrote, “there is nothing in the constitution that obliges us to learn Dutch.”

13. Divided worlds: According to some Belgians from both sides of the language borders, including for example Wilfried Dewachter, a Flemish professor emeritus in political science, the Flemish and French communities in Belgium form different societies. They hardly know eachother, don’t watch eachother’s television or read eachother’s newspapers, don’t know about the political and societal agenda’s of the other community. They have different celebrities, and their prime orientation is towards different parts of the world (Flanders towards Northern Europe and the anglophone world, French Belgium much more towards France). They don’t know what plays in eachother’s cities, and apart from holidays at the Flemish coast or the beautiful Walloon countryside, they do not visit eachother’s cities. Some Flemings take political affairs, such as the string of corruption scandales among the Parti Socialiste, as yet another sign that they are simply a different people from the Walloon, not just in terms of language but also in terms of political culture. In Flanders, there is a widespread perception that the public mismanagement in the Walloon region is also part of a cultural difference, and that this mismanagement is part of what causes the need for the financial transfers – which further explains why these transfers are considered a political issue.
Perhaps the different worlds in which the Flemish and the Francophone live is the greatest threat for the unity of Belgium. And it also puts the interregional transfers in another daylight, since one could argue that the key strategy for maintaining financial solidarity in culturally diverse countries is ordinary interaction between ordinary citizens of the different cultural/linguistic groups (as argued in a slightly different context by Phillippe Van Parijs, p. 385). Apart from those who live or work in Brussels, there is very little such interaction left.

14. Divided media: These worlds apart became already painfully visible in December last year in the weeks following the media-stunt by the RTBF, the French public television, in which they simulated the end of Belgium. Suddenly the Flemish and French Belgians realised that they really don’t know eachother very well. There was an initiative from two newspapers, Le Soir and De Standaard to send journalists to eachother’s offices and to report about the daily lives at the other side of the language border; but apart from that initiative, there have been few signals that Belgians from both language communities have made sustained attempts to better understand eachother’s positions. A very worrying development in recent weeks has been the reporting on the crisis in the media: the French and Flemish media given often entirely conflicting interpretations of the same events. When the first coalition negotations were aborted at the end of August, the French media blamed Yves Leterme and the arrogance of the Flemings, whereas the Flemish media blamed the stubborness and unreasonableness of the French, especially of CDH. Anyone who understands both Dutch and French should spend a few hours reading the readers’ comments on the websites of Le Soir and De Standaard: there is from both sides almost no understanding, let alone any sympathy, for the position of the other community. To me, this was perhaps the biggest surprise (and shock) when reading in preparation for this post: listening to Francophone and Flemish politicians, or to the French and Flemish media in general, or to the comments by their readers, feels like listening to two spouses who are going to divorce, and blame the other party for everything that went wrong. A politician who is making reasonable demands or a plausible analysis in the eyes of the media of one language group, is being an extremist or unreasonable person through the eyes of the others.
This fact of divided media has international implications, since there is every reason to think (as Van Parijs also argues) that the international arena gets its information on Belgium through the Francophone media, not through the Flemish media. The logical consequence would be that the reporting on Belgium in the international media is very prone to be as biased as the francophone press – very biased, that is (it wouldn’t be any better if they would only read the Flemish press, though).

15. A one-sided divorce? Yet the metaphore of the divorce needs to be adapted, since the francophone Belgians are much less supportive of the idea of regional independence or a further shift of responsibilities and rights to the regional levels. When I asked Belgian friends, one who is francophone and the other who is bilingual with a francophone spouse, both said that from the perspective of the French community Flanders is acting as if it is initiating a divorce that the francophones don’t want. Francophone Belgians are much more likely to say that their primary identity is Belgian rather than Walloon or Bruxellois, compared with the Flemish. They don’t understand at all why a proportion of the Flemish have the feeling that they are in a forced marriage from which they would like to escape. They are much more satisfied with the way things are, and don’t want to be confronted with a new wave of federal state reform every five or ten years that further deconstructs the body of Belgium, and gives powers and prerogatives to the regions and communities. Many also feel cheated by the Flemings, since every time there has been an agreement on state reform, they think this will now be the last wave – but before too long the Flemings are putting new demands on the table. Moreover, in the French press there is a strong sentiment that in the past these state reform agreements have been forced upon the frenchspeaking population – in part because their financial needs made them more vulnerable to accept political deals of a state reform that the Flemish wanted in return for financial support for the Francophone Belgians (such as investments in the Walloon economy or social infrastructure). Finally, quite some francophone Belgians no longer trust the Flemish when they say that they now want to negotiate about a state reform which would be needed to make the economy more competitive and safeguard our level of welfare; they are worried that there is a hidden agenda of seperatism which is broadly shared among the Flemish politicians, and that their current demands in the formation of the new federal government (that is, if we will get one!) are yet another step on the way to the end of Belgium.

16. Scenarios for the future: We are 101 days after the elections, and there is no federal government in sight at all. The political trust is at what seems an all-time low, and statements in the media do not show any movement towards compromises, from either side. A poll conducted yesterday by a Flemish newspaper shows that almost half of all Flemings want to split up the country, and two thirds believe that it is going to happen sooner or later. Is this the most likely scenario for the future? As far as I can judge, basically anything can happen (apart from a violent independence, which is extremely unlikely to be the case). At this moment, there is still no federal government in sight, and it remains unclear if and when this crisis will be resolved. Yet what the current political crisis did put under the spotlights are some structural factors that have remained hidden for too long – such as the growing apart of the two communities, the (unintended?) consequences of the creation of the regions and communities in the 1990s, the slow dissappearance of a truly Belgian (rather than French or Flemish) political elite, and the incredible differences in media-coverage. If we want Belgium to continue to exist in the long run, it is clear that we do need some solutions for these problems too, and not just a new federal government.

Before I go, a closing comment. Many Belgians have strong feelings about what is going on, but have often biased and partial information, and make little effort to understand the point of view and the feelings of ‘the other side’. I have tried to avoid this, by spending lot of time to get the most reliable version of all facts, and asking francophone Belgians to explain me their sensitivities, priorities, and points of view (these are the main reason why it too me so long to write this post). Yet I do not doubt that this post will nevertheless remain subjective, since so many of the sensitivities described above are difficult to understand if one is not part of this particular group. There are insights that are hard to understand if one has never lived through them. Moreover, I have no illusions: in this game one will always be suspect for some party. I invite all those who think that my views as expressed in this post are biased to correct this bias in the comments section – but please: No shouting, no insults, and no extremist propaganda that is not based on arguments. Any such comments will be removed without mercy.

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{ 98 comments }

1

chris y 09.19.07 at 7:18 am

This is fascinating, if depressing. I was particularly struck by your point 3: A federal state without federal political parties. Has this come about as an artifact of historical francophone dominance – hypothetical federal parties being de facto French, and therefore unable to gain traction in the rest of the country, or has there never been any attempt to create such a party? If so, why not?

What would happen to an initiative to build a cross-community party today? Is it something that the politicians who want to see the country continue would or should consider?

2

Henry (not the famous one) 09.19.07 at 7:32 am

Pardon the levity: one Noachic solution to the problem is found at http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/2007/09/17/176-wallonie-sur-mer/. The comments bring us back to the real world, however.

3

William Burns 09.19.07 at 7:33 am

Thank you for laying this out. Does the Catholic Church play any role at all, either as a unifying factor or as another area of contention?

4

Aidan Kehoe 09.19.07 at 8:14 am

Thank you very much for this commentary!

5

200MilesUp 09.19.07 at 8:43 am

But why can’t the Flemish tribe and the Walloon tribe get along and forge a modern country?

6

Mrs Tilton 09.19.07 at 9:06 am

Fascinating. Points 3, 8 and 13 in particular suggest that Belgium has its own version of the Netherlands’ verzuiling, only on a French/Dutch rather than a protestant/RC/secular basis.

SFAIK nobody is proposing that the Netherlands be busted up on denominational lines. Why, I wonder, is language difference so much more corrosive of political unity in Belgium than religious difference is in the Netherlands? This must be more a “Belgian” than a “linguistic” thing, as the opposite is true in Northern Ireland.

7

Frances 09.19.07 at 10:29 am

Thanks for writing this up, Ingrid. I’m linking on my LJ.

A couple things I want to add, but haven’t checked.

(1)Vlaams Belang votes are down in Brussels. They haven’t done anything useful here, so they lost their francophone votes. (I remember, because I checked after the latest elections.)

(2)CDH has withdrawn the “Christian” part from their name. This leads to the “orange-blue” coalition, and not a “Christian-blue” coalition.

(3)Living in Brussels, working as a primary school teacher for the Flemish government, speaking French that’s horrible, but I speak it anyway, and living together with a bilingual Brussels born and raised boyfriend, I am truly baffled by all the hype. Opinion pages in newspaper lately circle around Brussels. What I witness every day is not a language problem, but a social problem of immigrants, integration, and schooling.

Some answers to questions:
To William Burns: This is a secular country. The Catholic Church isn’t allowed to have a role in all this. They have done in the past, but we’re far removed from the time when the priest ordered his congregation to vote for the Catholic party. We’re also far removed from the time when there was a congregation to talk to. And the Catholic party is also very much dead.

To mrs tilton: We have our very own version of verzuiling. The actual “pilars” are comparable with the Netherlands: Catholic/Christian, socialist and liberal. What has happened in Belgium is that these “pilars” follow the language border. Flanders has always been more Catholic, whereas the socialists are the strongest in Wallonia. This was already the case when the different parties were still federal.

8

Ben Alpers 09.19.07 at 10:30 am

Fascinating post….thanks!

9

Guy 09.19.07 at 10:57 am

Fantastic well-balanced post, Ingrid. Thank you very much. And you are definitely right about the Belgian media, especially some Flemish popular newspapers, being biased.

@6: “Why, I wonder, is language difference so much more corrosive of political unity in Belgium than religious difference is in the Netherlands?”

Maybe because language has been more or less immune to the trend of secularisation?

10

Guy 09.19.07 at 11:08 am

@7: “They have done in the past, but we’re far removed from the time when the priest ordered his congregation to vote for the Catholic party.”

Yes and a little bit of no. Religion, as far as I can see, does not play any significant role in this.

I do remember from my Belgian school days in a Catholic school (the old ASO system) that we were encouraged to look to the then CVP for political guidance. But that was twenty years ago. However, it is possible the Catholic Church continues to exert some lobbying influence through CD&V, the Christian union ACV and various other organisations.

I could be totally wrong on this, though, and I do not get the impression that CD&V has as Christian an image as Dutch prime minister Balkenende’s party.

11

Guy 09.19.07 at 11:14 am

“Moreover, in the past the politicians of both communities met and talked to eachother frequently; there was a national political elite, who were trained in making compromises and putting the interests of Belgium first.”

This was, I believe, recently lamented by Martens, one of the epigones of that elite.

12

Frances 09.19.07 at 11:29 am

To Guy @11: My Catholic school days in the still existing ASO system are only 10 years ago (weren’t you schooled in the VSO-system or are you really old-school humaniora?). Looking at what then was called CVP for political guidance, wasn’t part of the curriculum.

Officialy the Catholic church has nothing to say on political matters, but you’re right in assuming there is still a bond between CD&V and the Catholic Church. The CD&V is still very much Christian, and can be considered the only party who put moral themes in their party program for the last elections. For one they talked about turning back the law on euthanasia. Restricting the right on euthanasia is a very Catholic value.

ACV (the Christian union) is a different matter, as they are known for criticising CD&V and sometimes even flirting with the socialist party, because the CD&V-program isn’t social enough.

P.S.: Are there any francophone Belgians out and about btw?

13

Guy 09.19.07 at 11:41 am

@13: I spent two years in the VSO system and the remaining four years of secondary education in ASO. Very old school humaniora :-) The CVP wasn’t part of the official curriculum, of course, but it was (c)overtly present in my school (Broeders van Liefde).

One interesting and often overlooked detail. There are really two “moral values parties” in Flanders. The CD&V and… Vlaams Belang. Take away the main issues of immigration and separatism from the latter and you are left with something that closely resembles the conservative side of, say, the US Republican Party. This side of VB should not be underestimated.

14

mollymooly 09.19.07 at 11:48 am

Great post. The Walloon frustration with creeping decentralization seems to mirror Eurosceptic frustration with creeping EU centralization. Does the (current and/or potential future) role of the EU form part of the Belgian debate? For comparison, the Scottish Nationalist Party favours Scottish independence within the EU.

15

Frances 09.19.07 at 12:57 pm

@13 “There are really two “moral values parties” in Flanders. The CD&V and… Vlaams Belang.”

Whoops, you caught me there. ;-)

16

Jacob T. Levy 09.19.07 at 1:15 pm

This is *extremely* helpful– I *do* study federalism, nationalism, and language politics and I still find Belgium baffling. Ingrid, thanks so much for investing this effort.

17

John Emerson 09.19.07 at 1:16 pm

Federal elections are held every 4 years, but elections for the regions and communities every 5 years, together with the European elections. Local elections are every 6 years.

Are they in synch so that every 60 years you start a new cycle? This sounds like the Chinese or the Mayan calendar.

18

Matt 09.19.07 at 1:20 pm

How much of the disparity in language learning between the groups, do you suppose, is due (more or less) to the fact that French is a global langauge and Dutch isn’t, and so learning French just has a lot more potential pay-off than does learning Dutch? I can even imagine how Francaphone Belgians might reasonably think their efforts would be better invested in learning German or English or Spanish or Chinese or whatever rather than Dutch without this showing any particular disrespect to the Flemish.

19

ed 09.19.07 at 1:28 pm

I have an uninformed and politically probably unpractical proposal.

Given that the Flemings make up a clear majority of Belgians, and given that most of the crisis seems to stem from Fleming frustraton at having to subsidize the poorer Walloon part, why not abandon federalism? Make Belgium a unitary Flemish state, with extensive minority langauge rights. Then you won’t have the haggling over linguistic borders. The Flemish majority would get over its inferiority complex and decide how much money it wants to poor into Waloonia. French speakers would still have all their rights as citizens, plus the right to be educated in French and deal with the government in French, no matter where they live in the country.

The opposite proposal, extreme decentralization, might work but then you get the boundary disputes, and I would take it further and decentralize down to the commune level.

It seems to me that, as a majority, the Flemings should favor centralization and the Walloons should favor automonmy, and there is probably a democratic deficit if in fact the opposite is the case.

20

patrick 09.19.07 at 1:31 pm

@19

It might play a role, perhaps not in the way you suggest. Strangely the argument you describe is more often an incentive for Dutch-speaking people to invest less time in learning French, and favour English instead. For instance, when the topic of bilingual schooling comes up, the Francophone schools tend towards Frech/Dutch schooling while Flemisch schools (once they get past their monolingual bias) seem to prefer Dutch/English schooling.

21

franck 09.19.07 at 1:52 pm

Matt,

It’s precisely this attitude that drives Flemings crazy. This idea that Dutch is a “kitchen language” that no one speaks and French is an “international language” and a “cultured language”.

In practice, many Belgians, particularly the Flemings, speak English precisely because it is neutral.

I agree somewhat with ed. It’s telling that the majority language group acts like a minority and the minority language group acts like a majority. The only explanation I can see is the relic of Francaphone political dominance combined with the continued advantages Francaphones receive due to the EU and internal pro-Francaphone policies in Brussels. I don’t favor ed’s solution, but it is remarkable.

22

H. 09.19.07 at 1:57 pm

French may be a global language compared to Dutch, but not knowing Dutch puts the Walloons at a pretty severe disadvantage within their own country, since so many administrative posts require bilingualism. And not just administrative posts – glance at the employment pages of any Brussels newspaper and you’ll see a huge number of private sector jobs – even lowly secretarial ones – requiring fluency in French, Dutch and English.

I find the Belgian situation fascinating and wonder what it tells us about the possibility of democracy in truly multicultural countries – ie ones where different cultural groups are allowed their own institutions, educational systems etc., and there is no overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group. Are there any countries like this without strong underlying tensions and wasteful overlapping of bureaucracy etc.? I’m guessing Belgium would have already split up by now if it wasn’t for the Brussels enclave problem.

23

Matt 09.19.07 at 2:10 pm

Thanks, Frank and h. Still, it seems odd- if not learning Dutch puts one at a serious disadvantage, why not learn it? People do generally respond to incentives, even if not perfectly, so I’d guess it’s not such a serious disadvantage to most French speakers. And, hurt feelings aside, is it not true that Dutch isn’t an “international” language, whatever that means? Neither is Bulgarian, or Norwegian, or Belizian creole, or most other languages, but being indignant about this won’t help anyone. (I don’t suppose the question of whether a particular language is a “cultured” one is tied in any direct way to whether it’s an international one or not.)

24

Guy 09.19.07 at 2:12 pm

@19: Wallony is a) close to France itself and b) its people are used to the Flemish speaking French and c) they score badly at other foreign languages as well. It is probably an attitude problem with regards to learning another language (not necessarily anti-Flemish)

Also, education of Dutch is not necessarily compulsory in Wallony, whereas it is (at least it was during my schooling days) compulsory in Flanders.

In any case, if you read french, here is a good source on this subject:

http://regards.ires.ucl.ac.be/Archives/RE042.pdf

25

H. 09.19.07 at 2:16 pm

Yes there’s an incentive for Walloons to learn Dutch, but there’s also a cultural tradition in which they don’t.

26

Guy 09.19.07 at 2:23 pm

“And, hurt feelings aside, is it not true that Dutch isn’t an “international” language, whatever that means?”

No, Dutch is not an international language, but comparing it with Belizian creole will definitely hurt some feelings :-) Actually, at 21 million speakers in Europe alone Dutch is not that small a language. It only compares with Belizian creole in that it is not used internationally as a lingua franca. Neither are Chinese or Russian, by the way. At least, not to the extent that English, French, German and Spanish are being used.

Even so, in the particular case of Belgium, the cultural/social element of language acquisition is as important as the purely practical one even when not learning Dutch could make sense economically.

27

Nietecht 09.19.07 at 2:30 pm

Nice text Ingrid. Very comprehensive.
As a Flemish, I’ve wondered why the splitting of BHV is such a big issue for Wallonia. Even though the question has partially been answered, I still don’t understand.

I think the ‘divide’ is the worst issue. Both parts have little notion of each other which leads to situations where neither understands the demands or complaints of the other, like now, or indifference at other times.

What troubles me most is that it seems to me as if that the natural, linguistic divide was artificially widened by the governments themselves. Instead of resolving issues, they took an “us-versus-them” pose and took away responsibilities from the federal government, leaving both regional governments to “fend for themselves”. This was mostly done by the Flemish, I think.

And now after all these years of virtually having nothing to do with each other, we shouldn’t be surprised that many people feel no sympathy for the other side. (This goes for many Flemish at least)

On the other hand, if the Francophone answer with remarks such as “there is nothing in the constitution that obliges us to learn Dutch,” in response of a suggestion to help bring Wallonia on the same economical level as Flanders, it shouldn’t be surprising the Flemish find it offensive and blame Wallonia for obstructing progress.

Maybe as a an extra illustration for the importance of the language, French is a compulsory school subject in Flanders. All students finishing the higher (secondary school) education courses will have had 8 years of French. Dutch is a minor, optional subject in Wallonia.
Having to hear the reasoning “French is more economically interesting to learn than Dutch” may work for a robot, but not for someone who tries to care for his or her heritage. It feels as if we have to work to get in touch with Walloons while they don’t need to get in touch with their Dutch speaking counterparts “because it’s not economically interesting”.
How ironic.

28

Doug 09.19.07 at 3:08 pm

27: Well, it’s just recently (if at all) that the only language the three Baltic presidents had in common has ceased to be Russian. You can imagine the embarassment.

Maybe Wallony could form a joint national government with Quebec, Flanders could gain independence with a new sovereign brought in from Slesvig or Holstein (or perhaps both) and Brussels going to the highest bidder (Dutch auction naturally) among Council of Europe member states. Couldn’t Switzerland use another canton?

Seriously, though, some of these issues fall in the “things are tough all over” category. The Christian Democrats in Germany, for example, form coalitions with the Greens at the local level, with the liberals in some states and the Social Democrats in others, and with the Social Democrats at the national level. (And with the Bavarian Christian Social party nationally, but that’s another story.) Elections overlap, and periodically the party runs a Bavarian for chancellor just to prove that someone from that state will never gain that office (look what happened the last time a chancellor came up from Munich), and in the last two cases one gets the impression that they were happy not to have to take on national responsibility.

Germany can also sing a verse or two about regional transfers and solidarity. I often think that the “solidarity supplement” to the income tax is likely to last longer than East Germany did. Sure, Germans all ostensibly speak the same language (though try putting Freiburg and Platt dialects together…), but their history of national unity is even shorter than Belgium’s.

In short, this looks like bad leadership to me. Maybe even reckless and willfully bad leadership. Some folks need to get over themselves.

29

franck 09.19.07 at 3:33 pm

Matt,

I wouldn’t underestimate a sense of entitlement and grievance in people’s motivations. Francophones have always run Belgium in the past and the French language is so obviously superior to that guttural Germanic tongue up north. Why bother to learn it when everyone knows that French is superior?

See “The Story of French”by Nadeau and Barlow for a long presentation of this that is often unintended.

30

Guy 09.19.07 at 3:41 pm

“Well, it’s just recently (if at all) that the only language the three Baltic presidents had in common has ceased to be Russian”

Formerly imposed language imperialism doesn’t count ;-) By the way, how is this evolving in other former satellite states? Is Russian “the” lingua franca or rather “a” lingua franca?

“Seriously, though, some of these issues fall in the “things are tough all over” category.”

Maybe, but this time around the separatist voice seems to be a little louder than usual. Especially in the media.

It is not the first time that Belgium spends some time without a government, though. In 1988 it took 148 days to finally agree on a government and there are two more precedents of negotiations running longer than 100 days (107 and 103). I agree with Ingrid that basically anything can happen, barring a violent revolution, what with VB MP members getting themselves arrested and calling for Flemish independence and the elongated frustration of 100+ days of negotiating.

But somehow I still think they will sort it out in the end. Unless something really spectacular happens in the meantime.

31

Alex 09.19.07 at 3:48 pm

I take it abolishing the regions and subdecentralising even further is off the table?

Only the Austro-Hungarian Empire can have had anything half as bizarre, constitutionally, as this. Which is an interesting example; clearly time for an AFOE post.

32

Simon 09.19.07 at 4:36 pm

I’m wondering how the political tensions correlate with the ratio of Flemish vs Walloon populations (if at all)…

33

salazar 09.19.07 at 5:10 pm

Ingrid, you might want to consider making this post — or a slightly updated version thereof, whichever — available under a Creative Commons license. This is really a very complete analysis.

@32: At this point, it’s beginning to look as it the elites forming a government will be the spectacular event.

34

Fazal Majid 09.19.07 at 6:16 pm

I don’t see why a Brussels part of the Walloon rump but enclaved in Flanders would be a problem. We are not talking about Bosnian Sarajevo surrounded by the Serbian suburbs, both countries would still be part of the EU, subject to freedom of movement and commerce. Belgium’s border with the Netherlands is already fractal and highly non-connex in places like Baarle Nassau/Baarle Hertog.

35

franck 09.19.07 at 6:18 pm

I know you didn’t want to talk about the German-speaking community, but is anything happening there in response to the crisis? They were late additions to Belgium (annexed after WWI), are essentially 100% German-speaking as far as I can tell, and would almost surely be greatly disadvantaged in an independent Wallonia. I imagine they would be keeping their head down right now, but I know Lambert is in favor of them becoming a third region (or fourth if we count Brussels).

36

franck 09.19.07 at 6:49 pm

Guy,

Depends. Russian-language competence is swiftly dying in many parts of Eastern Europe since it is seen as the language of the oppressor. This attitude has been long-developing – Czechs used to deliberately not study for Russian language exams in the 80s as a form of political protest, and their professors sometimes connived to pass them anyway so that the state would not be embarrassed. In the Baltics (except for Lithuania where there are few Russians) it has become greatly politicized and the state is in some ways anti-Russian language, which they justify due to the ethnic cleansing and philo-Russian policies from when they were occupied by the Soviet Union.

The situation in Central Asia is much more mixed, since there are actually Russians in those countries, though fewer all the time. Russian-language competency is declining in favor of English and other languages, but it’s a more gradual process. Russian demographic collapse and emigration to Russia is definitely hurting the use of Russian as a lingua franca.

Fazal,

That kind of solution would be viewed as a great victory by the French-speaking community and a disaster for the Flemish-speaking community, since Flanders would be partitioned. It might happen, but it wouldn’t be presented as a simple compromise by the powers that be.

37

Randy McDonald 09.19.07 at 10:48 pm

Franck:

That kind of solution would be viewed as a great victory by the French-speaking community and a disaster for the Flemish-speaking community, since Flanders would be partitioned.

The problem with that from the Francophone perspective is that the Bruxellois don’t seem to identify as Flemish. The Flemish Community might have chosen to place its institutions in Brussels, but Brussels has a separate territorial administration and doesn’t seem interested in merging.

BTW, I don’t understand what you meant upthread about Francophone-supremacism in The Story of French, or did I misunderstand?

38

nu 09.20.07 at 12:04 am

Frank and Ed.

Do you remember that Russia LEFT the USSR ?

Weird things happen.

39

John Emerson 09.20.07 at 12:49 am

40

Hektor Bim 09.20.07 at 1:00 am

Randy,

Yes, that’s true, but they don’t identify as Wallonians either. Many of them speak Dutch dialects but were educated in French under the ancien regime.

I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but it is somewhat schizophrenic – the first half is a very interesting history of the French language, much of which was new to me and quite interesting. The second half, about the prospects for the French language and the future development of French, is frequently polemical and tendentious. It argues in favor of protection for the French language against English but is extremely patronizing and dismissive about local languages in France, calling them patois, and most other languages in Europe. The authors are French language supremacists, at least vis a vis languages that are not English.

41

Randy McDonald 09.20.07 at 3:19 am

Hektor:

Yes, that’s true, but they don’t identify as Wallonians either. Many of them speak Dutch dialects but were educated in French under the ancien regime.

Agreed. A straightforward equation of “Francophone” with “Walloon” is a mistake.

I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but it is somewhat schizophrenic – the first half is a very interesting history of the French language, much of which was new to me and quite interesting. The second half, about the prospects for the French language and the future development of French, is frequently polemical and tendentious. It argues in favor of protection for the French language against English but is extremely patronizing and dismissive about local languages in France, calling them patois, and most other languages in Europe. The authors are French language supremacists, at least vis a vis languages that are not English.

I found the supremacism to be marked in regards to African languages, but the schizophrenia in the second part seemed related to their indecisiveness on the whole question of who should determine the future of French (and, as mentioned in the text, other languages), the language planners (and which planners?) or the speakers. Better editing of the second half would have been grand.

42

H. 09.20.07 at 8:27 am

Since Brussels is an enclave within Flanders and its architecture is Flemish, I’m assuming that at one stage it used to be predominantly Dutch-speaking? Anyone know at what stage it became more Francophone? Before or after 1830? If before, why did it become Francophone?

43

abb1 09.20.07 at 9:34 am

IMHO items 10 and 11 should be 1 and 2, political stuff is the consequence of it, and all the rest goes to the footnotes as mere historical curiosities and aggravating factors. But y’all already know that…

44

Doug M. 09.20.07 at 10:47 am

@32 and 38: Russian is *the* lingua franca in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In Armenia, everyone over 30 speaks good Russian. Younger people speak less-good Russian, but still speak it.

In Ukraine, it’s complicated, but broadly similar — the language politics get wacky, but Russian is everyone’s second langauge if it isn’t their first. And in Moldova, Russian is very nearly the first language: everyone is bilingual, but Romanian is a “kitchen language”, and Russian is what you speak in the office and the street.

Russian has receded very rapidly outside the former Soviet Union; in Romania, for instance, even the folks who speak it often don’t want to. But in the fUSSR, it’s still very strong. No other language is yet challenging it; English may one day, but that’s at least a generation away.

Doug M.

45

abb1 09.20.07 at 11:05 am

My impression is that educated middle-classes of the former Soviet republics (minus Baltic republics, plus Mongolia) often get their education in Russian universities. So, it’s not obvious that Russian will be replaced by English any time soon.

46

daphne millar 09.20.07 at 12:53 pm

I lived in Brussels in the early 1970’s and it was already clear by then that the linguistic divide was moving to unbridgeable proportions. and the question ought to be asked, why not just ket it happen. Are relations between Czechs and Slovaks worse because Czechoslovakia no longer exist? No, they are better because people are no longer feuding within a relationship they don’t want.
The historic tensions in the country go back to its creation. Initially there was a French seaking elite ( whole regiments of the army in the first waorld war were made up of Flemish conscripts with officers who spoke only French) and it is understandable if regrettable that Flemings now tend to think it is payback time.
In addition, two other factors have acted to make language the great issue.
One is that the collapse of the belief in Socialism has removed the ideological conflict which was an alternative source of loyalty to language.
The other is that so many functions have been transferred Up from the national level to the EU. For example the most obvious symbol of national unity was the currency. That has been replaced by the euro. A major goal of politicians in both language communities has been to get direct access to decisions at EU level. The state’s inability to hold on to monopoly of relations with the EU, as the UK for example has done, has been a major component in weakening the state.
And why not? if the big thing that married people rgue about is the marriage itself, isn’t there a case for them getting a divorce so that they can shut up and let the neighbours get some sleep?

47

franck 09.20.07 at 1:13 pm

Doug M. and abb1,

I agree that it is the lingua franca for people over 30 in the CIS, but I very much doubt that that will continue to be the case in 30 years. Kazakhstan just announced it will go to the Latin script, at least partly to curcumscribe the influence of Russian. Uzbekistan is definitely trying to circumscribe the use of Russian, and there aren’t too many Russians left in Turkmenistan or even in Kyrgizistan. Russian knowledge is declining rapidly in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, for many reasons, not the least of them political.

Mongolia is more interesting – the plan to go back to the traditional writing system failed due to the influence of Russian-educated elites. I think due to the overbearing threat of China, Mongols will continue to cleave to Russia.

48

franck 09.20.07 at 1:15 pm

h,

Brussels, like Luxembourg and Strassburg, was deliberately Francoized by political and economic elites. The ruling class in Belgium was historically Francophone and made sure that any prospect of economic or political advancement required French-language skills and adoption of French cultural mores.

49

franck 09.20.07 at 1:18 pm

Randy,

For me the book was extremely galling precisely because one of the authors is Quebecois and the other is Canadian living in Montreal. They are in favor of the tough French-language laws in Quebec, but I bet they would oppose similar language laws in Flanders for Brussels, which today in many ways resembles Montreal in 1950 or so vis a vis linguistic issues.

I’d read the book a little more carefully – the contempt for German and Russian was also pretty clear.

50

Guy 09.20.07 at 1:37 pm

“And why not? if the big thing that married people rgue about is the marriage itself, isn’t there a case for them getting a divorce so that they can shut up and let the neighbours get some sleep?”

The problem being, of course, that one part of the married couple does not want to separate (yet).

51

abb1 09.20.07 at 1:40 pm

Franck, I don’t think it matters much how many Russians are left in Turkmenistan or Kyrgyzstan or what alphabet they use.

Think Algeria. There are few (if any) European-born French in Algeria, and yet French is far more common than English. I think it’s a very similar situation with Turkmenistan, etc vis-a-vis Russia. If you are a citizen of Turkmenistan, Russia is the most likely place you’ll be going to work, to study, to buy/sell stuff, to make business deals.

52

Philip Hunt 09.20.07 at 3:13 pm

#6: Why, I wonder, is language difference so much more corrosive of political unity in Belgium than religious difference is in the Netherlands?

Because if two people don’t have a language in common they have, quite literally, nothing to say to each other. So it’s quite easy for a situation to develop where you have two separate communities, with their own separate media, celebrities, and outlook on the world.

My solution? Either mandate that all schools in Belgium teach in both Dutch and French (thereby creating one community), or divorce.

53

Matt 09.20.07 at 3:14 pm

Russian will obviously remain more useful for the people in the FSU Central Asian countries for many years, for the reasons abb1 mentiones- there’s lots of movement back and forth between them, if you’re in central asia and want to improve yourself you’re much more likely to be able to go to Russia than to the US or England, etc. So, Russian will likely stay important there for some time. (There are also quite a few students in engineering and medical schools in Russia from India, Africa, the middle east, etc. Not as many as during the days of the Soviet Union, but quite a lot, still, since you can still get a pretty good university education in these areas in Russia for much less than in the US.) This isn’t really on topic, I guess, but does help show how Russian is still something more of a “global” language than is Dutch.

54

franck 09.20.07 at 3:29 pm

Matt,

True, but these students are increasingly being attacked by neo-Nazi gangs, and the general climate in Russia is increasingly intolerant of foreigners, especially darker-skinned Muslim foreigners.

I’m not saying that Russian won’t continue to be important in Central Asia, I’m just saying that all the trends point toward a lessening of Russian cultural dominance, for a host of political and practical reasons. It’s a similar situation to the rapid decline of French in Israel.

55

franck 09.20.07 at 3:34 pm

Philip,

Ahh, but you see, there’s part of the problem. In Flanders, French-language education is required, and all Flemish speakers have to learn it. The reverse is not true in Wallonia and Brussels – many (most) French speakers in Belgium can’t speak enough Dutch to have real conversations in it.

And popular sentiment in Wallonia is against learning Dutch. So I doubt that would fly.

56

Randy McDonald 09.20.07 at 5:08 pm

h:

“Since Brussels is an enclave within Flanders and its architecture is Flemish, I’m assuming that at one stage it used to be predominantly Dutch-speaking? Anyone know at what stage it became more Francophone? Before or after 1830? If before, why did it become Francophone?”

Although, as Paul de Ridder describes

http://www.paulderidder.be/print/history-of-brussels.pdf

the French language had a long history in Brussels before the French (and Belgian) revolutions, it only took off after 1930

http://www.ned.univie.ac.at/publicaties/taalgeschiedenis/en/brussel.htm

thanks to the relative prestige enjoyed by the French language and its speakers at the time.

57

Randy McDonald 09.20.07 at 5:17 pm

Franck:

“For me the book was extremely galling precisely because one of the authors is Quebecois and the other is Canadian living in Montreal. They are in favor of the tough French-language laws in Quebec, but I bet they would oppose similar language laws in Flanders for Brussels, which today in many ways resembles Montreal in 1950 or so vis a vis linguistic issues.”

I’m not sure about that.

1. Montreal in 1950 was a city with a population that was somewhere in the vicinity of 60% Francophone. In contrast, most of the recent language surveys I’ve come across suggest that 10-15% or so of Brussels’ population is Netherlandophone. It’s difficult to imagine how, on the basis of the local population, Dutch could come back in Brussels.

2. Brussels isn’t part of Flanders. Yes, the Flemish Community operates education and other facilities in Brussels-Capital-Region, and quite probably a lot of Flemish would like Brussels to become their capital, but the territory of said region is separate from that of the region of Flanders. If Brussels does join up with Flanders, it would be because it decided to join. Compare Montreal, which has always been part of the territory of Lower Canada/Canada East/Québec since 1763.

3. I’ll re-read the book, but I recall the authors pointing to the influence that Québec language legislation has had on language planners in other areas where minority languages are making a come-back, like the Baltic States, Québec, and–I think, don’t quote me on this–Flanders.

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franck 09.20.07 at 5:43 pm

Randy,

That depends on how you define the city of Montreal. Many Dutch speakers work in Brussels but live right outside it. In the same way, Montreal used to have large parts of it as English enclaves in the French sea.

Brussels is administratively a separate region, but physically and historically it is part of Flanders and always has been. It _is_ in fact the capital of Flanders.

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abb1 09.20.07 at 6:13 pm

People. Let’s make a simple thought experiment. A crapload of oil has been discovered under the ground of that Walloon region today, trillions of dollars worth of oil. Who wants a divorce and who wants to stick together now? Who is complaining of getting no respect now?

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Randy McDonald 09.20.07 at 6:19 pm

Franck:

“That depends on how you define the city of Montreal. Many Dutch speakers work in Brussels but live right outside it. In the same way, Montreal used to have large parts of it as English enclaves in the French sea.”

Two different things, here.

1. Didier Baudeweyns’ analysis of the Brussels Metropolitan Area

http://www.briobrussel.be/assets/andere%20publicaties/en_33_bs3%20baudewyns%20eng.pdf

gives the region a total population of 2.3 million, including the inhabitants of Brussels, the one million inhabitants of Flemish Brabant, and the four hundred thousand of Brabant wallon. Assuming that the only Francophones in this region can be found in 85% of Brussels’ population and in Brabant wallon, we end up with a slim Francophone majority. Should the Brussels Metropolitan Area in its entirety be separated from Flanders, too?

2. The city of Montreal only had an Anglophone majority for three decades in the mid-19th century. That period aside, Francophones have always constituted the majority population in the city of Montréal, in the wider island of Montréal, and the Montréal metropolitan area.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demolinguistics_of_Quebec

“Brussels is adminisratively a separate region, but physically and historically it is part of Flanders and always has been. It is in fact the capital of Flanders.”

Physicality and history should mean little against the will of the inhabitants. Should Derry join its western and southern hinterlands in the Republic of Ireland, or should Donegal rather be brought into Northern Ireland? Should the Acadian regions of New Brunswick be annexed to Québec, or should the Gaspésie peninsula with its substantially Acadian and Anglophone population go to New Brunswick? Should New Mexico be returned to Mexico, or should Tijuana go to the United States?

If the Francization of the first century of the Belgian kingdom hadn’t happened, then Brussels would be a city where Netherlandophones formed the majority population, just like Antwerp or Amsterdam, and it probably wouldn’t have been administratively separated from Flanders. It did happen, and it has been separated, so I’m not sure how Brussels can be made Flemish without the consent of the local population and its governing organisms.

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Guy 09.20.07 at 6:57 pm

@62: I suppose Wallony could then do a “Chavez” ;-)

But I see where you are going with this. I have no idea, really, what would happen.

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Ingrid Robeyns 09.20.07 at 8:05 pm

Thanks for the many very interesting comments — this comments section should serve as a model for the discussions taking place on newspapers and other blog in Belgium! (then, perhaps the fact that we’re all writing in English helps ;-)

I really had an overdosis of Belgium yesterday, and today lots of work to catch up with, but will respond to a few tomorrow – though I should say that I have no answers to many of the questions posed here. I’m surprised to realise how little I remember (or every knew??) of Belgian history, for example.
No worries – it seems like we still have lots of time to debate the Queen of all Surrealist countries – there is still no significant movement on the Belgian federal front…

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Ingrid Robeyns 09.20.07 at 8:07 pm

I ment, with that last sentence, no movement in finding a solution for the stalemate in the coalition buidling, of course… time to catch up with sleep to, so that I can again write (roughly) proper English tomorrow.

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tim perkis 09.21.07 at 12:52 am

I found this post fascinating, especially the remarks about the radical disjunction of the flemish and francophone media. A paradoxical result of electronic media is the ability for groups to create completely self-contained infospheres, that have little or no overlap or agreement with others. I think we see this dynamic at play in global politics — especially as regards the media-crazed USA — and it’s fascinating to see how the dynamic is playing out in belgium. One would think that now there are more opportunities to understand the point of view of other groups, but the opposite seems to be the case.

I remember visiting at the VUB (Free University of Brussels), a campus, built I guess in a more optimistic time, which has a french half and a flemish half. The maps in the flemish half said it all: the buildings in the french half just appear as outlines, with no information about them at all. (and fences made it difficult, or perhaps impossible, to get from one side to the other.) My puzzlement at this puzzled my flemish friends: why would anyone want or need to go to the french side, or indeed to know anything about it?

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Maria 09.21.07 at 1:51 am

Pardon the ignorance… How does this situation compare with that of Switzerland? Would it be a case of going back to extreme decentralization?

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abb1 09.21.07 at 6:05 am

FWIW, editorial on a Swiss PR website: Swiss and Belgian federalism go different ways.

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Tom Fuller 09.21.07 at 6:58 am

Well done. Might I suggest you put this on Wikipedia?

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Ingrid Robeyns 09.21.07 at 7:40 am

chris y @1:

What would happen to an initiative to build a cross-community party today? Is it something that the politicians who want to see the country continue would or should consider?

So long as there were no regional elections, the political parties were much closer to their sisterparty at the other side of the language border; and from what’s been reported in the press, the Flemish and Francophone politicians of those parties met regularly, and knew eachother well (though it is likely that all these conversations took place in French). It is only after the regional and community elections were installed that the parties became much stronger profiled as either Flemish or Francophone, and that whole generations of politicians had little interaction with ‘the other side’. Nowadays I can’t see why any party would seriously consider to form an all-Belgium party, since such parties would receive few votes – in part because the political and social events of the last decades turned a large percentage of Belgians into Flemings or Bruxellois first (less so for those in the Walloon region).

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Ingrid Robeyns 09.21.07 at 8:12 am

Abb1 @62: thanks for reminding us that it is possible to analyse this in political-economy terms only. But I really doubt that this is the full story. It’s entirely science fiction, yet I think if they would discover a goldmine in the Walloon region, the Flemish would probably say “here you have your chance, you can give a strong impulse to your economy without having to rely on us, and since you’re now richer than us, we can fully split the fiscal system, the social security system, and divide up the federal debt here and now”.

I am strongly convinced that some sentiments can only be understood by those who have lived through them (also in entirely different spheres of life outside politics). If you are brought up in a country where there are always disputes between two communities, where your parents tell you stories about how in the 60s they could not study in their own language, how every chef was francophone, and if you still, today, in the capital of your country, are unable to speak your own language because the people ‘from the other side’ don’t bother to learn your language while you sweat blood and tears to learn French (AFAIKT most pupils in Flanders don’t like to learn French, but are forced to), then language becomes a political issue, and not speaking a language becomes an issue of disrespect. This may be hard to understand for those who did not grow up in such a place. Even though I have never voted for a seperatist party myself (and am very unlikely to vote for one), I can perfectly well understand where these language sensitivities come from, and why language can be such a big deal.

Just a tiny example. A year or two ago, I wanted to get hold of the most recent figures regarding the takeup of ‘carreer interruption premia’ (a type of paid leave akin to parental leave but also for retraining) in Belgium. The person who had published on this earlier did not speak any Dutch. This was a federal level civil servant; he was doing research on the social security system of his country, but did not understand the language of more than 60% of the population. And this is not just an abnormal example; there are simply many fewer francophone Belgians fluent in Dutch than vice versa. Don’t you think this is striking? Tri-lingualism (French, Dutch, English) would certainly be a reasonable requirement for this job, but if that requirement would be strictly enforced, there would be even more unemployed francophone Belgians, and the implicit political rules that in many civil service positions there would have to be a balance of the two communities would not be achievable. So what is the pacifist solution? We don’t require from francophone Belgians the same language skills than from Dutch-speaking Belgians. That is how it has been for decades, and I can very easily understand that this irritates the Flemish terribly. I am sure it is no fun learning Dutch if you are francophone; but I can tell you that it is no fun either learning French for a Dutchspeaking person. It’s hard work!

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H. 09.21.07 at 10:58 am

Reading all this, my feeling is that once political parties divide up along ethnic/linguistic/sectarian lines, instead of national socio-economic lines, then it’s only a matter of time before democracy becomes unworkable.

If this is true, then Iraq was always a pipe dream, Northern Ireland will never be entirely resolved, Madrid will always have problems with Catalonia and the Basque country as long as they remain Spanish, and Belgium, sooner or later, will split up along linguistic lines.

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abb1 09.21.07 at 11:27 am

Ingrid, I’ll think about it and try to imagine what you feel, but I can tell you this right now: I wish I was forced to learn French when I was a kid. It’s a blessing, not curse.

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Ingrid Robeyns 09.21.07 at 11:38 am

abb1, yes, I can see that point, and I think you’re right. Bu then the question is: why don’t the francophone Belgian educational leadership and the parents don’t see the importance of learning Dutch in a country (1) where many good jobs require bi- or tri-linguialism, and (2) where the quality of the democracy and perhaps also the natioal social cohesion woudl probably benefit if everyone did an effort to be able to speak with the members of the other ‘tribe’ ?

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Guy 09.21.07 at 11:50 am

@74: If your parents had sent you to Flanders you would also have learned some German (and English).

I agree with Ingrid that you would have to grow up in Belgium to understand the sensibilities, some of which are difficult to put to words. But even that may not be enough…

At the risk of delving too deep, speaking Dutch could also turn against you. As I experienced as a kid and later on, in a much different way, in my professional life. My Dutch was the wrong kind of Dutch: Netherlands version. But I cannot blame the Flemish people for that, though. If Ingrid has read Jeroen Brouwers “Vlaamse Leeuwen”, she will understand where I come from just as I understand where she comes from.

I am going to do a little write-up on this on AFOE as soon as I have more time. And I do need time, because language in Belgium is a potential minefield. Understandably so. The concept of “self-rule” is an important part of it.

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John Emerson 09.21.07 at 12:19 pm

Central Asia: Awhile back I tutored a Kyrgyz high school student. He was fluent in Russian and loved Pushkin. His family was import-oriented and members traveled to Saudi Arabia, China, Germany, and Turkey for business reasons, but he did not think of going to Moscow as foreign travel at all.

The quasi-Surrealist poet Henri Michaux was originally Belgian but rejected Belgium for France. His parents were French-speaking, but they must have lived in a Flemish area because I’ve read that primary school was in Flemish. I wish I had more details about this — Michaux tended to suppress personal information.

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Randy McDonald 09.21.07 at 12:23 pm

Ingrid:

“If you are brought up in a country where there are always disputes between two communities, where your parents tell you stories about how in the 60s they could not study in their own language, how every chef was francophone, and if you still, today, in the capital of your country, are unable to speak your own language because the people ‘from the other side’ don’t bother to learn your language while you sweat blood and tears to learn French (AFAIKT most pupils in Flanders don’t like to learn French, but are forced to), then language becomes a political issue, and not speaking a language becomes an issue of disrespect.”

This sounds a lot like events in Canada, actually. The biggest difference between the situations in Québec and Flanders might be that the Québécois had stronger borders at an earlier time.

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abb1 09.21.07 at 12:35 pm

Well, I suspect that many francophone Belgians, living next to a huge francophone country West of them, don’t feel the pressure to learn Dutch. And again: it’s a curse, not a blessing for them.

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franck 09.21.07 at 12:42 pm

Randy,

It’s worse than in Canada, I think, because the _majority_ of the population of Belgium is Flemish-speaking, and they are still discriminated against in some ways due to structural factors.

English-speakers in Canada are not forced to interact with the federal government in French. There are some issues locally in Quebec, but the situation Ingrid describes would never happen in Canada.

It’s one thing if you are a localized minority in a country agitating for language rights. It’s another thing when your majority status cannot gain you equal treatment for your language. That’s what’s particularly galling for Flemish speakers.

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Sofie 09.21.07 at 8:29 pm

To be honest, I don’t know anyone personally who wants to split Belgium at all.
The comments you read in newspapers are often negative about the future of Belgium, but that’s because most people find it logical Belgium keeps existing(so they don’t keep busy with writing comments to newspapers). And most people think the politicians created the problems,so the commom Flemish and Walloon can really get along with each other.

Ingrid,in “16. Scenarios for the future” you say that half of all Flemings want Belgium to split, but they have only asked about 1000(at the most!) people their opinion. To me, that’s not a very reliable poll. And ofcourse, we haven’t got a government for 101 days, as soon we’ve got one and thing are going well, we they will have some more trust in it,so that percentage will shrink.

Conclusion : the end of Belgium won’t be for tomorrow, the most people believe in a happy ending.

I hope you can understand what I have written, ’cause my English isn’t that good (I’m only 15 years old).

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jean somer 09.21.07 at 9:06 pm

As a bruxellois, I must say your post is pretty balaced and informative for a non-Belgian. Maybe you should contact Rudy Aernoudt and ask him to comment and supply some statistics (which you might also find in his recent book on Flanders and Wallonia)

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jean somer 09.21.07 at 10:00 pm

As to 44, the Dukes of Brabant from the 14th century on, mostly married French noblewomen (a few German ones also) so the court language was French. The Brabant become a possession of the Dukes of Burgundy (who were of French origin) so the use of French increased in Brussels.The Spaniards who ruled later used French also in their contacts with local officials; so did the Aurtrians. After the French conquest in 1793, French became even more prevalent. A countermovement came in 1815 when Belgiu m wa joined to the Netherlands but it provoked the insurrection in Brussels in 1830.
As a repl to a previous post on the Belgian annexation of the German speaking districts. They had been formerly part pf the Liege proncipality but were annexed by Prussia in 1815. So Belgium got them back after 1918.

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Ezra 09.21.07 at 10:18 pm

In reading about Belgium’s split what struck me most was their version of 1968 — students at Leuven retreating into nationalism, and French-speaking ones up and leaving to start their own university.

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Randy McDonald 09.22.07 at 5:05 am

Franck:

“It’s worse than in Canada, I think, because the majority of the population of Belgium is Flemish-speaking, and they are still discriminated against in some ways due to structural factors.”

I’m not going to make any value judgements. I do think that a case can be made that the situation of Québec, with a population of seven million speakers of a relatively undervalued language, attached by politics and geography to a vastly larger Anglophone continent, is similar to that of a Flanders that via Belgium has been connected closely to a potentially overwhelming Francophone bloc for the best part of two centuries.

“It’s one thing if you are a localized minority in a country agitating for language rights. It’s another thing when your majority status cannot gain you equal treatment for your language. That’s what’s particularly galling for Flemish speakers.”

In Flanders? With some stipulations–the Francophone-majority communes to the south of Brussels in Flemish Brabant come to mind–I’d agree.

In Brussels? There, I regret to say, I think things are about as good for Netherlandophones as they can get. I’ve spent a lot of time in the city of Moncton, an city that’s 40% Francophone by population in the officially bilingual province of New Brunswick, complete with a whole array of French-language neighbourhoods, schools, and public institutions. I’ve spent less, but still significant, amounts of time in Ottawa, a city that’s ~15-20% Francophone but has many Francophone-majority neighbourhoods and adjoins directly onto the overwhelmingly Francophone city of Gatineau in Québec, housing many French-language public institutions at all levels of government. What I can say is that in those two cities, despite the relative strength of the minority language community, and irregardless of the numerous incentives built in for bilingualism, it’s Francophones which bear the burden of bilingualism. If Anglophones can get by with only English, they’ll do that, even as they complain that Francophones are taking all the bilingual jobs.

In the situation of Brussels, where only 10-15% of the city’s resident population is Netherlandophone and a bare majority of the wider Brabant population is Francophone, I’ve serious doubts that any democratic language-planning policy could create a situation of broad fluency in Dutch among Francophones. Where would the incentive come from? You’ve mentioned Montréal, but in that city Anglophones never formed a majority population, and the shift towards French as the city’s public language coincided with a mass emigration of people and institutions that relegated Montréal to second place behind Toronto. If we’re talking about an overwhelmingly Francophone Brussels, I fear that Flanders could only re-Netherlandicize the city, even in part, if it was willing to destroy the fabric of life in Brussels.

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Fazal Majid 09.22.07 at 6:00 am

Well, perhaps Brussels should petition to become a transnational EU equivalent of the District of Columbia…

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jean somer 09.22.07 at 8:18 am

Yes, Randy, New Brunswick is truly bilingual. When I went there in 2000, I would ask people if they preferred to speak French or English and the reply was always “Whichever YOU prefeer”.
Oe of the problems with learning Flemish is “Which Flemish ?”. There are four versions of it: West Flemish, East Flemish, Brabant’s Diets and Limburg’s Diets. In German-speaking Switzerland, by contrast, there are eight varieties of Schwitzerdütsch… In both cpuntries, if you speak the standard version of the language (ABN or Hochdeutsch, you’ll still be considered a “furriner”. As far as I’m concerned, I understand the people in Breda (Noord Brabant) the the people in Ieper. Once in Paris, with one chap from Brussels and another from Ghent, we were speaking Flemish together and at one moment, the other Brusseleer and I unconsciously slipped into our local Diets dialect. The guy from Ghent complained he couldn’t follow,,,,,

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franck 09.22.07 at 11:11 am

Randy,

This is an odd idea. Did the French overlords of Belgium “destroy the fabric of life in Brussels” by making everyone learn French there? Is the French language a mystical language such that once one grows up speaking French one’s children or grandchildren can never grow up speaking another language? Is French a language which is only to advance and never retreat in Belgium?

Jean, you’re far too much under the spell of the French idea of the norm. Do you think Flemish-speaking people who speak French aren’t considered “furriners”?

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Randy McDonald 09.22.07 at 1:13 pm

Franck:

“This is an odd idea. Did the French overlords of Belgium “destroy the fabric of life in Brussels” by making everyone learn French there?”

A good argument can be made that language shift, whenever it happens, cuts off a local population from prior traditions expressed in that language. Whether it’s a good thing for those traditions to come to an end or not is another question entirely, but the whole point of the Flemish Movement–among other like movements–was that Flemish language and traditions were valid and deserved to be preserved.

“Is the French language a mystical language such that once one grows up speaking French one’s children or grandchildren can never grow up speaking another language?”

Not at all. It’s just that, in urbanized and demographically stable societies, when an overwhelming majority of the population of a region speak one language as its first language, forcing a second language that–from the population’s perspective–lacks many immediately useful traits is a perfect recipe for ethnic conflict, especially when there’s already substantial language conflict. Take a look at the language conflicts in Montréal, where Anglophone resistance to Québec’s language legislation was quite fierce despite the Anglophone minority, or in Latvia, where Russophone urban populations have the criticial mass necessary to persist indefinitely.

Drawing by analogy from Canada, you’d need an effective ideological project to get a Francophone investment in Belgian bilingualism–say, a push for a truly bilingual Belgium, from the Flemish coast to the Ardennes. That’s not in the cards given the current political arrangements, and as Canada’s example demonstrates the process has its limits. Ottawa can’t be made Francophone or even very bilingual; likewise, Brussels can’t be made Netherlandophone or very bilingual.

“Is French a language which is only to advance and never retreat in Belgium?”

It depends on what you think of Brussels’ suburban growth.

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franck 09.22.07 at 6:41 pm

Randy,

Brussels is not demographically stable. It’s full of immigrants and non-Belgians. If for example, you passed a law that required everyone that was not from Belgium originally to go to school in Flemish, the city would become more bilingual relatively rapidly. I’m not necessarily endorsing such a move, but it did work in Montreal and continues to work in Montreal, despite the overwhelming influence of English.

Language change is more complicated than you think.

I also think that you are ignoring the death of the local Brussel dialects of Flemish, that are also being killed by French. In that sense, the cutting off of traditions is ongoing.

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Randy McDonald 09.22.07 at 9:48 pm

Franck:

“Brussels is not demographically stable. It’s full of immigrants and non-Belgians.”

How many? Half, perhaps? If you arbitrarily subtract this foreign proportion from the mix, you get a resident Brussels population that is … five-sixths Francophone.

“If for example, you passed a law that required everyone that was not from Belgium originally to go to school in Flemish[.]”

Question: How would this be accomplished?

1. As I understand it, the Flemish Community’s power in Brussels is limited to the establishment of cultural institutions for people who identify with the Netherlandophone minority, one way or another. The Community’s poweers are powers of attraction, not compulsion. Have I misunderstood?

2. How can an overwhelmingly Francophone electorate in Brussels be convinced to favour such a radical transformation of education and their whole system of government?

“I’m not necessarily endorsing such a move, but it did work in Montreal and continues to work in Montreal, despite the overwhelming influence of English.”

It did work in Montréal, but that’s because there was a very large Francophone population already resident in Montréal. As I’ve pointed out above, at no point in the 20th century have Francophones not formed an absolute majority of the population of the city of Montréal. People of Italian, Haitian, Lebanese, Greek, or Indian descent, among other ethnicities, live in an integrated city where the Francophone presence has never been absent. Again, compare this to Brussels, where Netherlandophones have lacked such a majority for a century.

If, somehow, a Flemish government managed to take full control of Brussels and imposed mandatory Netherlandicization, it would wreak serious havoc. The language laws “worked” in Montréal at the expense of driving away well over a hundred thousand people in the four years between the 1976 election of the Parti Québécois and the 1980 referendum, not to mention most of the corporate headquarters which had once maintained their pan-Canadian headquarters there. (They probably could have been fine-tuned.) Montréal recovered, though not after some grey years, and not without losing its former status as the Canadian centre for business and finance.

How could anything better possibly be predicted for Brussels? Never mind the constitutuional changes that would have to be made to forcibly integrate Brussels into Flanders, likely against the will of Brussels’ inhabitants (if Flanders is unwilling to cede the language-facility communes on its border to Brussels, I can only imagine how Brusselers would react to talk of their city’s legal annexation). How could a language that’s spoken by only a small minority of the Brussels population even as a second language be made mandatory without precipitating a mass exodus of Brussels’ population? If you want a depopulated Brussels, that’s your right, but it’s not a vision that you should expect Brusselers to endorse.

“Language change is more complicated than you think.”

Your sympathy for Flemish nationalism has overtaken your reason. Let’s turn to another example, the Republic of Ireland, where despite decades of fairly strict legislation in favour of Irish the proportion of people whose main language is Irish has shrunk from 10% at independence to less than 3% now. Even there, a state administration that tried deseprately to revive Irish as a common vernacular failed in the face of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Ireland’s population–especially Ireland’s urban population–was already Anglophone.

If Belgian politics were different, I could imagine alternative situations–a policy of pan-Belgian bilingualism equivalent to Canadian bilingualism, saay.

“I also think that you are ignoring the death of the local Brussel dialects of Flemish, that are also being killed by French. In that sense, the cutting off of traditions is ongoing.”

I’m not ignoring it; I just think it’s inevitable. Without the partial compensation provided by migration, the French Canadian minorities outside of Québec and the adjacent bilingual belt would be shrinking quite rapidly, with rates of language shift per generation amounting to 50% or even more in some western provinces. The same phenomenon is present in other areas where isolated language minorities are mixed among larger populations–the Gaeltacht of the Republic of Ireland has consistently been shrinking since independence, for instance, despite Ireland’s language policy.

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Philip Hunt 09.23.07 at 12:14 am

Franck (#58): And popular sentiment in Wallonia is against learning Dutch. So I doubt that would fly.

Well then, there’s your problem. If the minority are so opposed to learning the majority’s language, they can hardly complain if the majority don’t want to live in the same country as them.

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franck 09.23.07 at 3:05 am

Randy,

I’m not necessarily in support of Flemish nationalism. I’m just against French-language supremacy, which you seem to suffer from.

The foreigners are almost all French-speakers, so if they are subtracted, you in fact get a much higher percentage of Dutch speakers.

“How could a language that’s spoken by only a small minority of the Brussels population even as a second language be made mandatory without precipitating a mass exodus of Brussels’ population?” This isn’t a realistic statement of the current situation at all. Many Brusselois speak Dutch or Dutch dialects or have learned Dutch as a second language.

The Irish example is ridiculous. Flemish is spoken by a majority of the country, and Brussels is surrounded by Flemish speakers. Flemish is not an isolated island under siege, like Irish.

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Randy McDonald 09.23.07 at 6:50 am

“I’m not necessarily in support of Flemish nationalism. I’m just against French-language supremacy, which you seem to suffer from.”

No, I don’t. I’m simply aware of the fact that language revival movements require a large number of speakers who enjoy a certain amount of prestige and territory and a state apparatus that’s capable of promoting the language with a minimum of conflict. In Quebec at the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, over 80% of the population spoke French as a preferred language; in Catalonia after Franco, something like 50% of the population spoke Catalan, but membership in the Catalanophone community has been notoriously permeable and Catalan was more prestigious than Spanish for the many Hispanophones in the working classes of Barcelona; even in Wales, the British state eventually conceded a whole array of Welsh-language cultural media and public institutions to a population of never less than a half-million people with its own Welsh-speaking heartland. In the Belgian region of Flanders, by all accounts the Dutch language has managed to return to a position that it deserves by virtue of its large number of speakers. The Dutch language in the Belgian region of Brussels is a different story.

“The foreigners are almost all French-speakers, so if they are subtracted, you in fact get a much higher percentage of Dutch speakers.”

I did. Let’s say that, of the one million people in Brussels, 150 000 (15%) are people who speak Dutch as their preferred language, and that the remaining 850 000 (85%) are people who speak French as their preferred language. Remove half of the French-preferring population (425 000 people) on the grounds of non-indigeneity and you’re left with 575 000 people. Calculating, it turns out that my original estimate was off–using these numbers, the Francophone majority of Brussels falls to a mere 74%.

The subtraction of these people is an arbitrary decision in any case, since, regardless of their degree of indigeneity, they’re going to be living permanently in Brussels in any case.

““How could a language that’s spoken by only a small minority of the Brussels population even as a second language be made mandatory without precipitating a mass exodus of Brussels’ population?” This isn’t a realistic statement of the current situation at all. Many Brusselois speak Dutch or Dutch dialects or have learned Dutch as a second language.”

Philippe Van Parijs, in his May 2007 _Brussels Studies_ paper “Brussels Capital of Europe:
the new linguistic challenges”

http://www.brusselsstudies.be/PDF/EN_40_BS6EN.pdf

cites figures suggesting that 96% of Brussels’ population speaks French well or very well, versus 31% of Brussels’ population claiming the same for Dutch. This data is suggestive of many things, although it’s still worth noting that a smaller proportion of Brusselers speak Dutch than Flemish speak French. It doesn’t speak about the number of Brusselers who claim Dutch as their first language–further down, Van Parijs suggests that less than 10% of Brusselers can claim Dutch as their “only native language.” It certainly doesn’t constitute a definite statement as to whether people’s estimate of their fluency in Dutch (or, to be fair, French) is as high as they believe, or say anything about how often they use their language.

“The Irish example is ridiculous. Flemish is spoken by a majority of the country, and Brussels is surrounded by Flemish speakers. Flemish is not an isolated island under siege, like Irish.”

Leaving aside the reality that Brussels is embedded in a wider Brabant region where French/Dutch bilingualism is deeply entrenched and might still be shifting towards the French language thanks to suburban growth, it’s quite possible for pockets of a language’s speakers–even a dominant language–to be isolated amidst minority languages and eventually assimilated. The middle name of Pierre Trudeau was Elliott, and isn’t New Mexican Governor Richardson of Hispanic background?

My opinion on the Belgian language situation? There’s absolutely no reason to think that Flanders can’t succeed as a Netherlandophone society, but sadly, I’d not be much more likely to think that Belgian Francophones (not just in Wallonia but in Brussels) are going to learn Dutch in large numbers any time soon. Van Parijs’ suggestion that English might end up being the best common language for Belgians is a worthwhile idea and reminds me of reports from Switzerland. The language situation on the ground isn’t going to swing that much towards Dutch, though–Brussels is just too Francophone and too expansive. Frankly, I don’t envy Flanders–I can only imagine what language strife might be like in Canada if Montreal had been separated from Quebec province, made into the Canadian capital, Anglicized, and began to expand with speed into a Francophone hinterland.

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bram 09.23.07 at 11:26 am

Interesting post. As for the Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft (DG), they have three wishes:

1. A constitutive autonomy, this means that they can choose themselves how many MP’s and ‘Ministers’ they have in their own parliament and government.

2. A guaranteed representation in the federal parliament (Chambre and Senate).

3. A translation of all (or at least more) laws in German.

This community has also other wishes, but for these they have to deal with the region Wallonia, stipulates Karl-Heinz Lambertz, Ministerpräsident.

Today DG has already a lot of autonomy.

There is no important desire to split the country in the German speaking part of Belgium.

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S. Huylebeke 09.23.07 at 2:42 pm

One of the points not mentioned is that the “solidarity” or “transfers” mechanisms to the south do not induce any fiscal reponsibility whatsoever in the recipients, but actually quite the contrary.

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franck 09.23.07 at 8:37 pm

Randy,

I don’t think we are getting anywhere with this, so let’s just agree to disagree.

Bill Richardson’s family is somewhat complicated. His mother was a Mexican citizen. His father had an Anglo father and a Mexican mother and grew up in Nicaragua. I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make about assimiliation, because much of Bill Richardson’s family either was foreign or grew up in foreign countries.

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Randy McDonald 09.24.07 at 3:16 am

“Bill Richardson’s family is somewhat complicated. His mother was a Mexican citizen. His father had an Anglo father and a Mexican mother and grew up in Nicaragua. I don’t understand what point you’re trying to make about assimiliation, because much of Bill Richardson’s family either was foreign or grew up in foreign countries.”

He was born to an Anglophone father and held American citizenship in a continental-size area where the United States was clearly dominant. The United States was just a few hours away by plane, and American citizenship, to be frank, has more recognition than Nicaraguan! And yet, Spanish not English.

(You’re not commenting on Trudeau, I see. Good choice.)

The point I’m making, and have consistently been making, is that people shift languages more-or-less freely. It doesn’t matter if there are millions of speakers just on the other side of the border, not even if the language is the global lingua franca, if the language has fallen out of use in one’s town, or among one’s peers, or one’s family. The sort of coercive measures that you proposed above to boost Dutch-language fluency won’t work and have been proven not to work, and if they were somehow applied to Brussels would do a pretty good job of wrecking the city’s prospects. Not that they could be applied, in light of the city’s administrative separation from Flanders and the intense involvement of the international community in Brussels.

A Netherlandophone minority is likely to persist in Brussels, if only because of population exchange with Brussels’ hinterland in Flanders, but true Dutch-French bilingualism is likely impossible thanks to the choice and timing of the various language policies employed by Belgium and its constituent units for the past century and three-quarters.

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H. 09.24.07 at 9:45 am

I wonder what percentage of Belgian residents speak Arabic as their first language. Without doubt a hell of a lot more than those who have German as a mother tongue. So is there any logic to the fact that the Germanophones have a legal community and the Arabophones don’t?

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franck 09.24.07 at 1:37 pm

Randy,

What are you talking about with Richardson? He speaks English perfectly. What do you mean, “Spanish not English”. Richardson grew up mostly in the US, and I think would characterize English as his mother tongue. He just happens to speak Spanish extremely well and recognizes his Hispanic heritage.

Trudeau is more interesting, but he also speaks English fluently and got a fair amount of education in English as well.

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Randy McDonald 09.24.07 at 5:54 pm

“Trudeau is more interesting, but he also speaks English fluently and got a fair amount of education in English as well.”

Trudeau’s mother was Anglo-Scottish. She belonged to the dominant language group. Why did she marry into a minority-language family and produce children whose main language was French?

Above, you said that my “Irish example is ridiculous. Flemish is spoken by a majority of the country, and Brussels is surrounded by Flemish speakers. Flemish is not an isolated island under siege, like Irish.” English was spoken by a majority of Canadians, probably from the 1840s at the latest, and English has traditionally enjoyed higher prestige than French, but even in those situations, people transferred from the Anglophone communities to the Francophone one, most frequently because they belonged to relatively isolated language minorities. The example of the Anglophones of Québec City is instructive.

If, for whatever insane reason, the Canadian government sought to bring back the proportion of Anglophones back to the level of 1921 throughy coercive language legislation, Bad Things would happen to Quebec City, not least because that goal would be impossible without massive population shifts. Similarly, if the Flemish government managed to take control of Brussels and impose a coercive language policy, mandating Dutch-language education for anyone not of “indigenous” stock and requiring bilingualism, Bad Things would happen to Brussels, not least because Brussels’ population structure is such that it can’t be as bilingual as Flanders.

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