Ceci n’est pas la Belgique

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 16, 2006

On Wednesday evening, a Breaking News session on “RTBF”:http://www.rtbf.be, the French-speaking Belgian public television announced that the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) parliament of Belgium had unilaterally announced their independence. It wasn’t true, of course, otherwise I would have written about it Wednesday night (wondering whether my Belgian passport would still be worth anything, and whether the Flemish independence would lead to a solution for “my conflict with the Belgian State”:https://crookedtimber.org/2006/08/21/whats-in-a-name/ ). The newsbulletin, of which (very poor) versions can be seen on YouTube (“here”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4hIotCD9R0, “here”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvHhSdgZKOw, and “here”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=452Nmk5rUmY ), looked realistic enough to understand that many Belgians believed it. From what I gather from the Belgian media, it caused a wave of consternation, and even some panic, throughout Belgium.

Clearly the fiction-docu had a shock-effect: 48 hours after the event, the radio news still opened with items related to the false declaration of Flemish independence, and it’s prominently on the frontpages of the newspapers. And the media Blogs attracked several thousands of comments, rather than a few hundred that one normally finds on such blogs (in French: “RTBF”:http://blogrtbf.typepad.com/moibelgique/2006/12/la_flandre_proc.html, “Le Soir”:http://www.lesoir.be/chat/2006/12/13/la-rtbf-simule-la-fin-de-la-belgique/, “La Libre Belgique”:http://www.lalibre.be/forum.phtml?id=10&f_id=734, or, from the Flemish side, see for example “De Standaard”:http://www.standaard.be/Meningen/Forum/Index.aspx?pageName=detail&forumId=293505.)

Why such strong reactions? Apparently many people think it is a real possibility that Flanders would declare itself independent, and thus there must be a widespread view in the Francophone part of Belgium that most Flemish no longer wish to live with the Francophones. There are the “objective” arguments that Flemish politicians always talk about, such as the weak economic performance in the South of Belgium, and the redistributive effects of the social security system from the Flemish to the Francophone Belgians. I’ve heard some commentators say that the Francophone know that the Walloon region can’t live economically independent from the (much richer) Flemish region, and this would cause the anxieties about the idea of Flemish independence. But are these the real issues that cause this strong reaction? Or is it in part also fear for, or despising of, the unknown? The comments, and the many debates and interviews on the radio, make one wonder about the kind of images and stereotypes the Flemish and the Francophone have of eachother. Francophones are depicted as lazy and unable to organise their own community properly, and Flemish are depicted as egoistic and as if all are voting for the extreme-right party Vlaams Belang (about 1 in 4 do indeed, but that still leaves 3 out of every 4 who don’t). Another interesting observation is that at least in one world, namely the world of the media, there is no such thing called Belgium: the Flemish and Francophone have their own media, that are creating their own (and often rather different) constructions of Belgium and the other language-community. And then I haven’t talked about the small German-speaking community in Belgium, which, as always, is ignored in these political discussions, since they almost never make a fuss about anything.

Personally I get very tired from The Belgian Question. On the one hand I can understand the irritation of the Flemish regarding the poor record by (too many?) Francophone in learning Dutch/Flemish, which may have improved a little over time, but in any case not spectacular enough for even my generation always to be able to speak my own language when communicating with Francophone Belgians in uniform, civil servants, or employees for nation-wide companies. It is therefore no surpise that it is a “Belgian philosopher”:http://www.uclouvain.be/en-11688.html who is writing a book on linguistic justice rather than an American or British philosopher; it is almost impossible to be Belgian and not to understand language as a political issue. But on the other hand I don’t think it is an important enough issue in Belgium if you look at all the (political) energy it soaks: it is not the case that the Flemish have drastically limited opportunities due to their linguistic misrecognition (or because of the financial transfers to the Francophone community).

I’ve often been asked by Dutch people how I feel about Flanders vs. Belgium. I tell them that, frankly, I don’t care. If Belgium stays together, fine. If it breaks up, without throwing many people into poverty or, even worse, causing a civil war, fine too. But let’s get on to solve some more important political issues, such as the problems faced by muslims/immigrants/non-whites in Belgium, issues of sustainable development and the environment, issues of informal care and quality of life, the poverty and lack of opportunities of the low-skilled unemployed, and other such issues. The question is whether the big fuss that the RTBF has caused with this fiction-docu will have contributed anything to these more important goals. I doubt it, but in this surrealistic country, one never knows.



Isabel 12.16.06 at 4:35 am

My impression is that the majority of Belgians feel like you, that The Belgian Question is a terrible waste of time and energy, not to speak of treasure. And that, somewhere in the back of their minds, they like their funny little country just fine as it is, they get upset when they are told it was split in half, and they mourn their king not only because they got used to his kind smile over more than 40 years but probably also because he represented that funny and flat little country that is their own.


ed 12.16.06 at 5:38 am

From the North American perspective, the Belgian Question is interesting because Belguim is such a prosperous place. There is no obvious gain to breaking it up, except that the Flemings get a state where everyone speaks Flemish. The parellels with Canada are pretty obvious. Also, the government of Belguim can’t conceiveably defend the country against attacks from its larger neighbors, which probably reduces its legitimacy.

One point people forget is that a century ago, it was the Walloon area that was more prosperous. It was deindustrialization that caused the situation to reverse.


Anders Widebrant 12.16.06 at 6:05 am

“Attracked” is a very interesting word — it could have so many meanings.


dearieme 12.16.06 at 11:14 am

What a wonderful headline it could produce. “Belgium gets its chips”.


mijnheer 12.16.06 at 2:28 pm

Ingrid: Is there any sentiment in Flanders for uniting with the Netherlands? (Or have the Belgian jokes that the Dutch tell squashed that idea?) Just imagine: a Greater Netherlands could dominate Europe, striking fear into the hearts of buitenlanders.

Despite my moniker here, I am neither Dutch nor Belgian. I lived in Amsterdam for four years, and have a great deal of affection and admiration for the Dutch, who manage to combine a cosmopolitan outlook with an intense sense of being Dutch — the result, at least in part, of being relatively few in numbers, but highly educated and enterprising, historically sea-faring and exploring, with a language spoken by few foreigners. And the widespread facility of the Dutch with English has more or less made them honorary members of the Anglosphere.


Ajax 12.16.06 at 2:40 pm

Mijnheer said: “And the widespread facility of the Dutch with English has more or less made them honorary members of the Anglosphere.”

Since 1689, with the installation of William-and-Mary as sovereign, England has been under Dutch occupation, so this is not at all surprising.


Ingrid Robeyns 12.16.06 at 2:52 pm

mijnheer, no certainly not, most Flemish don’t particularly like Dutch people – the Flemish jokes about the Dutch are worse than the Dutch jokes about the flemish, I fear. Most Flemish regard the Dutch as above all arrogant and rude, and I don’t think there is any group of Belgians who actively propagate reunification with the Netherlands.

Even if one were to contemplate uniting Flanders with the Netherlands, this new Country would only count about 22 million people, which is still not much in comparison with France, Germany, England, Poland etc. Hence I don’t think anyone would worry about this (entirely implausible) prospect.


Dan Simon 12.16.06 at 5:25 pm

The parellels with Canada are pretty obvious.

One key difference, of course, is that the Canadian majority views their aggrieved minority more the way the Belgian aggrieved minority views their majority: as economically and socially backward parasites whose only talents are cultivating political clout, favoritism and corruption.

One definite similarity is that most Canadians, whether French or English, view the whole conflict as a colossal waste of time. A key exception–and I wonder if something similar applies in Belgium–is the elite on both sides of the debate.

To the top tier of Quebec society, the question is of vital importance: if your position also places you in the top tier of Canadian or even North American society, then your choice is between being one of the elite in a medium-sized country or large continent, and being one of the elite in a small linguistic ghetto and economic backwater. On the other hand, if your position is very specific to Quebec society, then your choice is between being one of the leaders of your country or one of the leaders of a small linguistic ghetto and economic backwater within a medium-sized country that mostly neither knows or cares about you.

Likewise, members of Canada’s Anglophone elite are divided based on their horizons. If you see yourself as a North America-wide or even worldwide success who happens to be Canadian, then ensuring that Canada continues to include a particular small linguistic ghetto and economic backwater is hardly worth the political and financial bribes that Quebec demands in return for its nominal allegiance. On the other hand, if your elite status extends only as far as the Canadian border, then making sure that that border encompasses as large and viable a territory as possible is of vital concern to you.

Is anything similar going on in Belgium?


Jan 12.16.06 at 5:38 pm

Ingrid asked : Is there any sentiment in Flanders for uniting with the Netherlands?

No there is not: Flemish people hate Dutch people more than Walloon, or Morrocans, or Blacks.
Flemish people love their village and their money. They despise their neighbours if they appear to be poorer than themselves, and they jealous the ones who seem richer than them.


Jacob Christensen 12.16.06 at 7:52 pm

Interestingly, the Belgians (Flemish and Walloon) are not that unhappy about the state of affairs according to the latest Eurobarometer (spring 2006; massive pdf-file, do not try to download if you are on a dial-up connection).

68% of Belgians are “happy” with the way national democracy works. If we take two other countries where there have been conflicts over devolution, then satisfaction in Spain is at 71% and at 60% in the UK (The Danes are at the top of the league here: 91% are happy with the way national democracy works). In an EU context, Belgium is doing fine.

There are lots of reasons why you should be careful interpreting the Eurobarometer, but it does give some indications about the situation in one country in relation to other EU members.


Jay C 12.17.06 at 8:01 pm

A fascinating background piece on Belgium and its divisions: I had read the account of the faux TV “revolution” and thought it just a sort of “War of the Worlds”-type prank – I had no idea that it would have the sort of resonance it seems to have sparked.

But – rather than the Canadian model: wouldn’t the 1993 “Velvet Divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia be a more apt template for any putative “Flemish Independence” move?

It seems to me that given the composition and distribution of the Belgian “Communities” – and to judge by maps, anyway, they seem to be fairly discrete entities – and, like the former Czechoslovakia, the two sections seem none too fond of each other. Plus, the lure of grabbing political power in a smaller, sovereign pond can be a powerful motivation.

What is the EU position on “divorces” or secessions in member countries? Do they have one?
(The EU seems to have a regulation for nearly everything else!)


ingrid 12.18.06 at 4:04 pm

dan simon: it is certainly the case that the Belgian politicians care much more about these issues than the general public – although there is of course also the fact that 1 out of every 4 voters in Flanders votes for a party whose whole identity is anti-immigrant and pro-flemish independence (Vlaams Belang, which not so long ago changed its name into Vlaams Blok, after it was convicted of racism by a court). And there are also some non-racists (even leftist!) pro-flanders parties. So in the case of Belgium it would probably be too easy to say that it is only politicians who care about it — there is a significant share of Flemish citizens who do care deeply.

I don’t know what the ultimate motives of politicians are to favour or be against seperation – though my feeling is that the economic-financial issues, and the linguistic issues are the two major ones.

jay c.: there is one big difference in Belgium compared with the Czech republic and Slovakia, and that is Brussels… which officially is a seperate region (does not belong to Flanders or Walloon region), and which officially is also bi-lingual (but the vast majority of people do not speak Dutch – either they speak French or they speak a third language (of the top of my had, Brussels has about 30% non-Belgian residents). The Flemish politicians are never going to “give up” Brussels, which officially is also Flemish; and there are even parts of Brussels which officially are part of Flanders, but where a large percentage of the citizens are Francophone, and cannot communicate in Dutch (and there are constant political arguments about whether the local civil servants in these places should communicate in French or not).

Thus, in short: there is no easy geographical solution to divide up Belgium, as may have been the case in other countries that have split up.


Cecrops 12.19.06 at 3:00 pm

Speaking of/for francophones in Wallonie and Bruxelles – French speakers tend to sympthize with France and watch French TV, where there is a strong ongoing campaign against racism which never really lets up.

What these folks worry about is the big Vlaams Blok vote. There is a large non-voting segment of Arabs and Africans living in all the major cities, really, and larger towns. Bruxelles has several communes that are Arab majority, except that most Arabs are not full citizens and can’t vote. This has made political compromise in the city difficult. Politicians have to campaign among communities that can’t vote, but that occupy a lot of substandard housing and a lot of the attention of the police. And yet without the cooperation of these communities, the atmosphere in the city can become scary. There is no doubt that up to now the continual contribution of the EU to Brussels, as its Seat, has been beneficial in this regard, but overall it worries Flemish people who are not reassured by increases in largely French speaking immigrant numbers.

Because of the extreme right wing Vlaams Blok, issues of what to do with economically distressed areas in Belgium get mixed up with racism vs. anti-racism. Brussels is still the prize. If Belgium accepts its long term Arab and African residents as citizens, Brussels could turn in to a francophone encroachment zone demographically, the way the suburbs south of Brussels have been a “Flamand” colony for quite a long time – that is, the acceptance of the regional map that left a “strip” of Brabant Flamand between Brussels and Brabant Wallon led Flemish people to recolonize, legally, historically French areas. In time, it’s conceivable that settled immigrant populations would expand into historically Flemish areas on the north side of Brussels.

How far is the Vlaams Blok willing to go to prevent Brussels from becoming a multi-racial city? How far is the EU willing to go to make sure the Seat (of EU government) is surrounded by safe peaceful districts?

The Flemish “traditionalists”, who are suspicious of “Europe” are acting now because of the sudden onset of anti-antiracism in the Low Countries, and because it does appear that demographically the game is lost in the long run, and it would be better to seize upon a smaller enclave – Flanders. The collapse of the Left in the Low Countries and to a certain extent in Scandinavia now looks of a piece with the change in Flemish attitudes. It’s a powerful impetus to forces like the Vlaams Blok, which drew a Le Pen size share in recent elections, to see traditionally socialistic countries turn “liberal”, that is, turn to the right. But these small countries are out of phase with a larger shift to the left in France. France’s opposition to the Iraq War ended the love affair with the American business model in France. Instead of becoming more like Germany eocnomically, France will go its own way again and make great efforts to conciliate its ethnic communities. Germany may harden with regard to new immigration, but the Germans as a nation are still committed to anti-racism…without throwing a party for it, as in France. I expect that party to sweep the diminutive Sarkozy from power in the next Presidential.

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