If language trumps reasonableness, we must be in Belgium

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 30, 2009

Belgium has one of the highest per capita public debts in the EU, and a pension system whereby the workers pay for the pensions. So there is a serious challenge of keeping the public pension system viable and sustainable in the near future when the population will be aging.

According to the Dutch-language Belgian newspaper “De Standaard”:http://www.standaard.be/Artikel/Detail.aspx?artikelId=BE2D2NEF, Belgian politicians have decided that the best qualified candidate for the position to lead the Belgian National Office for Pensions will not be appointed. The reason? He is Dutch-speaking, and it was decided that appointing him would bring the balance of francophone versus Dutch speaking high office public servants in danger.

Strictly speaking this is not the case, since the official parity rule (that the positions of General Director are 50/50 split between the Flemish and francophone language groups) is respected. But apparently if one takes the Adjunct-General Directors of all Belgian Departments and Offices into account, a francophone needs to be appointed in order to have a 50/50 balance at these two levels taken together.

The obvious solution would be to require all top-level public officials to be bilingual, as private firms in Belgium tend to do too; but apparently a proposal to that effect in a major set of federal reforms in 2000 didn’t pass.

Apart from the obvious comment that 50/50 may not be needed since the Belgian population is not 50/50 francophone/Flemish but rather roughly 40/60, it is simply mindblowing that such an important position in a crucial welfare state institution is not given to the best qualified person. Surely the financial sustainability of the state pensions must matter to francophones as much as to the Flemish, so they have an equal stake in the best person making sure that the system remains viable. No francophone candidate passed the selection procedures, so the solution one has chosen for is to start searching again, and only francophone candidates can apply.

I tried to search in francophone Belgian newspapers (Le Soir, La Libre Belgique, la Derniere Heure) to read the views ‘from the other side’. I couldn’t find a single mentioning to this affair. No surprise that the two language communities have such different understandings of “the eternal Belgian political crisis”:https://crookedtimber.org/2007/09/19/the-ingredients-of-the-belgian-cocktail/ if such news is only reported in one part of the country.



Peter 07.30.09 at 3:53 pm

The obvious solution would be to require all top-level public officials to be bilingual, as private firms in Belgium tend to do too; but apparently a proposal to that effect in a major set of federal reforms in 2000 didn’t pass.

No doubt most or all top-level public officials already are bilingual, in the sense that they can speak both Dutch and French (actually tri-lingual, as they likely speak English too), what I imagine is that their native languages are what are being taken into account.


Tom Lynch 07.30.09 at 4:05 pm

What’s their “native” language then? Belgian? Sorry, bad joke.

I’m not sure what the appropriate response to this is, beyond “quota systems should be used with extreme care”. If the method for ensuring fairness does more to enforce social division then there is a problem.


Tracy W 07.30.09 at 4:11 pm

The pensions problem is one for the future. The political problem is now.

Incidentally, I know nothing about the particulars of the Belgian political system, but what power does the Belgian National Office for Pensions have, really? From my experience of debates in NZ, the only significant responses are to cut pension entitlements by either raising the age or dropping the payouts or to increase the money going to pensions by either raising taxes or cutting spending elsewhere, and all those options are inherently political (of course these options are not exclusive and any combination of them could be implemented).


Z 07.30.09 at 5:21 pm

I feel a growing unease reading your posts on Belgium, Ingrid, an unease which perhaps you wish to convey, but even so. The thing is, reading your posts gives a consistent impression that the French speaking community is somehow unreasonable in its demands and behaviors, which it is certainly to some extent. However, you rarely, if ever, mentions that it is the Dutch speaking community that is being the most severely criticized by external bodies, most recently by the UN, the EU and the Council of Europe (see among others the report of the council of Europe on human rights in Belgium available at their website: it devotes 9 of its sections to linguistic discrimination against non-Dutch speakers, but I could not find even 1 on discrimination against non-French or non-German speakers).

Now perhaps this is an illustration of your thesis: that the different linguistic communities live in parallel universes. However, I think objective outside observers have concluded that the most serious linguistic discrimination by far going on in Belgium is the discrimination against non-Dutch speakers, and I think your posts convey the exact opposite impression, whether you intended it or not.

I would like to add that that though I am a native speaker of French, I don’t care one bit about the balance of power in Belgium. As someone living in the country which language I master only to a very limited extent and in which I am functionally illiterate, I do however realize very vividly how a modicum of good-will in interactions with non-native speakers can make a world of difference for people like me, I am thus full of gratitude towards the administrative staff with whom I daily interact for its willingness to ensure that my life here runs smoothly even though I don’t speak the native language so well, and I feel a lot of sympathy for people who are not so lucky.


Ingrid Robeyns 07.30.09 at 7:56 pm

Z, I am glad you voice your uneasiness since I have been thinking about this too (in my own simple vocabulary-to-self, ‘am I shifting in the direction of becoming a flemish nationalist?’). Yet so far the answer-to-self is ‘no, or not much in any case, and certainly not beyond a healthy critical proportion’, and I’ll try to explain you why I think this is so.

But first this: this post is not about linguistic discrimination, it is about politicians who do not have their priorities right, and yet another example of a mal-functioning Belgian institution. I really think this country has lots and lots of serious socio-economic problems, and the linguistic/communitarian debacles prevent these problems to be solved. Note that in this post I have not blamed francophone politicians, but Belgian politicians. The ‘unreasonableness’ is in the Belgian political institutions and practices, not in those of the francophones (I take it both language groups agreed on this outcome?) Note also that I started by pointing out what (some of) the real challenges are – aging of the poplution, financial sustainability of the public pension system (which, I could have added, is more of an interest for poor people who disproportionatly do not live in Flanders; the nonpoor and the rich have additional pensions from the ‘third pillar’, the private pension systems that tops up the public pension system).

I can assure you that if it had been the other way around (that is, a francophone being the best qualified person but not being appointed because it was time to appoint a Flemish person), I would have written about this too (provided I had time, like today, and that De Standaard had reported about it, since that’s the only Belgian newspaper I read on an almost daily basis).

I haven’t read the language discrimination reports you mention, and will try to find them. I only saw a short item on it on Flemish television a few months back (when I was almost not blogging because time didn’t allow).

Also, another reason why I think your concerns are ill-founded is that I think that I haven’t written so much about language discrimination , but rather about political chaos, the lack of stable government, and the real problems – malfunctioning institutions and the treath to the welfare state. But hey, I could be wrong. So I just checked. From what I can see, the topics in my posts on Belgium (and the last one has been quite a while ago!) have mostly been about incompetence of the entire political class and the lack of a functioning government in times when we need one to reform the welfare state so as to make it sustainable. As for blaming politicians — one of the few I have named at length has been Yves Leterme, who happens to be Flemish. Nobody has reprimanded me for saying critical things about him; if he would have been francophone, i am sure critical comments would have been interpreted as me being ‘nationalist’. That’s the sad thing about all debates about Belgium: all substantive criticism about real problems are interpreted through a communal filter.

Back to your uneasiness. Should I be worried about my views? To be truly honest, I am very ambigious towards my own position on Belgium. I care about the language issue in so far as it is an issue of injustice in its form of being an issue of disrespect. I haven’t read the reports you cite but am not denying that regarding the appointment of meirs (which, from the little that I know, this is about), there is a problem of langauge discrimination of the Francophones. But on a non-political scale I actually do think there is a deep issue of disrespect for non-french Belgian languages (that is, both Dutch and German) in Belgium on a day-to-day level, not on a political-institutional level (which the ‘objective outside observers’ have been investigating). In fact, the Belgian political philosopher who has done most work on this, Philippe Van Parijs, is francophone, and he believes that Dutch is the ‘minority’ language in Belgium (‘minority’ in the sense of ‘disrespected or disadvantaged’ not in the sense of numerical minority). And it will be hard, I suppose, to accuse him of Flemish Nationalism, despte that his views are more radical than mine.

I am ambigious because what I am really concerned about is the increasing malfunctioning of the Belgian institutions. And when we try to understand why they are malfunctioning, a country dividied along the lines of language always jumps up as one of the causal factors. So this language issue needs to be solved for two reasons – because it is to some extent an issue of disrespect/injustice, and because it is a negative instrumental factor in making socio-economic and political institutions not work properly.

About the parallel universes: yes, after all I read and heard (from both sides) in the last couple of years I am absolutely convinced that there is a deep cleavage in Belgium and that there are very very few true belgians left who genuinly understand the problems of ‘the other side’. And since the non-Belgian press gets their info from the francophone media, it is no suprise that the francophone points of view are better represented abroad, certainly among the French. How it feels that language is a political issue is difficult to imagine for those who are not paying the costs of having to speak the other langauge (which also includes my left Flemish friends who are absolutely fluent in French and who enojoy it – implying zero costs for them).

About your last point. I agree that one cannot reasonable ask from temporary immigrants that they learn the native language. But I do think you can ask this from compatriots, especially if the language they are expected to learn is the language that 60% of their compatriots speak, and which gives them a significant key to finding a job.
If I am in a Walloon village, I am not expecting the local policeperson to speak Dutch. I think that would be unreasonable from me to expect. Yet many francophone Belgians expect the local policeperson in a Flemish Village to speak French. It is this assymetry, which Van Parijs and others point out (and on which clearly part of the Flemish Nationalist movements (both right wing and center) trade and ground their succces), that is unique to Belgium, and that seems to be very difficult to comprehend by outsiders. Just as many white people have a hard time to truly understand racism, it seems that those who do not belong to a language-minority also have a hard time to understand why this is a politically sensitive issue, and why it can be an issue of disrepect/injustice .
That is a huge difference with what the situation that you describe – so this it is a misplaced comparison, I would say.

That said, if I find the reports you mentioned and find time to read them, I’ll be back.

And in the meantime I would be very interested to hear about any issues that have been reported in the francophone press and not in the flemish press. I am sure there must be some and it will be interesting to learn what they are about.


Z 07.31.09 at 2:20 am

Thank you for your long, thought ful and considerate response, Ingrid, and my apologies for derailing this thread. You are right that you don’t write so much about linguistic issues in the bulk of your posts, and I was wrong to imply otherwise, but you do mention them quite vividly in your comments (comment 69 of the ingredients of the belgian cocktail is an instance). I would also like to say that I certainly don’t consider myself well-informed about Belgium.

I haven’t read the reports you cite

First of all, a link to the report of the CoE (for a second there, I thought about linking to the French version in a cruel attempt to mimmic the controversy).

But on a non-political scale I actually do think there is a deep issue of disrespect for non-french Belgian languages (that is, both Dutch and German) in Belgium on a day-to-day level

Actually, the report paints the exact opposite picture. It doesn’t care so much about political stuff, but rather is concerned about minor day-to-day hassles suffered by non-Dutch speakers. People trying to buy a house, or applying to social programs, or trying to enroll their kids to the local kindergarten, and who are barred from doing so by the requirement they speak Dutch (see among others section 83).

Now, learning the majority language of your country of residence is a good idea, no doubt, especially if this is also your native country. Or in the carefully chosen words of the ECRI “ECRI is aware of the importance of language as a factor for integration and, generally speaking, it supports efforts to achieve an integrated society in Belgium”. But in my not so carefully chosen words, they go on to point out that the legal requirements that people learn Dutch in order to apply to social programs reeks of bad faith, as the fund used to enforce such a ban would probably be used more efficiently to promote integration directly (rather than to sanction those who don’t integrate). Or in the very effective words of section 80 “ECRI wonders, therefore, about the actual effectiveness of measures which purport to integrate non-Dutch-speakers but which, according to representatives of the groups concerned (French-speaking Belgians and ethnic minorities in Flanders), serve rather to stigmatise non-Dutch-speakers by giving the impression that integration is entirely their responsibility and that, unless forced to do so, non-Dutch-speakers would never make the effort to learn Dutch.”

I couldn’t agree more. As I have mentioned already, I am currently an immigrant in a country whose language I speak at about second-grade level. So I know firsthand that my life here is possible only because my landlord, the social security officer who handled the administrative file of my newborn child, the family affairs and alien registration staff of the city hall (among others) made every effort to assist me, and I know how easy is is for someone to make daily acts a real pain, if only by not caring enough to choose slightly easier words when interacting with me. With that in mind, I can’t but feel a chill when I read that a Dutch speaking municipality “prohibit[ed] children who did not speak Dutch from using municipal playing fields”. This was overturned, sure, but enforced in the first place. By bringing this up, I am not trying to say that one should compare immigrants and citizens. All I am saying is that I can really sympathize with people struggling because of language issue, and that my gratitude towards the municipality I live in is only matched by my distrust of a municipality which states that requiring language lessons in order to apply to social programs is in favor of integrating non-speakers.

All in all, reading this report leaves one with the impression that there is language discrimination going on in Belgium on a daily basis, to a level that can be fairly described as minor hassles by outsiders but that can rapidly end up being unbearable by people enduring it, and that it is mostly directed against non-Dutch speakers. Because I consider myself very ignorant about Belgium, I will not dispute the suggestion that the CoE concluded thus because it is influenced mostly by French-speaking media (though they pointedly remark that the first victims of said discrimination are of course immigrants, and not other Belgian citizens), but I think it should be pointed out that the process Van Parjis describes might at least go the other way too (and perhaps even mostly so).

That said, if French speakers in Belgium feel as entitled as French to speak their own language and make as little efforts as their neighbors to learn other languages, I am sure they can be an annoying lot indeed.


Z 07.31.09 at 2:22 am

OK, a clear fail on linking to the report. Let’s do it the old fashioned way.



Keith M Ellis 07.31.09 at 11:26 am

I’ve just read several of Ingrid’s Belgium posts, via her links (so there may be numerous other Belgium posts of hers that I’ve missed), and I got the impression that she was pretty even-handed and not at all sympathetic to the Flemish nationalists (though her comment about her personal experiences whereby she understands some of the motivation for Flemish nationalism may have given some people a different impression than mine).

My overall impression about this debate, based upon what I’ve read here, is mixed.

On the one hand, it seems to me that the past dominance of francophones in Belgium and the present dominance of francophones in Brussels must surely play a large role in francophone resistance to learn Dutch and their apparent complacent attitude about the status quo…even though they are now the linguistic minority. I find it quite astonishing that everyone involved doesn’t realize that a way out of this conflict is to make every effort to convert Belgium into a thoroughly bilingual society—not just politically, but at all cultural levels.

On the other hand, I also strongly suspect that the discrimination against non-Dutch speakers that Z points to is very likely true. Given that Dutch speakers were a recent linguistic minority and are presently still treated as such in the broader context of Belgian politics, then within Walloon isn’t it likely that there is a reactive linguistic intolerance? This is human nature. Indeed, wouldn’t the extreme right-wing nationalism, which Ingrid says attracts one-quarter of native Dutch speakers in Walloon, go hand-in-hand with such intolerance?

I find this discussion interesting for many reasons, but particularly because I’m a native of New Mexico—the only state in the US that is arguably similar to Quebec. Anglos are now and have always been (excepting a short period in the 80-90s, I think) the minority here and the Spanish-speaking population is mostly native, and not immigrant (as is the case in the rest of the SW US). (Of course, were Puerto Rico to become a US state, it would be much more comparable to Quebec than New Mexico is.)

Aside from the eastern portion of the state—which is culturally Texan and was settled only in the early 20th century—the native anglophone population here has acclimatized to a relatively large amount of Hispanic culture and language compared to other parts of the US with large Hispanic populations. (Texas, I’m looking at you.) Bilingual education is much less a hot-button political topic here, even among the conservative anglophones. Given this, I’ve always been strongly opposed to the conservatives who clamor for English-only legislation and the like.

However, I have to admit that reading about Belgium, and having been married to an anglophone Canadian, gives me pause with regard to just how much there necessarily must be of inter-cultural communication within a functioning democracy and shared culture. Below that threshold, it seems that things fall apart and that, at least, is an argument against cultural separatism within a multicultural society. Certainly, as someone said in another thread, when people don’t even speak the same language, even minimally, there is no opportunity for understanding.

Of course, that’s not strictly true—there are mediating forces. But it seems to me that the real problem in Belgium is this political devolution that encouraged an increasing cultural separatism, the linguistic division was only the beginning of it.


des von bladet 07.31.09 at 1:48 pm

Every time I’ve checked up on Flemish linguistic nationalism, which is admittedly by no means all that often, it has turned out that the flashpoints are in the urban sprawl of Brussels. Basically Brussels is a de facto Francophone enclave in Flanders, and as its suburbs grow outwards they encroach on what have previously been Dutch-speaking areas.

Notwithstanding glorious and inglorious (and ongoing) culturals and histories, then, this is really much more of a classic territorial dispute with language just serving as a marker for the disputant groups. Which is not exactly grounds for optimism.

But if anyone wishes to fund a fellowship at a think-tank (Potemkin or otherwise), I would gladly relieve them of sizable chunks of cash to study the issue in depth: I have the (hopefully) slightly unusual skill of reading both French and Dutch well, while being ethnically entirely neutral (as a British citizen). And (as a resident of the Netherlands) I can watch both Flemish and Belgian Francophone TV broadcasts as part of my basic cable TV package. (This doesn’t mean that I otherwise follow Belgian politics very closely: it is entirely too weird to specialise in without compensation.)


Paul Jakma 07.31.09 at 3:35 pm

Silly question: Why not undo the Belgian state and have Vlaanderen as an autonomous state, or re-unite with the Netherlands?


nnyhav 07.31.09 at 5:01 pm

Sendependeco por Amikejo!

(but seriously, thx for coverage & insight that’s been truly lacking in English press)


des von bladet 07.31.09 at 5:17 pm

Paul Jakma: Simple answer: Brussels.


Paul Jakma 08.01.09 at 10:19 am

Assume some principle of self-determination could be applied that’d allow any Brussels question to be resolved. I guess my question then is: Why is that the Flemish still remain part of a Belgian state? Basically, given there seem to be very deep cultural divisions, what exactly is the attraction to the Flemish?


Hix 08.01.09 at 9:43 pm

A reasonable decission. This post implies that the officially declared second best would make any difference. Realisticly seen, thats not the case. So why not consider the background.


Madeleine Conway 08.03.09 at 4:04 pm

I am an anglophone living in Brussels, and I have personally encountered in a minor way the hassles of operating in a Flemish community. My kids learn swimming at a pool in a Flemish commune, where they have posted in numerous European languages (French, English, German and Italian) a letter from the commune explaining that the people in the ticket office are prohibited from speaking anything other than Flemish. I have also heard from various different sources (e.g. anglophone, married to Flemish speakers and living in Flemish areas) who have experienced a wide range of discrimination, from being told that there was no room at the local school for their children (but when Flemish dads ring, vacancies miraculously appear) to total refusals at the commune to help with driving licenses, id cards and all the other stuff necessary to establish oneself here. Flemish friends have also described to me the feuds that emerge in small communities. The impression that emerges is paradoxical: some of the Flemish are clearly drivers of the creative community, great designers, clever cartoonists, economically productive and ambitious – but also, other Flemish are capable of extreme pettiness and outright racism (the small-town bakery that was fire-bombed because it employed a Muslim girl). On purely anecdotal evidence, I should also point out that I have encountered quite a few racist francophones. Belgians seem to feel able to speak about people of other races in terms that have been unacceptable in the US or UK for 30 years.

I don’t understand the complexities of Belgian politics in sufficient detail, but from what I do understand, the Flemish notion of secession is not really viable, although it is clear that it is Flanders that powers the economy. As for rejoining the Netherlands – well, that was the whole point of 1830…a revolution against the Dutch. Once again, my evidence is anecdotal, but Flemish friends express views which suggest that they don’t regard the Dutch any more highly than they do the Walloons.

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