A nation falling apart
Willy the florist has had enough of his kingdom. He is an unwilling subject of an unloved country. A middle-class father of 12-year-old twins running a thriving flower business in this small Dutch-speaking town on the eastern fringe of Brussels, Willy is reduced to obscene gesturing by the very mention of his country.
“Belgium?” he splutters. “That’s something that doesn’t exist. The national anthem? Nobody knows it. Nobody can sing it. The king? A parvenu. A dysfunctional family. We’re not going to take it any more.”
Willy is Flemish and proud of it. His native language is Dutch but, like many Belgians, he also speaks French and English. When he goes into Brussels on business, he complains, they call him a racist if he speaks in his own tongue.
He says French-speaking nurses wouldn’t help his Dutch-speaking son in hospital recently. And his comatose 80-year-old neighbour who was rushed to hospital? Same story. His wife didn’t speak French and the doctors wouldn’t speak Dutch. And if Willy—“don’t use my full name, I’ve got a business to run here”—needs to go to court, that too will be in Brussels and the judges will speak French.
“The Flemish have shut up for too long. But now it’s come to the point where we’re not stupid any more. This country’s sick. It’s dying. Not right away. But it’s terminal. Little by little, it’s over. We will separate in the end.”
A whiff of the Balkans is wafting through the heart of the European Union. Belgium, a kingdom created by the great powers 177 years ago to keep the Dutch in their place and as a buffer between France and Germany, is falling apart.
It has always been a battlefield. From Waterloo to Passchendaele and the Ardennes, the superpowers of their day brought their wars to Belgium. Now Belgium is under attack from within.
“There’s no Belgian sentiment,” says Filip Dewinter, the leader of the Vlaams Belang party of extreme Flemish nationalists. “There’s no Belgian language. There’s no Belgian nation. There’s no Belgian anything.”
Earlier this week, Dewinter tried to gather support for a referendum on independence for Flanders, the larger, wealthier northern part of Belgium. His attempt in the Flemish Parliament failed because the mainstream parties do not want to be associated with a party viewed as extremist, racist and rabble-rousing.
But opinion polls show support for an independent Flanders running at more than 40% and rising. A country called Flanders is an entirely plausible prospect—a wealthy, successful, diligent country of six million. A smaller version of Holland. The mainstream Flemish parties currently struggling to form a government are also nationalist.
The crisis is a result of political failure and lack of leadership in a small country top-heavy with politicians. In a Belgium of 10,5-million people, there are 11 parties in the national Parliament. Then there are another five parliaments organised on regional and linguistic criteria. There is not a single national politician or leader (bar King Albert) or a single national political party that straddles the linguistic and cultural north-south divide between Flanders and the southern region of francophone Wallonia.
“I don’t know any federal state where you don’t have national parties. Here the parties are purely local,” says Andre Sapir, head of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels. “We are a federal state, but we have less and less of a common political framework.”
Defining “Belgianness” is becoming a sorry national sport, with loyalists struggling to come up with unifying factors or symbols that reinforce national identity apart from the underwhelming national football team or the royal family.
Geert Beekkman, however, is a Fleming who prefers a united Belgium to an independent Flanders. The air traffic controller at Brussels airport blames the crisis on the country’s elites.
“How can you divide a country of 10-million into two countries? And what do you do about Brussels? It’s the politicians. They’ve just decided it’s better to split the country.”
Indeed, it’s the political paralysis that is producing a Balkanised Belgium. One hundred days after national elections, Belgium is rudderless, its rival Dutch- and French-speaking politicians unable to agree on a new coalition of Christian Democrats and Liberals.
The Flemish Christian Democrat leader, Yves Leterme, won the elections and should be the new prime minister. But he is unacceptable to the Walloons because he is an ardent champion of greater autonomy for Flanders.
The Walloons want to keep Belgium because they get much more out of it. The public sector is twice as big in Wallonia as in Flanders, unemployment at 17% is also double the Flemish rate. Flanders is wealthy, successful, bigger and votes for the right, complaining endlessly that it is being hobbled by transfers of public money to Wallonia, which is smaller, poorer and tends to vote for the left.
French-speaking socialists have run Wallonia for a long time (although they lost in June) and Flemish nationalists quip that Wallonia is the last Soviet republic in Europe.
The verbal abuse on both sides is turning nasty. Many Flemish disparage the Walloons as lazy spongers who are too stupid to learn Dutch. Historically, the French speakers were the Belgian elite, lording it over the Flemish, whom they viewed as country bumpkins. Beyond Brussels, the French- and the Dutch-speakers inhabit parallel worlds that rarely intersect or integrate.
The tectonic plates of Germanic and Latin Europe rub up against each other along the line that separates Flanders from Wallonia just south of Brussels. The tremors are getting worse.
As the estrangement deepens, the city of Brussels runs in the opposite direction as Belgium’s melting pot, which immensely complicates the strategies of separatists. The prospering EU capital is also home to Nato headquarters and a large immigrant population, mainly from central Africa.
Historically, Brussels is a Flemish city, but now it is a large French-speaking enclave in Flanders.
If push comes to shove, neither side would surrender Brussels, fuelling talk of extra-territoriality, turning the city into a post-national “capital of Europe”.
“Brussels is the last obstacle,” says Bart De Wever, a Flemish party leader. “We would have divorced years ago if it wasn’t for Brussels.”—Â