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Can’t Go On

Martin McGarry

Histoire politique de la Belgique. Facteurs et acteurs de changement. Xavier Mabille. CRISP (Centre de recherche et d'information socio-politiques), 2000.

The Low Countries: History of the Northern and Southern Netherlands. JA Kossman-Putto and EH Kossmann. Ons Erfdeel, 1989.

Political History of Belgium from 1830 onwards. Els Witte, Jan Craeybeckx, and Alain Meynen. VUB University Press, 2000

Saga belgica. 178 ans de conflit communautaire. Le Soir (Stève Polus et al.). Rossel, 2008.

Any moderately observant visitor to Brussels over the last year or so will have noticed – and may have wondered at – thousands of Belgian flags flying from balconies, hanging from windows and draped on house and apartment facades, supplemented by home-made paper versions stuck on the inside of windows. Some are a bit the worse for wear by now (or have even blown away) as they mostly went up in the late summer of 2007. Those who were here in the mid-1980s, during the Mexico World Cup, when Belgium had a successful football team, recall something similar. But this time the flags are not about celebration. They are about fear. Fear that Belgium will break up and cease to exist as a state.

Such a break-up, which has been on everybody’s minds for the last year and more, would take place, for the most part, along a fairly neat east-west line, separating the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north (close to 60 per cent of the Belgian population) from the French-speaking Walloons in the south.

But it is not that simple; it never is in real life ... and certainly not in Belgium. Brussels, an overwhelmingly French-speaking city (but with a massive immigrant population), lies north of that line. Out of a population of one million, it has roughly 100,000 Dutch-speakers, while the surrounding parts of Flanders have over 100,000 French-speakers. The city, which is a region (“in its own right”, according to some; not quite, according to others) in modern Belgium’s federal set-up, has its own government (one of its ministers even has responsibility for agriculture – one farm, apparently, with a modest number of cows) and is also home to the Belgian federal government and the Flemish government (not to mention various international institutions, including NATO and the European Union). And nobody really knows what to do with Brussels and the two minorities (inside and just outside it) in the event of a divorce.



So people in Brussels are not very keen on the idea of a split. In fact, not that many Belgians are really keen on it, even if separatists (open and veiled) and the indifferent have been making the running; for the most part, however, those who oppose separatism are fairly passive in their attachment to Belgium. They don’t want it to break up, but probably reckon they could survive without it – or, in the case of depressed Wallonia, perhaps seek eventual salvation in union with France.

Brussels, however, is really worried. But Brussels is not Belgium. And a visit to Belgium that concentrates on Brussels can be misleading. For a start, you might think you were in a bilingual country. As in Ireland, street names in Brussels are bilingual (French and Dutch), as are ads and official signs of all sorts. Apart from a few small areas here and there elsewhere in Belgium (mostly on the outskirts of Brussels), however, this is something unique. Most of the country’s roughly six million Dutch-speakers live in areas where everything official and public is in Dutch; outside of Brussels, the rest of Belgium’s four million or so French-speakers live their lives entirely in French. Brussels itself is even odder than it looks at first sight: it may be largely French-speaking now, but when Belgium came into existence in the early nineteenth century, it was (as it had always been) a mostly Dutch-speaking city. Even now, it is transformed every working day by commuters: Brussels by night has in or around 100,000 Dutch-speakers; during the working day, it has hundreds of thousands more. Most of these commuters have no other connection with the city and flee it as soon as they can every day; they pay no taxes there and many of them resent the transfer of some of the taxes they pay in Flanders to the unloved capital city.

Capital cities are often unloved, but Brussels more than most. Flemings have an ambiguous attitude to it, even though, when Belgium went federal, they chose to locate their own devolved institutions in Brussels – it had, after all, once been a Flemish city and many dreamed (or professed to dream) that the tide would be reversed and it would become one again. Wallonia has the kind of resentment that places which experienced the nineteenth century industrial revolution often feel for the rich administrative and commercial centres from which they were governed. Like many such areas elsewhere in Europe, the old coal, iron, steel and heavy engineering districts (which once attracted many immigrants from Flanders) are now relatively poor and depressed – which has probably not made them much fonder of Brussels.

The ethnic diversity of the city, and in particular the huge numbers of Muslim immigrants that have come to dominate the centre and the inner suburbs over the last generation or two (mostly from North Africa – especially Morocco – and Turkey) have not much endeared the city to many who already mistrusted it and saw it as somehow alien (and may, in many cases, never have set foot in it). Outsiders see it as poor (now true of much of the city) and dangerous (greatly exaggerated), as well as alien. Even the “native” population often feels alienated, as it finds itself a shrinking minority, squeezed between poorer immigrants and better-off “ex-pats” (for whom English is often the lingua franca), the former blamed for crime, the latter for high prices.

How Belgium has got to where it is is a strange story, quite different from those of most of the new states that emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century (with the unification of German and Italy and the emergence of new states in southeastern Europe as the Ottoman Empire gradually shrank), just before and after the First World War (with the collapse of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires and the partial dissolution of Tsarist Russia’s empire, not to mention Ireland’s independence), or after the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe. Broadly speaking, those new states emerged to represent and rule over people of particular ethnic groups; over time, where the ethnic groups did not neatly match state boundaries, the frontiers and/or the people themselves (by warfare, massacre and other forms of ethnic cleansing) were adjusted (a process still going on in the Balkans).

Belgium, which came into existence as a state in the 1830s, came before the wave of new ethnic states and was a horse of a different colour. The linguistic frontier through Western Europe, between Germanic languages (including Dutch) and Romance ones, has changed a little over the centuries, but it has long run through the territories that now make up Belgium. It reflects, apparently, the limits of mass Frankish (Germanic) settlement at the end of the Roman Empire; trade routes plus industrialisation, however – not to mention the constant flow of foreign armies across this part of the world – make it unlikely that there is much ethnic “purity” around these days. And even 1,500 years ago it was hardly a clear ethnic frontier; language and race are not the same thing – it is, for example, by no means as clear as it seemed when I was young that the “native” Irish are Celts or indeed what that term actually means.

What is now called Belgium and what is now known as the Netherlands (or, more colloquially, Holland) have been known down the centuries as the Low Countries or Netherlands (which means the same thing). Roughly, they include today’s Belgium and Holland, and were first united by the Dukes of Burgundy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. After the death of the last duke of Burgundy in 1477, most of the mixed bag of duchies etc in the Low Countries finished up in the hands of the Habsburgs; for various reasons, Spain finished up under a Habsburg ruler who was born (in 1500) and grew up in what is now called Belgium. Whereas many Spaniards feared the grip of his “entourage of rapacious Flemings”, as JH Elliott put it in Imperial Spain, it was the rising world power of Spain that came to dominate the Low Countries under Charles V. Charles eventually finished up more Spanish than anything else and finally retired to a remote corner of Extremadura in western Spain in the 1550s, leaving his throne to his thoroughly Spanish son, Philip II.

Spanish rule lasted for about two centuries in most of what is now Belgium (the histories of Liège and of Belgium’s south-eastern province of Luxembourg – not to be confused with the adjoining Grand Duchy – are a bit more complicated). But the area was severely disrupted by the Reformation and the Spanish state’s determined attempts to suppress it, riding roughshod over local traditions of autonomy in the process. The Reformation was by no means confined to the northern parts of the Low Countries, which eventually became the independent state of the Netherlands, but after many decades of intermittent warfare it was the north that succeeded in escaping from Spanish control. The south remained under Spanish rule, minus almost all its Protestants, who fled north.

The south (today’s Belgium, roughly) later spent most of the eighteenth century under Austrian Habsburg rule and came under French Revolutionary and, later, Napoleonic domination until Napoleon’s fall (confirmed just outside of Brussels, at Waterloo, in 1815). For fifteen years after Waterloo it was added to the existing Kingdom of the Netherlands in a new Kingdom of the United Netherlands. This was experienced as a takeover by the (then less numerous) Dutch. In 1830 a coalition of Catholics (unhappy with the predominantly Protestant Dutch state) and liberals (unhappy with that state’s economic policies and with an authoritarian Dutch monarchy) led a revolt that created the new state of Belgium, leaving the Netherlands more or less the territory it had before 1815.

Although Dutch was the majority language in the north of the Belgian state established in 1830-31, the new state, a constitutional monarchy, was dominated by French-speaking elites. This was so even in Dutch-speaking regions. There had been some French influence there, in the west in particular, since medieval times; in the eighteenth century, however, “the nobility and the upper middle classes came to regard French as the cultured language par excellence”, with the Dutch language acquiring “a mark of social inferiority”, as JA Kossmann-Putto and EH Kossmann put it in The Low Countries. To quote the Political History of Belgium from 1830 Onwards by Els Witte, Jan Craeybeckx, and Alain Meynen: “Dutch was only spoken by the disenfranchised'' in the new state. During the years of French occupation, the use of French had spread further among the middle classes of what was to become northern Belgium, although workers and peasants continued to speak Dutch dialects.

After independence, with rapid industrial expansion in southern Belgium, that region carried by far the most weight and many workers moved from north to south – a process that continued until quite recently. One of the ironies of today’s Belgium is that many politicians from Wallonia with quite anti-Flemish attitudes have Flemish family names. These sometimes go back just one generation, as it is only over the last two generations that a great economic shift has taken place. In the course of that shift the old industries in the south declined or disappeared; Dutch-speaking Flanders, which used to be predominantly rural and much poorer than the south (and also very Catholic), has boomed with modern industry and services (a bit like the Republic of Ireland, but starting sooner). It has become economically dominant and now has a noticeably higher standard of living than Wallonia, with much less unemployment than either Wallonia or Brussels.

Even before that shift the Flemish population was beginning to make its political voice felt, particularly after the introduction of universal suffrage. Even so, it would be broadly true to say that, for the first century of Belgium’s existence, the Dutch-speaking population (today a clear majority) was ruled by a more or less unchallenged French-speaking state and establishment. To get on in the world, Flemings had to learn (and use) French. An old friend of mine, for example, born just after the First World War, was sent to French-speaking schools by his Flemish parents; not only that, but they never spoke Dutch in front of him or to him. (He was far from unique – ironically, today many Brussels French-speakers send their children to Dutch-language schools, where they often greatly outnumber Flemish children, in order to increase their employment prospects in a city where two or even three languages are needed for most good jobs.) Dutch was looked down on. It was a mere patois, according to some French-speakers – an allegation with a smidgen of truth, as there were and are huge dialect variations, although today most people can speak “proper” Dutch as well as dialect and what they learn in school is, by and large, what children in the Netherlands learn, albeit with different accents. But such snobbish French-speakers ignore the existence of dialects in the south of the country – indeed some linguistic experts insist that Walloon is a language, not a dialect. A long time ago there was a proposal to make the whole country officially bilingual, but the French-speakers would not hear of it.

Politics, however, until quite recently, did not revolve around the differences between the two communities – partly because universal single suffrage did not exist until long after the state was founded (after the First World War for men; after the Second World War for women); partly because of the country’s economic dynamism and prosperity; partly because the rise of the socialist movement and the unions gave the newly enfranchised workers other goals. Politics was about class issues, landed versus capitalist interests, and Catholics versus (virulent) secularists. Nonetheless, from the 1870s onwards, the position of Dutch gradually improved, with formal equality at the end of the century and full recognition that northern Belgium was Dutch-speaking (not bilingual) in 1932. The 1930s also saw the position of Dutch being strengthened in the courts and in the army. As the twentieth century proceeded the phenomenon of French-speaking upper classes in Flanders gradually disappeared (although there are some traces left).

Through the nineteenth century the liberals and Catholics variously cooperated on broad political and economic issues and clashed over the control of education; late in the century the socialists (who have dominated Wallonia ever since) emerged, allies of the liberals on issues of secularisation and at times allies of the Catholic party, which developed into a broad Christian Democratic movement, with a left and a right and, for example, its own trade unions and sickness insurance schemes. The original two-way division of Belgian political life then became three-way. For most of the twentieth century, governments were formed by two of the three parties, but the third never had to wait long for its turn. And everything from scouting to schooling to sickness insurance to the trade union one joined tended to be determined by which of the three camps one was in (or was born into). Most public posts and jobs, right down to the lowest level, were in the gift of those political camps and that is still often the case.

One curiosity for someone from a country (Ireland) where, until recently, every political leader had to proclaim his or her loyalty to the Catholic Church is that, even when that church was a much greater force than today, it was widely assumed in Belgium that you could not be an active socialist or liberal (and certainly not a leading one) and be a Catholic. Many liberals and socialists were (and are) Freemasons. About fifty years ago the church, which has long been quite weak in Brussels and Wallonia, was almost as strong in much of Flanders as in most of Ireland. It has declined greatly since then however, and religious loyalties no longer matter so much; the Catholicism of most leading Christian Democrat politicians is now of a very watered-down kind. The term “clericalist” may have described their party in the past – for example during renewed struggles about the control and funding of schools in the 1950s. But it is not so relevant now (one leading Flemish Christian Democrat politician and former prime minister recently married for the third time.

As the twentieth century progressed, more Flemish voices were raised in favour of, for example, the establishment of a Flemish university (achieved in the 1930s) and more overall recognition for Dutch. More extreme voices developed an uncompromising hostility to the Belgian state and called for separation (with possible long-term union with Holland). These more extreme Flemish nationalists suffered by association with occupying German forces who sought to exploit them twice in the first half of the twentieth century. After the Second World War in particular, Flemish nationalism was tainted by that association. Collaboration had not been exclusive to Dutch-speakers: indeed, apart from Rudolf Hess, who was inaccessible, European Nazi sympathisers’ last link with their glory days was the Walloon fascist leader Léon Degrelle, who survived the war by several decades and played host to them in his Spanish exile. But whereas since 1944 fascism has been pretty well reserved to the lunatic fringe in French-speaking Belgium (and remains incompetent and slightly nutty, despite the scope offered by the immigration issue, exploited much more successfully by the Flemish extreme right), Flemish nationalism and Flemish grievance persisted. For a long time separatism remained largely beyond the pale, but genuine grievances were taken up by mainstream politicians, who began to demand increasing autonomy, more Flemish control over educational and cultural matters, and the copper-fastening of linguistic boundaries – given that the now overwhelmingly French-speaking city of Brussels was exerting an influence on neighbouring Flemish areas. These were becoming de facto suburbs of the capital; their status remains an extremely thorny issue and has been one of the focuses of the crisis that has developed since 2007.

The last two generations have completely remade the Belgian state. To an extent this had been prefigured by less far-reaching proposals such as the 'Compromis des belges' agreed in 1929 by two socialist leaders, the Fleming Camille Huysmans and the Walloon Jules Destree ( the latter had famously declared in an open letter to the king before the First World war that there were not really any Belgians, only Flemings and Walloons).



In brief, the last forty years have seen the three great national parties – socialist, liberal, and Catholic – split into separate Flemish and French-speaking parties and the Belgian state become a federal one. The precise arrangements have changed a couple of times, but basically the country is divided into three regions: (Dutch-speaking) Flanders, (French-speaking) Wallonia, and the officially bilingual Brussels-Capital Region. A number of fields (such as culture, sport, education, and some personal social services) that did not lend themselves to purely regional arrangements – partly because of the conundrum of Brussels – were not devolved to the regions, but to Communities, French-speaking and Flemish, both of which operate in Brussels.

The Communities are not exactly symmetrical: the Dutch-speakers merged the Regional and Community administrations; the French-speakers did not. The Communauté Française de Belgique (yet another body with a Brussels headquarters) is best translated as “the French-speaking Community of Belgium”. Literally, it means "French Community of Belgium”; they say that when François Mitterand was on a state visit and was introduced to its then president (who bore the splendidly French first name of Valmy), he took him to be a representative of his own compatriots in Belgium and asked him how many members he had.

In successive waves of devolution – usually under Flemish pressure, with various trade-offs resulting from lengthy crises and negotiations – more and more responsibilities have been devolved to the Regions and Communities. In areas like culture and sport, this causes all sorts of problems in Brussels (for example, playing rugby “in Flemish” is a good idea – the Flemish authorities have more money these days after all); in areas like overseas aid and agriculture, it appears frankly ridiculous to an outsider; in transport it took the new institutions fifteen years or so to start any kind of sensible cooperation on ticketing policy for the three different kinds of regional buses that now roll through sections of Brussels. And the Belgian in the street delights in telling you just how many governments and ministers the country has and shakes his or her head in disbelief, while repeating the refrain that this is really quite a surreal little country.

Whatever some of their absurdities, the devolved institutions are now well-established and in some respects function quite well. People grumble about duplication, but very few dream of reviving the old unitary Belgian state, now dead as a dodo. The question is what powers those institutions should have and what powers, if any, should be left to the central state. That central state is a compromise between Dutch-speakers and French-speakers. Every federal government is made up equal numbers of both, with a minimum of four parties in practice (as the Flemish party political landscape, in particular, has become increasingly fragmented, that minimum could rise soon) and often two or three more. But demography, democracy and economic muscle have combined to place the Flemings in the driving seat for some time past. It has been many years since there has been a French-speaking prime minister; it remains theoretically possible, but there may never be one again. Flemish resentment of the central state persists, however – partly because of old grievances, which have now been resolved but still exert an influence on political attitudes, but also because of more recent economic developments.

One major factor underlying current Flemish pressure for increased devolution – or even separation – is that Flanders is now so much more prosperous than Wallonia. Some of the momentum for Flemish demands for separation or for “a reform of the state” comes from the complaint that prosperous, go-ahead Flanders is carrying wasters and welfare scroungers in poorer Wallonia. It should be said, of course, that if the economic boot were on the other foot many Walloons might well take a similar attitude. But that may never be put to the test.

The current crisis is partly an inevitable result of a process of constant chipping away at the central state. Where does that end? At what stage does it become pointless to have a central state? Or, if it has less and less muscle, ceding power both to Europe (what people in the UK and elsewhere call “Brussels”!) and to the regions, why should anyone worry one way or the other? At a symbolic level, what remains Belgian, essentially, is the flag, the monarchy (perceived as French-speaking, but not with much hostility, in Flanders), and the football team (which has been poor for some years now but may be showing signs of revival). More concretely: the army, the income tax system, and the social security system. Both of these last two have shown some fraying at the edges, with more prosperous Flanders introducing services that apply only in its region (and to Dutch-speakers in Brussels) and tinkering with rebates that effectively modify the tax system.

Expanding devolution looked likely for a long time to leave some sort of structure (a shell, at least) in place by the name of Belgium. I used to think the process would continue indefinitely, like one of Zeno’s paradoxes: constant movement in a particular direction (more devolution, a hollowed-out central state), but no final destination. Major changes to income tax and social security, however, would surely sound the death knell of Belgium, as French-speaking politicians, fearful of prosperous Flanders leaving Wallonia and Brussels in the lurch, have stated. More generally, however, and even pending serious structural change to those systems, the whole Belgian edifice is looking increasingly vulnerable to a lack of political good will and mutual understanding.

The generation of political “elder statesmen” now beyond pension age was the generation that split all the national political parties and undid the unitary state. They quarrelled in public and had deep political differences (without violence – it should never be forgotten that, although Belgiums internal squabbles have often been fierce and at times absurd when seen from outside, they have remained non-violent). But they had served their political apprenticeships in the old “Belgian” parties and knew their former party comrades. They had their phone numbers. They could try and reach deals behind closed doors and in private conversations – which is not the same thing as saying that the public quarrels were insincere. But they knew each other. And, perhaps more importantly, they knew what to expect from each other.

The new generation of politicians has grown up in separate Flemish or French-speaking parties, catering for separate electorates. A Belgian general election is really made up of two quite separate parallel elections; outside of Brussels, two entirely separate sets of parties appeal to voters; there is no national constituency. No member of the present government has ever had to worry about votes from the other side of the linguistic divide – politicians answer only to “their own”. Moreover, to put it crudely, their sense of their own worth and importance is increasingly bound up with the devolved institutions within which they have served their apprenticeship and made most of their careers, rather than the Belgian ones. The same is true, of course, of many of those whose careers orbit around them, from media commentators to academic experts.

In many cases thus, both self-interest and political instinct are bound up with the devolved institutions, not with Belgium. Perhaps more seriously, mutual ignorance could also lead to unintended crises and developments of a kind the old hands would have avoided or coped with. Belgium might in future break up almost by accident, because its two “halves” have already diverged so much.

So is the current crisis the beginning of the end? Are the people who hung out their flags in Brussels right to be so worried? To look at the current crisis in any detail it is necessary to say a little about party politics. Between 30 and 40 years ago, the three main traditional parties (Catholic, liberal, and socialist) became six, as we have mentioned. (Most have also, like banks, tended to change their names frequently in recent years at the urging of marketing experts.) In both Dutch-speaking and French-speaking Belgium they have been joined by green parties (two, of course). Alongside those eight parties (twice four, if you’ve followed us so far), there is the extreme right, incompetent in French-speaking Belgium, well led in Flanders, where it can draw on a more coherent nationalist tradition. The first big breakthrough by the Flemish extreme right (Vlaams Blok, later renamed Vlaams Belang as a result of cosmetic changes imposed by a court conviction for racism) came in 1991. It came on issues of race and (above all Muslim) immigration, rather than on the issue of Flemish separatism. Although the VB gets more votes than any other far right party in western Europe and has long been the biggest party in Antwerp, the largest city in the Flanders Region, its rise seems to have hit a ceiling in the last few years.

The more traditional Flemish nationalist party, outflanked by the far right, fragmented; its more right-wing and separatist fragment (the N-VA) formed an alliance with the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V), however, and in the current crisis has played a role out of all proportion to its own electoral strength. The two parties went into the 2007 general election with a joint list as a “cartel”, one of a number of partnerships between smaller parties and larger ones. (The French-speaking liberals, for example, have a close alliance with the FDF, an at times virulently anti-Flemish party in Brussels and environs.)

In the lead-up to the summer 2007 election the prospect of a third legislature without federal government office was unthinkable for the CD&V, which once had an overall majority of Flemish votes. An alliance with the separatists, in order to gain pole position for the formation of a new government, was irresistible, even though some elder party statesmen clearly detested the N-VA. Ironically, it may turn out that, in its determination to get back into the driving seat of the Belgian state, the CD&V took a big step towards the destruction of that state.

The CD&V-led cartel’s share of the Flemish vote in 2007 was in the high twenties and enabled it to claim victory and the premiership. But this was a very fraught, perhaps Pyrrhic victory. Some sections of the party are quite Flemish nationalist; others seem indifferent to Belgium’s survival. Combined with the very able leadership of the N-VA by Bart De Wever, this led to the nationalist tail wagging the Christian Democrat dog. The cartel had won the election while taking an aggressive attitude to “reform of the state” (although it is debatable how much that contributed to its – relative – victory). It had sought more powers for Flanders, not always defined but with fiscal and labour market issues often mentioned, and taken an uncompromising attitude on issues concerning Brussels and its periphery.

But those election promises could not be delivered on. The supposedly wonderful election result, after all, involved less than thirty per cent of the Flemish vote and an even smaller proportion of the “national” vote. Moreover, the rules of the game are that major constitutional changes need the support of two-thirds of the federal parliament and can be carried through only with the agreement of both communities. The “victorious” alliance had made promises it knew it couldn’t keep. French-speakers were not enamoured of its rhetoric and were suspicious of its long-term goals; they have resisted further devolution, fearing it would mean an end to “solidarity” or “transfers” (depending on your angle) between the regions. They also fear the loss of the official “facilities” (such as French-speaking schools) enjoyed by French-speakers in some parts of Flanders adjoining Brussels.

Attempts to form a government and to agree at least the outline of the promised “reform of the state” dragged on into 2008. Along the way, the prospective prime minister, Yves Leterme, made a famous gaffe when, asked on camera to sing the Belgian national anthem, he sang the opening bars of La Marseillaise – an innocent error perhaps but compounded by his subsequent grumpy reaction. A Leterme-led government finally took office in March 2008; it “collapsed” in July, but Leterme’s resignation was refused by King Albert. In September 2008 Leterme lost the support of the N-VA, whose leader, De Wever, denounced the federal government as “a Vichy government” and said that Leterme was on the way to being a puppet of the French-speakers.

Discussions about the “next stage” of “reform” were once more close to collapse at the time of writing (late November 2008). One landmark had been passed, however: when the federal government failed to square the circle, the job of coming up with a deal was passed to the Communities. This fits in with the “confederal” idea that some Flemish politicians have been floating for some years, although the term’s meaning has always been vague. If it means anything, it may mean sovereign bodies agreeing to pool certain responsibilities, rather than a central government devolving powers to regional authorities. The replacement of discussions at federal government level by discussions between the Communities may come to be seen as a significant turning point.

This device has allowed Leterme and the federal government to claim to be getting on with running the country and saving us all from the recession, tumbling banks etc. But the government has looked very shaky and quarrelsome. More than one commentator has been unable to resist declaiming, in an echo of René Magritte, “Ceci n'est pas un gouvernement!” (This is not a government!) And even if the “dialogue” is being carried on at one remove from the Belgian government, everyone knows the same parties are involved. And everyone knows that those parties will be contesting regional elections in the summer of 2009. The outcome of those may seal the fate of the federal government – if it lasts that long.

Election time is not a good time for compromise on the part of politicians looking for votes within their own community only. Most Belgians do not want separation, but they are conscious of belonging to two distinct communities that – outside of Brussels and its surroundings – don’t have that much to do with each other. And it is easy to convince people that the other community is trying to put one over on “the Flemings”/“the French-speakers” – and if “we” don't stand up to “them” we're going to be rolled ... The greens are quite moderate on “community issues”, as are most (but by no means all) Flemish socialists and liberals, but nobody wants to be seen as a pushover. On the French-speaking side too, parties vie with each other to show they are the staunchest defenders of the community’s interests.

An added complication is that the Flemish vote is now fragmenting even further, with a seventh force emerging, the Lijst De Decker, the “De Decker List”, led by Jean-Marie De Decker, a former national judo coach recruited into the liberals a few years ago who later fell out with them. After an abortive attempt to join the nationalist N-VA, he set up his own quasi-party. De Decker is a loudmouthed (but intelligent and articulate) macho populist, who gets votes by being “agin the lot of them”. He flirts with Flemish nationalism, but declares himself opposed to separation (despite his attempt to join the N-VA) – on the (unenthusiastic) grounds that nobody has come up with a solution to Brussels. He did very well, for a beginner, in the last general election and is tipped by the polls to be the big winner (especially, but not exclusively, at the expense of the extreme right VB) in the regional elections in Flanders in 2009 (and, presumably, in the early general election that many expect).

One of the symbolic sticking points much in the news for several years now is the complicated question of splitting an electoral constituency that includes the city of Brussels and neighbouring parts of Flanders. Its existence allows French-speaking parties to harvest votes from French-speakers in those parts of Flanders. This is agreed to be a bad thing by all Flemish politicians (partly because of the historical memory of how Brussels first became French-speaking and then began to “Frenchify” the surrounding areas) and is now a constitutional anomaly, so a split has long been on the agenda. One side effect would be to weaken the electoral strength of the Flemish minority in Brussels, but that does not seem to worry Flemish voters elsewhere. In an unprecedented move some months back, the Flemish majority in the federal parliament voted unilaterally to split “Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde” (as it is known in Dutch) or “BHV”; the French-speakers walked out.



In itself this was shadow-boxing (there are mechanisms in place that prevent any such unilateral vote from taking effect), but it was a symbolic escalation. More seriously, it has been suggested that the two sides misread each other. Hugo De Ridder, a veteran (and, in the past, very well informed) Flemish political commentator, claimed that the French-speaking parliamentarians had not expected their Flemish counterparts to carry out their threat to push for a vote and that the Flemings had not expected the French-speakers to react as they did. If he is right, that is, if the politicians (those who will have to negotiate any renewed Belgian compromise) are that incompetent (or mutually ignorant), then it is a poor lookout.

Does this matter? Well, some of us have a soft spot for a sort of “non-nationalist”, non-ethnic nation, even a sort of non-nation (although people did go out and fight and die for it in two world wars) and would be sorry to see it go. The question of its survival raises a general point, as the authors of The Low Countries (cited earlier) concluded in 1989: “It is clear that Belgium can never again be a national state, and that if it is able to weather the storm, [it] will demonstrate the falsehood of the widely-held twentieth-century view that the modern state must be national if it is to survive.” To an outsider, moreover, the two kinds of Belgians really do seem to have a lot in common. They get on fine, for the most part, where their paths cross. When the world’s two best women tennis players were Belgian, one from each community, Belgians in both communities seemed, by and large, equally proud of each. And from a left-wing perspective, it must be said, the no-more-taxes-for-those-lazy-unemployed-and-sick-wasters approach has little appeal.

And even though Belgium’s quarrels have been peaceful, one always worries about nationalism and its categorisation and division of people along lines that have nothing to do with issues of social equality or progress. The Flemish separatist N-VA leader Bart De Wever effectively led the larger CD&V through most of the confrontations of 2007 and 2008. He is often at pains to say that separation will be in everyone’s interest, stressing that he is a gradualist who does not seek immediate separation and that his arguments are entirely rational and practical. But you don’t have to look hard to find emotional, ethnic nationalism among his party’s militants. You could find it, for example, in a recent edition of the party youth movement’s magazine, devoted to a trip to Ireland (much of it spent at republican singsongs in a Dublin pub called The Celt). Their mentor, Mark Demesmaeker, one of the N-VA deputies in the Flemish parliament, has visited Ireland scores of times; his personal ad in the magazine carried the slogan Tiocfaidh Ar Lá; another ad, from a federal deputy, spoke of volksnationalistische sympathie.

If it was not for the (slight) overlap between the communities, an amicable divorce might be possible. As it is, it is hard to see what form divorce would take. But apathy in the wider population and positive estrangement in the political class are moving things in that direction. A survey by researchers at a leading Flemish university (KU Leuven) in June 2008 showed that roughly equal numbers of Flemings wanted major decisions to be taken at the Flemish level as preferred them to be taken at the Belgian level. But less than 10 per cent wanted separation; nearly 12 per cent wanted to bring back the old unitary Belgian state; 46 per cent wanted more powers for the regions and communities; just over 11 per cent wanted less; and nearly 21 per cent thought the existing balance was OK (VRT news website, June 10th, 2008). In a commentary on Flemish public radio (VRT), Professor Swyngedouw of the KUL observed that there was an “unserved public” of Flemings (about 23 per cent) who wanted a more Belgian set-up – a comment that ignored the 21 per cent who expressed satisfaction with the current balance. In the context of the unanimous demand by the members of the Flemish political class for more powers for the regions and communities, that is to say for themselves, those were interesting figures. But the “dissent” they reveal is passive: it lacks conviction and has no political clout. And so the drift continues.

Some of the Belgian flags mentioned at the start of this article (an essentially Brussels phenomenon) came down when a new government was finally formed, long after the 2007 election. Not everyone was reassured, however: many stayed up. The Belgian football team is beginning to pick up, so more traditional reasons for flag-waving may yet revive. But on the day this article was finished the Belgian football association finally yielded to political pressure/enticements and set up a new “Flemish league” in order to get subsidies from the cash-rich Flemish government (the promise of €50 million for new stadiums and €2.5 million a year for youth development). On the other hand, they managed to do so without splitting the Belgian FA itself. And the Flemish “league” won’t really have a league as such (it also has no counterpart on the other side of the regional/linguistic divide). So maybe the Belgian genius for compromise should not be written off just yet.


Martin McGarry is an Irish journalist and translator, based in Brussels.

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