If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium… er, I mean Flanders

Poor old Belgium never had an easy go of it. Over the centuries, they’ve lived under Spanish, Austrian and then Dutch imperial rule. As an independent country, they were twice invaded by the Germans. Belgium’s capital, Brussels, which is also the unofficial capital of the European Union, attracts the scorn of Eurosceptics as a potential haven of bureaucrats bent on imposing their will on those countries that have not fully signed on to an integrated Europe.

Its reputation as the western European country that everyone else kicks around seemed to be reconfirmed in the late ’90s when Doug Ivester, then the hapless CEO of Coca Cola, was reported to have responded to reports that Belgian customers were falling ill after consuming contaminated soft drinks by blurting out, “Where the fuck is Belgium?”

Ivester soon found himself with plenty of time on his hands with which to familiarize himself with European geography. He was forced out of office by a corporate coup in late 1999.

If things keep going the way they’ve been going lately, the world might not have Belgium to kick around much longer.

The problems began in 1830 when the largely Catholic and French-speaking southern provinces of the Netherlands rebelled against the Protestant-ruled north and broke away to form the new country of Belgium. The split, however, produced a country with two languages: Flemish (i.e., Dutch) in the north, and French in the south, along with a small German minority in the east.

Minority rights and cultural sensitivity was somewhat lacking in those days. Consequently, once the euphoria of independence had worn off, it soon became clear that the French speaking Belgians ran the show, and the Flemish speaking Belgians were expected to know their place. (It wasn’t until 1967 that the Belgian constitution was fully translated into Flemish.)

Needless to say, it was not a healthy relationship, as The Guardian, a leading British newspaper, reported in 2007.

Belgian road sign

An apt description of Flemish-French relations in Belgium today

Over time, Belgium’s French and Flemish populations became two solitudes. The French and Flemish wings of the Christian Democratic Party declared independence from each other in the late ’60s. The same fate befell the Socialist Party in the late ’70s, leaving neither of the country’s two largest parties able to articulate a national vision.

Relations deteriorated over the years before reaching rock-bottom in the 2007 Belgian elections. Unable to bridge either the left/right divide or the Flemish/French divide, it took nine months of difficult negotiations to form a national government.

The strain of presiding over a rancourous coalition government proved to be too much for prime minister Yves Leterme, who tried in vain to quit in July 2008 after only four months in office only to have the King reject his resignation. One could easily imagine Leterme retreating to his office to swallow down a stiff drink while listening to an MP3 of Johnny Paycheck singing Take This Job and Shove It.

Leterme finally succeeded in resigning in December 2008, handing the reins over to Herman Van Rompuy. Van Rompuy quit in late 2009, and Leterme again found himself holding Belgium’s most thankless political job.

Now, just five months later, he’s trying to resign again after Belgium’s governing coalition fell apart on Monday, again over the issue of language.

The collapse of the Belgian government and the country’s apparent ungovernability once again raises the possibility that Flanders, Belgium’s Flemish-speaking northern province where separatist sentiment is strong, will declare independence as early as sometime later this year.

Flemish separation would force the French-speaking southern province of Wallonia to either go it alone or seek annexation by France. It would also leave the future of Brussels, the capital, up in the air: the city is a French-speaking enclave within Flanders, separated from Wallonia by a few kilometres of forest. It was, in part, an attempt to redraw the borders around the forest so that predominantly French-speaking Brussels would be directly connected to French-speaking Wallonia that caused the government to fall on Monday.

It’s a sign of how bad things have become that Belgium’s two cultures can’t agree on the surrender of a forest, a move that one blogger noted “would arguably change the linguistic status of its only permanent inhabitants from Dutch-speaking to French-speaking squirrels.”

Belgium doesn’t seem to have much of a future ahead of it. Expect to see more drama from this tiny European country in the months ahead, including an increasingly strong possibility of two new countries (or three, if Brussels ends up as an independent city-state) emerging as the newest members of the international community.


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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