Will Belgium ever split up?

Afraid of an independent Flanders

Benoit Vierset: "I will probably cast an empty ballot. I see that our politicians want to push the regionalization of Belgium forward. I am against it. We are two ethnic groups that have less and less to do with each other. Instead of learning how to do it again lives and works together, the two parts of the population are diverging more and more. At some point Belgium will no longer have a right to exist. And I definitely don't want that. "

Benoit Vierset grew up in Brussels. He speaks French like the Walloons in the southern half of Belgium and can also express himself perfectly in Dutch, as it is spoken in the northern half of the country. He says of himself that he is a real Belgian. But like many Belgians, he fears that his country will soon no longer exist.

Elections will be held in Belgium on June 10th and the Belgian government has announced a series of constitutional changes for the next legislative period: The regions should become more independent, even more independent than they are now. In essence, it is about the splitting of the social security funds and the regulations that regulate the labor market. Flemings and Walloons should no longer pay into the same health and pension insurance schemes and the same labor market regulations should no longer apply to them. Even the Belgian railway company should be broken down into regional companies, some of the Flemish parties are calling for.

Many Belgians see this as preparatory work for the final division of the country. The big parties are therefore rushing to reject this suspicion, especially the Christian Democrats CD&V, who are in power in Flanders. The reform should by no means prepare for the split, emphasizes its government member, Health Minister Inge Vervotte:

"We have made it clear that we are concerned with a better health system, our social system, pensions and many other things. For us, constitutional reform is the means to achieve these goals. This state reform is not one of our goals, but that Framework within which these projects must be implemented. That is a fundamental condition for us. And a sticking point for CD & V-NVA. "

It is one of Belgium's peculiarities that constitutional amendments have to be announced before the elections. This is to ensure that the population agrees. Ultimately, every voter can then decide whether to vote for a party that wants to change the constitution or a party that is against it. But it's not that easy, complains Benoit Vierset:

"No party explains what it really wants, what exactly it wants to change in the constitution and why that should really be necessary. I completely reject this change, but I do not find this position in any party program. Therefore, I have little choice but to to cast a blank ballot. "

In Brussels in particular, the gradual division of the country into Flanders and Wallonia is going too far for many people. But it seems as if the regionalization of Belgium has become independent, as if the train can no longer be stopped.

The north of Belgium has been slowly separating from the south since the mid-1960s. It all started with the political parties: the Belgian Christian Democrats became Flemish and French-speaking Christian Democrats, and the Belgian socialists became Flemish and French-speaking socialists. There are also two liberals, the Greens and the right-wing extremists today.

After that, the chambers of commerce, the sports federations, and the universities were separated. The venerable University of Leuven was not spared either: the French-speaking students and professors were shown outside the door and were given a new campus a few kilometers away.

It was the time of Flemish emancipation. For more than a century, Belgium was dominated by a French upper class. Everything Flemish was considered inferior to them, it was peasant culture and the language of servants. With the splitting up of almost all areas of life, the Flemings hoped to shake off French supremacy.

But the Flemings have long since caught up. For over 30 years Belgium has had exclusively Flemish heads of government, so that newspapers are now seriously concerned with the question of whether a Francophone could theoretically also become Prime Minister. Flanders has long been setting the pace. But as soon as a problem arises in Belgium, most Flemish parties call for more power in the regions. An outdated reflex, says Alain Gerlache, until recently the government spokesman for Prime Minister Verhofstadt:

"Splitting is a completely outdated strategy for solving problems in the 21st century! Do we want to split the climate too ?! Even in Northern Ireland one is now able to make compromises. One should think about that!"

Belgium, it seems, has reached a turning point. For the first time, even Flemish parties are facing a slight headwind when they demand even more autonomy. Belgian political scientist Carl Devos on the reaction of the political elite in Flanders:

"The traditional big parties are now taking their momentum out of autonomy shortly before the elections because a lot of voters are afraid of suddenly waking up in an independent Flanders. The big parties want to avoid this impression."

Less than 20 years ago, the Belgian parliament decided to transform the central state of Belgium into a federal state, with its own parliament and government for the Flemish region, and the same again for Wallonia. And because no one allowed the other the capital Brussels, there is also a parliament and a government for the bilingual Brussels region.

No country in Europe today is politically as confusing as Belgium. In addition to the regional parliaments, there are also three parliaments of the language communities, one each for the French-speaking, one for the Flemish and one for the German-speaking citizens. Six parliaments and six governments for a state that is smaller than North Rhine-Westphalia and has fewer inhabitants than Bavaria. But there is no other way, says Beatrice Delvaux, editor-in-chief of the largest francophone newspaper "Le Soir":

"There are institutional reforms that are necessary to cool the dispute. That is a bit paradoxical. While more and more common rules are emerging in the European Union in order to have a uniform field of action for the economy, in Belgium it is exactly the other way around Rules and regulations have to be adapted to smaller territories. That is the price for peace, so that the regions do not always blame each other for every trouble. "

But with every reform, some politicians' appetite for even more autonomy for their region grew. After the division of cultural affairs, Flanders also gained responsibility for the economy, agriculture and even foreign trade. Apart from the areas of justice, defense and finance, the Belgian federal government has little more to say.

When the Council of Ministers of the European Union discusses trade barriers or agricultural issues in Brussels, there is a Flemish, a Walloon or a Brussels regional minister at the table for Belgium. The Belgian federal government no longer has anything to report on these issues. The regions have the word. Flanders has already started to set up its own diplomatic missions in many countries, including Germany, in order to be able to act independently of the Belgian embassies.

The driving forces behind the division of Belgium are in the Flemish boardrooms and today they think primarily in economic terms. The decline of heavy industry between Liège and Charleroi has turned the once prosperous Wallonia into a problem region. At the same time, a highly profitable high-tech industry has emerged in the formerly poor Flanders around the booming port of Antwerp. The economy is booming and it is not just the Flemish politicians who calculate every few months how much better Flanders would get along without Wallonia. Urbain Vandeurzen is President of the Flemish Business Association VOKA. Solidarity cannot be endless, says Vandeurzen.

"We are ready to finance solidarity with Wallonia for another ten years. The prerequisite for this is that Wallonia also does a lot more to create new jobs and significantly increases the level of employment. Only under these circumstances are we prepared to continue using ours Health insurance contributions to support the Walloon health system. "

Such statements frighten many Walloons. They reinforce the widespread suspicion that Flemish politicians and entrepreneurs have long been planning the end of Belgium.

A few months ago the Belgian state television broadcast a fictional report from the Flemish Parliament. An excited reporter stammered that the MEPs from Flanders had just decided on Flanders' independence. This was followed by pictures of Flemings waving flags and a report that the royal family had left for Kinshasa.

Nine out of ten Walloon viewers took the show at face value. Some who had an account with a Flemish bank sat down at the computer and closed this account that night. Others protested in front of the Royal Palace in Brussels. A handful of particularly hard-working people stopped tram line 44. Under no circumstances should the tram cross the border from Brussels to Tervuren. Because Tervuren is in Flanders and who knows whether the Flemings would ever give the train back.

The fictional broadcast had exposed a Walloon primal fear. Even when the TV station admitted the joke, six percent continued to believe that Belgium was over now. For far too long they had expected that the Flemings would eventually become self-employed. They were horrified, but not surprised.

The shock had a beneficial effect. On both sides, the editor-in-chief of the largest French-language newspaper "Le Soir", Béatrice Delvaux believes:

"After this broadcast, the editor-in-chief of the Flemish newspaper" Standaard "wrote an angry article with the title:" We are fed up with it ", We are fed up with the francophone newspapers and television stations constantly portraying us Flemings as separatists replied to an editorial: "So do we. We are also fed up with the clichés about the Walloons who don't want to learn Flemish, who are lazy and are always after the Flemish money. We don't believe you anymore when you say you are not separatists. We believe that behind your backs you are planning to split Belgium. The article ended with the suggestion that the question should be investigated together with journalistic means. "

Two weeks later, 20 editors of the Francophone Soir met with 20 journalists from the Flemish "Standaard". For some of them it was the first time in their professional life that they had direct contact with colleagues from the other language area. It was an encounter of two worlds, says Béatrice Delvaux, two worlds that live in the same city, in Brussels, but rarely meet.

"The Flemish journalists found us very southern. We obviously laugh more, we go to the restaurant more often, at least they said, and they found that the atmosphere here is more cordial, you kiss each other as a greeting, everything is a bit more relaxed. And in In fact, our journalists found the atmosphere at Standaard to be much colder. They were mainly surprised at how harshly the Flemish journalists judge the Francophones and how little they know about us. "

For four weeks, Flemish journalists worked for the soir and francophone journalists for the Standaard. They learned that the prejudices are deep on both sides and that sometimes they are even the same: just as the Flemings say about the Walloons that they dress badly, the Walloons say about the Flemings that they walk around like sacks of potatoes. Above all, however, the journalists noticed how far apart they have grown over the past 20 years. How deep the separation of all areas of life already goes.

The problems of coexistence between French-speaking and Flemish Belgium are now largely confined to Brussels. The people in Liège and Namur, in Ghent and Antwerp hardly notice anything. They are no longer interested, says political scientist and election researcher Marc Swingedouw. The previous state reforms have solved the conflict in principle:

"We started from a French-speaking central state and have now arrived in a federal state with three regions and three language communities. It's a bit complicated, but it works. The majority of the Belgian population is satisfied with this solution. More than 70 percent say "That's perfect. So there is no pressure from the population to move on in the direction of a division of the country."

The Belgian culture war is basically over, says election researcher Swingedouw. In Flanders, too, only eight percent of the population are in favor of secession from Belgium. Even the right-wing radical party 'Vlaams Belang' has buried its anti-Walloon slogans. It now relies almost exclusively on racism and xenophobia. Only the Flemish nationalist NVA continues to loudly demand an independent Flanders.

In any case, separatism was never acceptable in Wallonia. Just one percent of the population would like to break away from the Flemings - and dreams of connecting the French-speaking areas to France.

However, over the years Flanders has become convinced that more autonomy automatically means more economic growth. That also has to do with the different political culture. In formerly rural and now industrially prosperous Flanders, Christian Democrats and Liberals are fighting for supremacy. Social democrats play a subordinate role. In the depleted coal and steel basins of Wallonia, on the other hand, the socialists continue to rule.

The Flemish business elite therefore sees the regionalization of health insurance and labor law as a kind of educational program for the Walloons. If the Walloon politicians can no longer rely on the social transfers from Flanders, says the President of the Flemish Business Association, Urbain Vandeurzen, then they will also have a different economic policy.

"Today we are responsible for part of the health system in Flanders. Now we want the responsibility to be transferred completely to the regions so that we can do better business, but also so that the Walloon health system finally becomes more efficient and more entrepreneurial."

But regionalization has long brought economic disadvantages as well. Because while there are many unemployed in Wallonia, the Flemish companies a few kilometers further complain of a labor shortage. The responsible employment offices had no contact for a long time. The first attempts to place Walloon unemployed people in Flemish jobs have only been in place for a few months. But then comes the next problem: the regional bus companies no longer have a coordinated timetable. If the neighboring village is on the other side of the language border, it is often simply no longer accessible for commuters without a car.

Liberal Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt recently thought out loud that federalism should not be a one-way street. It must also be possible to bring competences back from the regions to Brussels, if this makes sense.

The Flemish Verhofstadt has received a lot of praise from the French-speaking parties. But the Flemish Christian Democrats and especially the nationalists from the NVA are far from there. They are no longer calling out quite so loudly for more autonomy for Flanders. However, once they have gained responsibilities, that is out of the question for them.

The Christian Democrat Yves Leterme, currently Prime Minister of the Flemish Region, embodies this political direction like no other. Until recently, Leterme appeared as a provocative Flemish who accused the Walloons of having Flanders on their pockets. He is Guy Verhofstadt's most promising challenger in the race for the highest government office. Because there are far more Flemings than Walloons, French-speaking politicians hardly stand a chance.

In the polls, Letermes Christian Democrats are well ahead of Verhofstadt's liberals. But Verhofstadt can hope for help from Wallonia. Almost all Walloon parties would rather go into a coalition with Verhofstadt than with Leterme after the election. Guy Verhofstadt is our guarantee, says the editor-in-chief of the French-language newspaper "Le Soir", that Belgium will stay together for at least the next four years.

"In the polls almost all people say that they want Belgium to be preserved. But if you ask them whether they believe that Belgium will still exist in 10, 20 or 50 years, the Flemings will see Belgium very soon in the end. The Walloons give the country a little more time - but not much more. "