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EU > Belgium > Louvain-la-Neuve

Strength through unity I

Louvain-la-Neuve, BE (View on map)

After three days in Wallony (the French-speaking South), I am traveling to Flanders (the Dutch-speaking North) today. From Louvain-la-Neuve to Leuven, two university cities separated by 30 kilometres and 1 language barrier, anchored in the Belgian Constitution. may even transform into a national border if Flemish separatist movements manage to push their independence project through. Before proceeding to the opinions about what is keeping all of Belgian occupied these days, here`s a quick background explanation of the language trouble in Belgium.

Ana?s (23)
Bart (22):

..can have tense discussions about Belgium`s linguistic divide
The Union between the Southerly Netherlands (now Belgium) and the United Provinces (now The Netherlands) only lasted 15 years after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The big European powers Russia, Prussia and Britain decided to create a buffer state that would separate France from the rest. Dutch was the imposed language for all of the Netherlands, while most of the higher classes in the Southerly Netherlands spoke French. Dissatisfaction with the Dutch language was one of the main reasons for the Southerly Netherlands to revolt against the Dutch king, together with the emergence of liberalism and enlightment as political streams. Those combined led Belgium to proclaim its independence only 15 years after the creation of the Union.

Ever since Belgium`s independence, language laws have been issued, amended and replaced. The first language laws prescribed French as the national language. As time past by, the Dutch-speaking North starts to reclaim language rights for the regions where the Flemish outnumbered the French-speaking, which eventually leads to legal equality between the two languages in 1898. However, French-speaking civil servants are either unwilling or unable to learn Dutch.

Wallony way ahead
The 1960s and 1970s are golden years for the mining and steel industry in Wallony. During these decades, the French-speaking community is looking to increase their economic autonomy, in exchange for increased cultural ? read language ? freedom for Flanders. The shifting balance leads to the installation of the constitutional definition of the language regions, with initially no room for bilingual areas. Flanders from then on belongs to the Dutch/Flemish speaking half, Wallony to the southern part. The French language area further includes a small German-speaking territory, near the border with Germany.

The language division originally intends to follow the administrative provinces, but it needs adjustments shortly after its introduction. The agglomeration of capital city Brussels is the only bilingual area. It is surrounded by Flemish area, but the most commonly spoken language remains French. Still today, French is an important language to the Flemish, of not for the sake of communication with people in Wallony, then at least because French is one of the world`s leading languages. Much more so than Dutch, which is spoken as primary language by only 23 million people.

Along with the years, Brussels grows out of its officially determined area and people start moving to suburbs. The relocation of these mostly French-speaking people causes language problems in the neighbouring Flemish provinces. Different border municipalities are classified as facility areas, meaning that citizens can appeal for assistance in their minority language as soon as their population reaches at least 30% of the total population. Language fanatism is the strongest in the facility areas, where both sides are fighting to maintain their own language at the expense of the other one. More and more people are refusing to take the effort to speak the other language, and more and more do they appeal to the right to be served in their own language. Even if they perfectly understand the other language, a reproach which is made in particular to the Flemish community.

Institional divide
The complicated division of Belgium is not limited to language alone. Flanders and Wallony have access to different media, different governmental organisations, labour unions. Flemish institutions tend to be based on Dutch models, while the Wallons are influenced by French business practice. Both sides furthermore have different political parties and they can only vote for each other`s politicians if they live in the facility areas or in the agglomeration of Brussels. There are no federal parties to vote for.

Since 60% of the population resides in the Flemish area, Flemish politicians outnumber the Wallons on the federal level. Another factor of influence is the economic situation. Wallony traditionally dominated Flanders because of its industrial power. The balance has changed since: Flanders has overtaken Wallony in terms of economic activity and financial contribution to the nation. While Wallony used to bring in most of the money, it now depends at least partly on tax contributions from the richer Dutch-speaking part.

Flemish Stake
Economic dominance combined with a majority in population has opened the door for separatist Flemish movements. They proclaim that Flanders would be better off without having to pay for what they see as a poorly managed region where people are not willing to learn Dutch. That stereotype is also changing though. Once promoters of more autonomy for the regions, it is now Wallony that fights for Belgian unity. That implicitly incites young people to improve their command of the Dutch language. At the same time, French is losing popularity among youngsters in Flanders, because the Dutch-speaking no longer depend on Wallony for prosperity or for being granted underpaid jobs in the mines.

The combined mandate of political and economical power now practically allows Flemish politicians to decide about the future of Belgium. Will that be a story of revenge or finally one of reconciliation? The media provocate, politicians are unwilling to settle for compromises. In the meantime, Belgium has been without any federal governance for almost 200 days.

I will post some of the different opinions about the pan-Belgian issues tomorrow. For now, I would like to thank Wallon Ana?s (23) and Flemish Bart (22, both in photo) for helping me get initial insight in the situation.

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