Strength through unity II
After having provided a certainly oversimplified draft of the issue between the Wallon and Flemish community, I will now describe the different opinions I have collected over the last day. For the sake of completeness, I have collected these opinions in French-speaking Louvain-la-Neuve, Dutch-speaking Leuven and bilingual Brussels.
..sees the advantages of keeping Belgium together as a nation, but can also think of reasons to split it
The most extreme view in the South of the border is that Dutch-speaking Flemish are all racist, fascist who refuse to speak French, even though many of them are perfectly or at least reasonably able to. For years, a good command of French has been an unwritten requirement for a successful life, whether related to a commercial career or for having access to higher social classes. However, the Flemish can however be very stubborn in wanting to be addresses in Dutch whenever there is a legal requirement for their conversation partner to do so. French is losing popularity in secondary schools, leading to younger generations being less and less fluent in French.
The most extreme views from the North take the Wallons for lazy, snobbish and eternally incapable of speaking Dutch. The school system in Wallony favours English, German and sometimes even Spanish over Dutch, English being more widely spoken in the business world, Spanish being much easier because it is Latin language and German because Germany has much more economic power than Flanders and The Netherlands combined. As a result, few people from Wallony have an operational level of Dutch. The situation is slowly starting to change, mostly because speaking Dutch will qualify them for jobs in Flanders, where the labour market offers many more opportunities.
Florence (22, from Wallony) blames the Flemish of voting for parties who favour a separation of the country, or at least parties they could have expected to hook up with separatist and/or nationalist parties like Vlaams Belang. She thinks the Flemish are disloyal to the Belgian unity, and points out that many people in Wallony have put Belgian flags in their windows or over their balconies, while Flemish do nothing to keep the nation from falling apart. Florence compares the tension over the situation to Nazi-Germany at the end of the 1930s. She is particularly annoyed about Flemish becoming more and more intolerant towards the French, crossing out French street names in bilingual cities and refusing to speak French at their local bakery shop.
Jasper (25, from Flanders, photo) admits that he is annoyed about having to speak French in Bruxelles, even though the capital has officially been classified as bilingual. He understands that some people would like to see Flanders as a separate country, because Flemish tax payers are factually subsidising a province that is not willing to compromise on any reforms. Jasper himself thinks that splitting the country in two would not make sense. He explains: `It`s already such a small country and we have a lot in common, so why split up?`, he says, naming the love for the Burgundian life (appreciation of food and social company) as one of the main binding factors of the kingdom. Elleke (19, from Flanders) adds that she also simply likes the fact that the North and South are a little different.
Frederik`s opinion is shared by Koen (26) and Wouter (26, both from Flanders): `The entire history of Belgium is based on the heritage of Wallony. Without their coal and mining industry in the last century, Belgium wouldn`t have reached anything meaningful. So why get rid of them now. Neither Koen nor Wouter are big fans of the Flamingants, the Flemish partisans of an independent Flanders. `What would Flanders represent on a global level? It just doesn`t make sense, Belgium is one country and it should remain one country.` Koen can understand that citizens have a hard time choosing sides in the conflict, but he thinks that the way politicians put oil on the fire is blatanly irresponsible.
Simon (24) and Marianne (23, both from Flanders) also think that splitting the country would be a very strange thing to do: `With all these European integration, why split up a country that is already one of the smallest?` Simon thinks the separatist movement is inspired by revenge and egoism. `The Flemish middle class sees no interest in separation. Some rich do, because they pay most of the contributions Flanders makes to Wallony. Some poor do, because they are the once who would possibly consider themselves entitled to money that would otherwise be sent to the South.`
According to Simon, the problem could not be solved but at least alleviated by making sure that Flanders and Wallony have equal voting power for the federal government. They do on an individual level, but the fact that 60% of the population is Flemish and cannot vote for representatives from Wallony, gives the Flemish an unfair advantage in parliament. At the same time, Simon thinks that Wallon politicians should give up their strategy of simply blocking measurements for the sake of it, and for the fear of being overrun by the Flemish.
Sandra (31, from Flanders) proposes a similar solution. She thinks it`s ridiculous that people in the Flemish region cannot vote for politicians from Wallony, while people from Wallony cannot vote for politicians from Flanders. `If a federal politician is doing a good job, then 50% of the population is not even able to vote for that person`, she explains with indignance.
It may sound strange but it`s true: Belgium offers students the possibility to do an Erasmus Belgica, a intranational study exchange program between Flanders and Wallony. The idea may sound a bit random but it does tackle a very important part of the problem: over the last few days, many people have told me that most people don`t really know the part of the country across the language border. Both cultures have completely different points of gravity, and the exchange is often limited to the area where all seems to go wrong: politics.
Tourism also seems to help. The Ardennen region in the East attracts many Flemish people, while the Flemish beaches are filled with people from Wallony. The Flemish in the Ardennen either speak French for the occasion or benefit from Wallon people having learnt Dutch to serve the many Dutch tourists that come to the region. Tourists from Wallony happily accept the Flemish hospitality branche`s efforts to serve people in French.
Whichever way the Belgian problem is looked at, the solutions need to be found in better and more encouraging language education on either side of the language border, intensified cultural exchanges and reasonable relations in both politics and press. Until then, people will boo the fact that ? recent example - Miss Belgium only speaks French. Until then, the Belgian king will continue to be accused of the same. Until then, newspapers on either side will report about the issue in different or sometimes opposite ways, leaving the horoscopes and weather forecast as the only common part of their reporting.
Brussels has established itself as the capital of Europe, with Belgium at the heart of the continent. Since its creation, Belgian has worn the motto: Union gives Strength, a quote that strongly resembles the EU slogan United in Diversity. Belgium`s chosen position as an example for the entire European Union should make its politicians assume their responsibility and credibility. And if not for Europe, then at least for its own people of which a majority sees absolutely no point in separation.
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