Government Urgently Wanted Is Belgium Falling Apart?

They are fighting over electoral districts, taxes and language rights -- but above all it is a struggle for influence. For 151 days Belgium has been without a government, while the Flemish and Walloons fight over their own power and interests.

By in Brussels

The Belgian press on Thursday didn't hide its frustration.

The Belgian press on Thursday didn't hide its frustration.

Those travelling through Belgium these days can be forgiven for thinking the country is in the grip of World Cup fever. The black, yellow and red of the Belgian tricolour is everywhere -- hanging from balconies, flying out of windows. Even if some of the flags are a bit weather-beaten, the message is clear: This is not about football but about something much more important. Nothing less is at stake than the unity of this nation of 10 million -- a unity that has looked under threat for the past 151 days.

Ever since the parliamentary elections on June 10, Belgium has been without a government. Outgoing Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has stayed in his job since the summer in a caretaker capacity. But he is not allowed to pass any new laws -- he can only administer the old ones. Belgium is stagnating, even as there are pressing tasks ahead such as drawing up the 2008 budget or signing the new European Union treaty on Dec. 13 in Lisbon. But first of all Belgium needs a new prime minister.

The Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme won the elections in June and was asked by King Albert II to form a government. But in order to form a coalition between the conservatives and liberals, Leterme needed the support of sister parties in both the Flemish and the French-speaking parts of the country. A week ago the parties agreed to a common labor market and social policy, and to reforming the justice system and changing immigration policy. The Belgian press was hoping that the government crisis was finally coming to an end.

But on Wednesday the conflict between the parties from the Flemish-speaking Flanders and the French-speaking Wallonia escalated once more. The spark: The division of one electoral district. After a defeat in parliament the French-speaking politicians threatened to break off the five-month-long coalition negotiations. It was only late on Wednesday evening that the Christian Democrats (CDV) and the Liberals decided to opt to support Leterme.

Carve Up along Linguistic Lines

The reason for the crisis was a vote in parliament where for the first time in decades the Flemish parties used their majority clout to push through the carve-up of the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) along linguistic lines. The division of the district may not seem to have much political importance at first glance, but it reveals the extent of the continuing Belgian crisis.

The Flemish want to separate the French-speaking enclave of Brussels from the Flemish-speaking hinterland in order to maintain their influence there. The communities surrounding Brussels belong legally to Flanders, but they have long been included in the bilingual Brussels region. This meant that people living in the district voted in Greater Brussels, in which 80 percent of people speak French, due to a special rule that applied to the capital. Traditionally people living in the Flemish territory have voted for Flemish parties and those in Wallonia vote for Francophone politicians.

The French-speaking residents fear that any carve-up will affect their political rights: Any split would deprive Walloons living in Greater Brussels of the right to vote for French-speaking representatives.

The language divide.

The language divide.

Many Flemings regard this privilege, what they call the "Frenchification" of Brussels as a thorn in their side. Flemish-speakers who live in Wallonia have sought the same rights, they argue, but without success.

The debate over the electoral district symbolizes what the two parts of the country are competing for: influence. From the outside it seems as if there are no Belgians at all, just Flemings and Walloons.

The Christian Democrats have traditionally dominated the northern part of Flanders, where people speak Flemish and learn French at school. The economy is thriving due to the booming biotechnology sector as well as the ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge, which have been pouring money into the coffers and given the Flemings the satisfying feeling of economic dominance. A total of 60 percent of Belgians live in this part of the country, and each one supports those in the poorer Wallonia to the tune of €2.50 per day. Flanders pumps around €7 billion into Wallonia every year. And they are no longer prepared to be so generous and to finance the high living standard of the Francophone minority in that part of the country. The Flemings want to drastically reduce the financial equalization, by devolving more powers to the regions.

A Separate Flanders

Flemings wants more independence from the south and its economic problems, so much so that 40 percent of Flemings vote for parties that support a separate Flanders.

The idea of making Belgium into a confederation of two states has little appeal for Walloons. In the south people speak French, and usually only French, and still bask in the glories of times past. For over half a century the Walloons formed Belgium's elite, their wealth came from coal mines and factories in the areas around Liège and Charleroi. Even the Belgian king has traditionally been a Walloon. The Liberals won the elections in this part of the country and they want one thing: for nothing to change. But the golden years are long gone. The south is now the poorhouse of Belgium and is dependent on the more successful north.

Walloons are happy to take their money, but otherwise don’t think much of the region. Flemish is regarded as a peasant language that no one wants to speak or even understand. Although Flemish is on the school curriculum, it is rarely taught. There are too few Flemish teachers willing to teach in the south, due to the lower wages.

At the same time the Flemings complain about the Walloons' arrogance, who expect the rest of the country to buy their ticket for the public transport system in French and to be able to speak French when ordering in a restaurant but are not prepared to learn the other language. Not even the king can speak Flemish well, they complain.

But experts predict that the two regions wouldn't be able to manage alone. The Walloons are having children who will have to finance the Flemings' pensions in the coming years and most of the goods produced in Flanders are consumed in Wallonia.

And while the people of Brussels may be flying their flags to protest against the drifting apart of their country, in the south Belgian city of Dinat, the flag is hanging at half-mast. In mourning over the everlasting government crisis.


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