The Fries Revolution: Belgium's Political Crisis Foretells EU's Future

By Walter Mayr in Brussels

Belgium has just broken the world record for taking the longest time to build a government. The tension between the country's French- and Dutch-speaking halves holds a lesson for the rest of Europe. As the European Union gets stronger, and national governments get weaker, ethnic groups are demanding more self-determination within a Europe of regions.

Photo Gallery: Beglium's Record-Breaking Crisis Photos
AFP

Brussels is home to two political arenas, a small one and a large one, which are located just a short walk apart. In the dark, winding corridors of the Belgian parliament, Dutch-speaking representatives from Flanders in northern Belgium are locked in a stalemate with their French-speaking counterparts from the southern region of Wallonia that could tear their kingdom apart. From here, it's just a few steps down the Rue de la Loi to number 175, the square glass-and-stone building that houses the Council of the European Union, the EU's main decision-making body.

It is here that the brave new world envisioned by the EU's leaders is being shaped. It is here that politicians are planning the continent's future, a system symbolized by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

For many years, Van Rompuy was employed on the other side of the trench that divides the national and international politicians working in Brussels. Before Van Rompuy was catapulted into the EU's top job in December 2009, and placed at the pinnacle of a political bloc comprising 500 million people, the slightly built Flanders native was the speaker of the Belgian parliament before becoming Belgian prime minister. That was over at the other end of the Rue de la Loi -- precisely where Belgium's latest political crisis has been playing out.

It is more than 270 days since parliamentary elections were held in Belgium, and a new government still hasn't been found. The exasperated Belgian people have employed all manner of tactics to try to cajole their elected representatives into reaching agreement. They've tried large-scale demonstrations, public stripteases, and even declared a French fry revolution in a tongue-in-cheek reference to their supposed favorite food.

To no avail. Instead of a new political leadership, Belgium now holds a new record: In no other country anywhere in the world -- not even Iraq -- have negotiations to form a government taken so long.

'It Can't Go on Like This'

The rivalry between Belgium's linguistic communities has long deteriorated into mutual recrimination. The Dutch-speaking Flemings blame the French-speaking Walloons in the south for the deadlock, claiming the Walloons simply want to live off the more prosperous north. The Walloons counter that Flemish nationalists stalled the talks with their demands for ever greater autonomy.

"Strength through unity" is the country's national motto. The phrase is engraved at the front of the parliament's plenary session room, where the Chamber of Representatives meets. Flemish members of parliament can look at the motto from their seats in the right half of the room, while the Walloon representatives sit on the left. Between them sits Kattrin Jadin. As the representative of her country's 74,000-strong German-speaking minority, she has been observing the stalemate between the two ethnic groups with growing concern. "It's a poker game in which nobody wants to lose face with their voters," she says. "But it can't go on like this."

The situation in Belgium does indeed look like the outcome of a brilliantly diabolical plan by militant anti-EU forces. Ironically, the EU's central goal of preserving cultural diversity under a common political roof now appears to be failing in one of its founding member states, the very country whose capital has for decades hosted the headquarters of the highly-paid champions of European ideals.

Sixty percent of Belgium's 11 million people are Flemish, the remaining 40 percent are mostly Walloon. For centuries the two ethnic groups have been neatly divided along an ancient cultural border: the former military road that separated the Roman Empire in the south from the barbarian hordes in the north.

Geopolitical Dynamite

After Belgium split off from the kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830, the inherited balance of power was later set in stone in the country's constitution. The new state's official language became French, and it was ruled by the francophone bourgeoisie.

It wasn't until 1966 that Flanders caught up economically with its southern neighbor. Shortly before, the political division of Belgium had been sealed through the establishment of the linguistic border between the "Germanic" Flemish peoples and the "Latin" Walloons. Since that time, five state reforms have underpinned the autonomy of the different regions and heightened tensions between the main ethnic groups. The election victory by Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever in June 2010 turned the wrangling over language laws and constituencies into geopolitical dynamite.

De Wever, whose N-VA party now has the most seats in parliament, has announced his intention to sit back and watch Belgium "evaporate." Walloon socialist Paul Magnette, who is still the incumbent energy minister, has already drawn up a list of possible scenarios. Were Belgium to break up, he cautions the Walloon south against merging with France. "If we had to join another country one day, then Germany must be our best hope," he says.

That question is unlikely to arise, says philosophy professor Philippe Van Parijs, one of the leading figures in the fight to prevent Belgium's disintegration. "But if it weren't for the question of Brussels, we'd have long gone the way of Czechoslovakia, which broke up peacefully," he admits. "Neither ethnic group could, or wants, to live without the capital." Van Parijs, a gaunt intellectual, regularly invites academics and politicians from both sides for talks in the library of his villa in Brussels.

'There Are No Belgians'

So how could this Gordian knot be cut? The solution is a far-reaching reform of the state, Van Parijs says. "Brussels, which is home to so many foreigners, must officially become trilingual: Flemish, Walloon and English," Van Parijs says. "In addition, Brussels, Flanders, Wallonia and the German-speaking area must become independent entities within Belgium, each with its own regional identity." After all, the Belgian capital -- which also happens to be the capital of Flanders -- has become a bone of contention between the Flemings and Walloons precisely because it is populated nowadays mainly by French speakers.

The political debate in Belgium completely ignores the fact that one in every six of Brussels' inhabitants are of Moroccan descent, and that some areas of the city, such as Molenbeek, are overwhelmingly inhabited by people of North African descent. But, in contrast to the rest of Europe, there is no debate about immigration in the country, since the Flemings and Walloons are already kept occupied by their mutual animosity.

At the heart of the problem lies the question of whether the existence of the Belgian state is merely the consequence of a little white lie from the heady days of the country's secessionist youth: the illusion that there can ever be such a thing as a Belgian nation. "Sire, il n'y a pas de Belges" ("Your Majesty, there are no Belgians"), Walloon socialist Jules Destrée famously told his king, Albert I, almost a hundred years ago.

In 2007, when a reporter asked Yves Leterme to sing his country's national anthem, the man who is technically still Belgium's prime minister broke into the Marseillaise -- the French anthem. After the last election, the men who were supposed to lead the coalition talks on behalf of the strongest parties in parliament, Flemish politician De Wever and his Walloon counterpart Elio Di Rupo, first had to ask for each other's cell phone numbers because they had previously had so little contact with one another.

Typical reactions by non-Belgians to such oddities range from a helpless shrug of the shoulder, to comments that a country that spawned the painter René Magritte must have a surrealist gene pool. A more likely explanation is that Belgium is experiencing a phenomenon that can be seen across an increasingly united Europe. The stronger the Brussels-based EU becomes, and the weaker its member states, the louder are the calls by small, long-disadvantaged ethnic groups for self-determination within a Europe of regions.

Scots, Catalans, Basques and Corsicans are eagerly following events in Belgium, partly out of curiosity over how the situation will unfold, and partly because the Flemings have managed to force their desire for a separate state onto the political agenda, even though their language was long derided as one spoken only by farmers and maids.

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