A union turning sour?

9th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

A 'scandalous' love affair and a new Francophone front: worsening symptoms of a looming Belgian divorce?

Cross the linguistic divide in Belgium at your own peril — that is perhaps the real message behind a 'scandalous' love affair in recent months.

Liberal VLD MP Rik Daems

It is also a message that symbolises the growing divide in Belgium.

And while some romantics say love can conquer all, this love affair was unable to conquer the cultural divide.

But it was also an affair troubled from the start.

Consider the facts: he was a well-known Liberal VLD politician. She was a Socialist PS federal MP. He was 46, married and had a five-year-old daughter. She was 38 and relatively unknown.

The problems don't end there, however.

Rik Daems was also a fervent Flemish separatist; well-known for his scathing attacks on Wallonia.

The politician's love affair with a French-speaking Wallonian thus led to smiles among politicians in Belgium and accusations he was sleeping with the enemy.

The scandal eventually cost him his job.

Daems resigned as the Liberal VLD leader in the federal parliament in January and quit his position on the Leuven City Council late last month.

Pécriaux has defended their relationship: "We are living a true love story and the child who will be born from our union is a common project. He is a man, I am a woman, he is Belgian, me too. Isn't it normal?"

But figures show otherwise: just 1 percent of marriages in Belgium are between Flemish and Wallonians.

And while Daems and Pécriaux prepare for a baby that crosses the cultural divide, Belgium could be heading for a divorce.

New Francophone front

The looming divorce took a step further this week with renewed calls for a unified French-speaking front against Flanders.

Socialist PS stalwart Philippe Moureaux urged French-speaking Brussels residents into action, calling on both Wallonian and Brussels residents to jointly start considering the future.

In more definite terms, this meant answering four questions:

  • How should Brussels be financed if Flanders continues to cut away at the Belgian state? 
  • What should happen to Brussels institutes and the Flemish within them? 
  • What is the relationship between Brussels and Wallonia? 
  • What should happen to the French-speaking people along the linguistic divide?

Moureaux said he will soon send a letter outlining his proposals to the other French-speaking political parties, but they were able to read the 'unofficial' version in last weekend's edition of newspaper 'Le Soir'.

The Brussels newspaper then reported soon after that his proposals had been warmly welcomed by the parties Liberal Movement Reform MR, Humanist CDH, green Ecolo and the Francophone Democratic Front FDF.

Strength in unity

But one question arises: why is there a need for a French-speaking front?

Firstly, the Francophone public staunchly believes Flanders is moving to split the nation, a feeling that the French-speaking media says is well proven.

Heading towards divorce?

As evidence, the media points to issues such as the Flemish draft constitution drawn up by the Christian Democrat CD&V and New Flemish Alliance NV-A or the housing code the Flemish government recently approved.

There are also deeper issues, such as the Flemish regionalisation of employment. The climate has also hardened since the debacle around the electoral district Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) and the announcement of new state reform talks in 2007.

And further reason for a Francophone front might be the urge to end political differences among the French-speaking parties: strength in unity with an eye to the federal election in 2007 and local elections in October.

Also, the role of the Brussels region, the Wallonia region and the French-speaking community is less defined than in Flanders, where the Flemish region and the Dutch-speaking community have merged their institutes into one.

Symptoms of divorce

These two examples: a 'scandalous' cross-cultural love affair and a new Francophone front are not the only symptoms of a nation slowly tearing itself in two, however.

Calls for independence from the Flemish side of the border have been loud and clear in recent years: the extreme-right Flemish Interest can be considered that movement's patron saint.

Wallonia is somewhat more guarded though, worried what state reform will bequeath given the economic inequalities that have developed between the two regions.

Once the economic powerhouse, Wallonia has become the economic backwater of Belgium in the past 30 years, largely propped up by Flanders' wealth.

Nevertheless, Wallonia reluctantly agreed last year to enter into state reform talks around the federal elections in 2007.

These talks will result in further autonomy for Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia.
A survey in 2004 also indicated that a majority of Wallonians and Brussels residents feel that they are Belgians first and French-speakers second. This is in contrast to Flemish residents who are more likely to identify first with their region.

Against the grain

Amid the divisions, Brussels serves as one of the nation's most poignant unifying symbols: it is located in Flanders, but is French-speaking and is capital to both Belgium and the EU.

Lawyers and politicians also agree that it would be a logistical nightmare to neatly divide Belgium given its location in Flanders.

There was also a word of caution earlier this year, when King Albert II publicly warned the nation's politicians against separatism at the end of January.

"Tensions between regions occur in many European countries. These unequal situations, involving transfers between regions, are common in Europe," he said.

"Splits and separations are generally costly for all sides whether they are rich or poor."

In response, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said he too is opposed to separatism, but stressed that this did not mean he was opposed to state reform.

The Liberal VLD leader's comment was designed to ward off criticism from the opposition Christian Democrat CD&V that he was trying to thwart greater autonomy for Flanders.

Not surprising, given the fact that VLD party colleague Daems committed political suicide by running the cultural gauntlet.

Daems has since been partially resurrected with his appointment at the start of March as the chairman of the federal parliament's foreign affairs commission.

Despite his mini-recovery and Daems' confession that Belgium might never split in two, it is evident that great political bravery is required to go against the grain of the growing regional autonomy in Belgium.

Yes, it will take more than one cross-cultural Daems-Pécriaux baby to grow a united a family in Belgium.

9 March 2006

[Copyright Expatica 2006]

Subject: Living in Belgium

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