Language divide threatens Belgium
The next major test for Belgian coalition government will come Tuesday when parties meet to agree on a new balance of power between the Dutch and French speakers.11 July 2008
MEISE - At the National Botanical Gardens, office windows are cracked, doors are broken and two greenhouses have collapsed in recent years.
The reason for the decrepitude is that the gardens lie in a Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, and French-speaking lawmakers won't approve the money for improvements.
It's just one of many signs that Belgium's perennial language time bomb is again approaching critical mass. It has plunged the country into a constitutional crisis that makes some wonder if Belgium can - or should - survive in its present rancorous jigsaw-puzzle shape.
Authorities in the Flemish towns of Zaventem and Vilvoorde limit social housing to Dutch-speakers; nearby Overijse encourages citizens to denounce shopkeepers who advertise in languages other than Dutch, and the mayor has sent letters to citizens asking them to take down signs in English or French.
The local council in Liedekerke drew widespread criticism for suggesting only Dutch-speaking kids could use municipal playgrounds.
Much of all this is happening less than a 20-minute car ride from Brussels, home of the European Union with its grand design of Europe-wide good-neighbourliness.
The next major test comes on Tuesday, the deadline set by Prime Minister Yves Leterme for parties to agree on a new balance of power between Belgium's 6.5 million Dutch speakers and 4 million Francophones.
Leterme's fragile seven-party coalition government was only sworn in March, nine months after elections that strengthened parties demanding more self-government for Dutch-speaking Flanders. If no breakthrough is made on Tuesday, the government could collapse.
"I really don't see any way out," says Damien Thiery, mayor of the town of Linkebeek.
"It's like a broken marriage. Where there is one person who really doesn't want to live with the other anymore, there's no point in hanging on. If they want to leave, then they should go."
Thiery insists relations are cordial in Linkebeek, a Flemish suburb of bilingual Brussels where 80 percent of the population speaks French. Placid scenes of people in the main square on a warm summer evening, snacking, sipping ale and browsing at the bookstore, seem to confirm his opinion.
But the mayor is worried because Flemish nationalists plan to stage a rally in his town in September. "I don't want to be responsible here in my commune for a pitched battle between demonstrators from the two camps," he says.
In the 1960s, when Belgium was cut up into separate language regions - leaving only Brussels officially bilingual - French-speakers in Linkebeek and five other Flemish towns outside the capital received special rights to use French in dealing with their local councils.
These towns have since become bedroom suburbs for French-speakers who work in Brussels, and Flemish authorities are fighting back by demanding that the towns conduct official business in Dutch only.
Linkebeek's Thiery and two other French-speaking mayors have refused to comply.
Flemish authorities have blocked their nomination even though they were legally elected, leaving the local councils in legal limbo.
"The Flemish say 'you are on our territory, so you have no say,'" complains Thiery. "The Flemish politicians have become more and more intolerant."
At its heart, the quarrel is economic. Flanders is richer than French-speaking Wallonia, and resents its taxes going toward subsidising a territory that is Belgium's rust belt with 15 percent unemployment, triple the rate in Flanders.
At the same time, they believe the influx of French-speaking commuters from Brussels is eroding their cultural heritage.
French-speakers say enough powers have been devolved, and accuse the Flemish of trying to cut Wallonia loose.
Mindful that the Flemish image abroad is being hurt by its perceived anti-Frenchness, Geert Bourgeois, Flanders' minister for foreign policy, recently invited foreign journalists for dinner in a turreted castle outside Brussels to hear him out.
"Our policy is very moderate," he insisted. But he didn't hide his hope for a breakup. "The Belgian system doesn't work," he said.
The plight of the botanical gardens is a prime example. Its problems date back to 2000, when it was shifted from the federal government to the Flemish one, provoking a backlash from French lawmakers, says Jan Rammeloo, its director.
"It's a psychological problem," he said. "It's politics in Belgium."
[AP / VRT / Expatica]