Belgium’s Rocky Marriage
by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis
Little Belgium is in serious political trouble. The historically shaky marriage between 6.3 million Flemish in Belgium’s north and 4 million French-speaking Walloons in the south is at the point of dissolution.
Political tribal warfare between Flemish and Francophone Walloons has lately become so intense that Belgium, a constitutional monarchy, has been without a government for the past six months.
The French TV/radio network RTBF ran a spoof of a national divorce called "Bye, Bye Belgium," that enraged Flemish. There are increasing calls on both sides to split the troubled nation along linguistic lines. In an act of political desperation, a provisional government under former PM Guy Verhofstadt is about to be appointed. If that fails, King Albert II might be forced to take over.
It’s not easy being Belgian. The snooty Dutch look down on neighboring Flemish Belgians as country bumpkins who speak a corrupted dialect of haut Dutch. Flemish insist they speak perfectly good Dutch. Afrikaans, the language spoken by South Africa’s Boers, comes from Flemish, not Dutch, as most believe. Flemish have little love for their Dutch cousins, against whom they once battled.
At least historically rich Flanders is booming. The southern Francophone region of Wallonia is a rust belt suffering chronic high unemployment and crime. French never tire of insulting the poor French-speaking Belgians.
A widely held view in France is that Belgians cannot drive.
When driving in France, Belgians must endure a storm of insults like "miserable petit Belge!" and very rude gestures. Many French look down on Belgians in the same patronizing way they do on French-speaking Canadian Quebeckers — as backwards rustics with a debased though amusing patois. Walloons insist they speak perfectly good French, which they do.
In fact, Belgium’s linguistic conflict recalls the ill feelings between English and French-speaking Canadians. Flemish regard Walloons as lazy, unreliable and priest-ridden. Walloons call the Flemish arrogant and pigheaded boors with cold Protestant hearts. None of these stereotypes are true. Both Flemish and Walloons are decent, industrious peoples. But old prejudices run very deep as this writer found when covering Belgium’s election races.
The only thing on which Belgians agree is their excellent national cuisine and heavenly chocolates. Belgium’s food rivals France. Belgians even invented the "French fry" — which the dastardly French expropriated as their own.
I’m probably going to have my Belgian restaurant privileges cut off for saying this, but modern Belgium is an accidental nation, though one of Europe’s wealthiest and most historic regions, and Belgians distant descendants of ancient Germanic tribes against whom Julius Caesar battled.
In 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna gave the region of Flanders to Holland. Previously, it had been part of the Spanish Netherlands, then a French protectorate. But the Flemish didn’t want to be ruled by the Dutch, and revolted. As a compromise, Europe’s diplomats were forced to cobble together a new state from Flanders and Wallonia. Luxembourg, historically part of the Low Countries, went its own way as a grand Duchy.
But the marriage was unhappy from day one as Flemish and Walloons feuded and argued. As Wallonia’s coal and steel-based economy ran down, Flemish increasingly asked why they should be forced to subsidize and support the economically depressed Walloons. Many Flemish wanted divorce.
Belgium’s unwieldy political system makes coalition governments inevitable. But with Flemish politicians squabbling with Walloons, and just as fiercely among themselves, political paralysis ensued. For a modern European nation, Belgium faces the triple embarrassments of being politically unstable, having an inordinate number of ghastly crimes against children, and rampant corruption, notably in the south.
I don’t think Belgium will break up. The EU is pressuring Belgians to calm down and act sensibly. But tribal linguistic, religious and cultural passions often pre-empt rational behavior, as we have too often seen.
Interestingly, many Belgians are feeling they don’t need their own dysfunctional, inept governments. Given the huge, ever-growing political and economic superstructure of the European Union transnational government based in Brussels, Belgians could readily do without their own wretched politicians. One senses a similar new political feeling in Spain, where the government in Madrid is becoming increasingly redundant, and even in Scotland, Wales, and parts of highly decentralized Germany.
I have another solution to Belgium’s marital problems. Fire all of Belgium’s useless, feuding politicians. Sign a ten-year contract with the Swiss Federal Government to manage Belgium’s political and economic affairs. Switzerland, with 7.5 million citizens, has four official languages and two major religions.
There are no opposition parties in Switzerland. All parties must cooperate at the national level and produce leadership that acts for the good of the country.
Switzerland runs like…well…a Swiss watch. That’s what the fractious Belgians need. A stiff dose of common sense and discipline. Then they can go back to doing what they do best: manufacturing, operating seaports, and brewing beer.