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donderdag 4 oktober 2007


The other day, Hammy and me were contemplating the possible effects of long-term traveling. We have this feeling that if you keep on the move during a lenghty period of time, you get detached from the world around you in a way. Especially from your home country. The longer you stay away, the harder it gets to come back. Society changes, sometimes only a little, sometimes a lot. And then, after being out of the country a mere two weeks, we turned on the TV to watch the news.

Belgium is an odd country. We're the size of a handkerchief, yet we house two (almost) different cultures. Our country is divided, roughly, into two parts: a Flemish (Dutch) speaking part (Flanders), and a French speaking part (Wallonia). There is also a small bit in the south that speaks German (a 'gift' from Germany after the war), but they keep mostly to themselves. Because our politicians couldn't get along, they decided to federalize. The Flemish wanted to protect their language and culture through the creation of communities. The Walloons demanded more economic autonomy in the form of regions. The famous Belgian Compromise ensured that everyone got what they wanted. The result is six different governments: the Federal government, the combined Flemish Community and Region, the Walloon Region, the French-speaking Community, the German-speaking community and the Region of Brussels. The existence of Belgium is a bit of a freak of history. Initially we were added to the Dutch Kingdom to act as a buffer between the Netherlands and France after the Napoleonic Wars. During the 16th century the Low Countries (the Netherlands and what would later become Belgium) were united under Hapsburg rule. After the Eighty Years War (1568-1648), the Northern Netherlands become independant from Spain, the Southern Netherlands chose to remain loyal to the crown. This lasted until the French Revolution annexed our parts in 1795. After Napoleon's defeat the fate of Europe was decided during the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). The men of power thought it wise to combine the Low Countries again (since the Spanish Empire wasn't near as powerful as it had been). They preferred giving our regions to the Dutch, than leaving them under possible French influence. Thus, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-1830) was born. The problem, though, was unity. The North was comprised mostly of Dutch-speaking Calvinist merchants, while the Southern elite consisted mostly of French-speaking Catholic industrialsts. Not happy with language and school laws, and with the underrepresentation in the national governement, some sort of a rebellion was brewing. Not necessarily an independance movement, but something was up. Anyway, legend tells us that after a rendition of the aria Amour sacré de la patrie ( Sacred love of the motherland) from Auber's opera La Muette de Portici a riot broke loose. King William I of Orange tried to suppress these riots by force. This resulted in a full-scale rebellion. And thus, after some fighting, the independant nation of Belgium was born.

Given the fact that the French-speaking part of the country was forced to use Dutch in official correspondance, and was discriminated against because of their language, you would think they'd try to create an honest form of governement. No such luck. The uprising was, when it comes down to it, an attempt of an elite to gain more power. Although in theory we had the most liberal consitution of that era, the Dutch language was ousted from the public domain and a long period of discrimination against the Flemish had begun. (I'm taking a bit of an historical shortcut here for brevity. For more information see, amongst others, Blom's History of the Low Countries, Witte, Craeybeckx and Meynen's Political history of Belgium from 1830 onwards and the national academic effort Nieuwe geschiedenis van België). Which brings us to our current predicament. Being considered second rate citizens, the Flemish slowly started to create feelings of a Flemish nationalist nature (the archives of the Flemish Nationalist Movement, ADVN, can be found here). Where the initial objective was egality for all, over time separatist notions became predominant. The present nationalist-separatist discourse on the Flemish side is being voiced by the extreme-right, xenophobic Vlaams Belang (rough translation = Flemish Interests) and the more democratic Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (New Flemish Alliance). In Wallonia the main protagonist is the FDF (French Democratic Front). There is also the Rassemblement Wallonie-France, who want Wallonia to become a department of France, but they don't really matter politically. The outcome of the federal elections, held in June, showed that the Belgians voted against the ruling liberal-socialist government. Flanders voted mostly for the Catholic conservatives (CD&V), who are in a cartel with NVA; Wallonia, where the socialists have been in power for ages, voted mostly for the liberal party (MR), which is in a cartel with FDF. You can imagine that the opposing views make it very difficult to form a government. More to the point, after more than 120 days there is still no solution in sight.

One of the breaking points is the constituency Brussel/Halle/ Vilvoorde (BHV). The rights of the French-speaking 'minority' there are being protected. To give the resident Walloons of Vilvoorde and Halle the opportunity to vote for someone who speaks French, these two municipalities have been added to the Region of Brussels (officially bilingual). This is unconstituonal and has given rise to a lot of resentment. The demand to seperate BHV into distinct entities is being discussed now as a part of the formation of a government. Although most of the country doesn't give a rat's ass about this problem, it has become highly symbolic, especially since it has been around since the seventies when we first started to federalize the country. Both NVA and FDF have made it a key issue.

The seperation of BHV is moreover, legally speaking, a Flemish problem. The Flemish government can act on their own if it wanted to. And now, while the talks for a federal government are still under way, the Flemish Parliament has put sessions in motion in order to resolve the matter. But, the Flemish are being complete pussies (besides Vlaams Belang). Apparently they only want to put pressure on the Walloons. Not too much though. CD&V told the Walloons that 'they' won't put the brakes on the talks. The message was clearly understood. The French-speaking politicians have had their say, resulting in a delay. Eventually though, a solution will have to come now that the machinery has been put in motion. I don't think they've thought this kind of political blackmail through. It feels a bit like the Cuban missile crisis (well maybe not that dramatic). If there ever was a time when the split-up of Belgium was close at hand, it's now. Maybe someone will back down. Maybe nobody will. Whatever happens, it's the regular Joe that will pay the price. If somebody backs down, some sort of political price will have to be paid, funded by the taxpayer of course. If we split up, the taxpayer will have to cough up the cash to pay for the transition. It had to happen someday I guess. The last thirty years more and more of the essential responsabilities have been transferred to the regional governments. The unity that we might have had as a country has almost dissolved. Even our television and other media has been split in two. We hardly hear or know anything about the other part of the nation. To me, Wallonia sometimes feels as much as another country as Germany or the Netherlands. I'm not really sure what would be best though. I'm not specifically for or against separation. I live in Brussels, but I come from Limburg (Northeast Flanders). To the people I know there, coming to Brussels feels a bit like going abroad too. And the same goes for going to West Flanders. People only know what they see in their direct proximity and what they want to know. Some sort of patriotism for the Flemish region is cultivated. Less so for Belgium.

At any rate there is still some feeling of unity left. The last two weeks I have noticed that a lot of people have hung the Belgian flag out their windows and this weekend there was a manifestation for the country, against separation. In a recent poll, it was shown that only about 15% in all parts of the country thinks that the country will break over this nonsense (best to be careful, since polls can be tricksy). More than 6000 signatures have been collected for the petition Red de Solidariteit (Save Solidarity, the economy in the South of Belgium isn't exactly booming, so they receive funds from the North). This shows that despite the propaganda of the separatists, people do care for our nation.

To the policians in power I have just one thing to say: choose motherfuckers! If we stay together, try to unite us instead of talking so much shit. The USA has a lot of hyphenations (African-American, Italian-American, etc.), but in the end they all feel American. If a country that big can create a feeling of unity, why can't we? Perhaps our national motto (Eendracht maakt Macht, transl.: Strength in Unity or In Unity lies Strength) is only a jumble of words to you. If you want to split up, then do so. Just don't be a bitch about it. Right now we're in a marriage where the couple is sleeping seperately. Either make the marriage work again, or get a divorce, but don't sleep on the couch and get grumpy at breakfast, because the kids have had enough of all the bickering.

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