The Belgian Situation
The Belgian Situation Reviews
a little bit about Belgium's complicated situation today Jun 01, 2008
The Belgian situation.
Belgium has made the international news quite often lately. This was usually not for a big happy event but for the problems between the two main regions in the country.
On one side there are the French speaking Walloons, about 40% of the ten million Belgians and on the other there are the Dutch speakers, the Flemings who account for 60% of the population.
Belgium has always been a strangely complicated country for the outside world, even many Belgians themselves are unable to explain the Belgian situation.
In the non-Belgian press the impression is increasingly being given that the country is about to fall apart and that the Flemish in particular are aiming towards just that.
The new generation of Flemish politicians that arose after the latest federal elections of June 2007 are indeed more focused on Flanders than any generation before them. Election campaigns almost exclusively revolved around the two regions.
Populist slogans claiming less dependence on the other region and more power for their own had made things seriously complicated when it was time to turn the results of the election into a workable government. There are a handful of politicians on the federal level that have openly said the end of Belgium is their ultimate goal. This obviously is not a good basis for negotiating a coalition agreement to run the country by.
Polls have time and time again showed that the vast majority of the Belgians doesn’t want the country to fall apart. So why does it appear to the world that exactly that is going to happen in the near future?
To gain a little understanding of that a little bit of history is indispensable.
The region of what is now Flanders has been overrun and dominated by numerous conquerors over the course of history which is the reason the Flemish never had a strong sense of pride about their country. Flanders was a trade nation, with Bruges and Antwerp important cities in the Hanseatic League, a medieval alliance of trading guilds, but it never was a seafaring nation unlike neighbours Holland and France. The Flemish have never had their eyes on the world even though they had a coastline and important harbours.
Ever since the founding of the nation of Belgium in 1830 the French speaking were dominant. This was because they were far more developed than the Flemings who were mostly farmers. Wallonia was one of the top economic regions of the world by the late 19th century with the industrial revolution taking shape here faster than in most other European regions, whereas Flanders remained largely agrarian and apparently uninterested in what happened away from their own village.
After the second world war things slowly began to change, culminating in the revolt of may 1968. That began in France as a movement to overthrow the establishment but soon became a community question in Belgium.
The decline of the Wallonian industry coincided with the rise of Flanders as an economic power and thus the roles were reversed. From the early 1970’s state reforms have been carried out in order to keep the growing differences under control.
The early 90’s saw the first breakthrough of rightwing political fractions in Flanders who, with a populist discourse, quickly gained ground.
Even though the far right seems to wane, the aforementioned navel gazing of mainly the Flemish politicians today has the nation driving with the brakes on.
The situation must not be dramatized however. Unlike the idea you might get from reading some of the European press coverage, a physical conflict, let alone a civil war, has never even been close. It is still possible for a Fleming to go to Wallonia without being attacked or the other way around.
For visitors Belgium is still a country with a huge diversity for such a small place. As a tourist you will not see many indications of problems between the regions although some people might be a little distrustful at first.
There is lots to see and do in this lovely complicated place right in the heart of Europe.
I have tried to give a brief explanation of the situation in Belgium and the background of it. I do realise it is not possible to completely clarify everything in one article. It would take years of studying to understand the complexity of Belgium. A lot of wild rumours are circulating and I hope that with this article I can help put things in perspective a little.
I have tried to be neutral but as a Belgian I am a person involved here. For those who are wondering where I stand in this: I’m Flemish but a unitarist and so against the break up of my country. Politically I incline towards the left but I’m not an extremist in anything.
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