Belgium, in short, combined all the ingredients of nationalist and separatist movements across Europe: an ancient territorial division reinforced by an equally venerable and seemingly insuperable linguistic gulf (whereas many residents of the Dutch-speaking regions have at least a passive acquaintance with French, most Walloons speak no Dutch) and underpinned by stark economic contrasts. And there was a further complication: for most of Belgium's short history the impoverished communities of rural Flanders had been dominated by their urban, industrialized, French-speaking Walloon compatriots. Flemish nationalism had been shaped by resentment at the obligation to use French, at the French-speakers' apparent monopoly of power and influence, at the francophone elite's arrogation to itself of all the levers of cultural and political authority.Wow. It's almost as if Belgium has been governed by a bunch of enlightened North American university administrators with ever-expanding budgets.
Flemish nationalists, then, had traditionally taken for themselves a role comparable to that of Slovaks in pre-divorce Czechoslovakia—even to the extent of actively collaborating with the occupiers during World War Two in the forlorn hope of some crumbs of separatist autonomy from the Nazi table. But by the 1960s the economic roles had been reversed: Flanders was now presented by its nationalist politicians not in the image of backward, under-privileged Slovakia but rather as Slovenia (or—as they might prefer—Lombardy): a dynamic modern nation trapped in an anachronistic and dysfunctional state.
These two self-ascribed identities—repressed linguistic minority and frustrated economic dynamo—were now both woven into the fabric of Flemish separatist politics, such that even after the old injustices had been swept away and the Dutch-speaking provinces of the north had long since won the right to the use of their own language in public affairs, the remembered resentments and slights simply attached themselves to new concerns instead, bequeathing to Belgian public policy debates an intensity—and a venom—which the issues alone could never explain.
One of the crucial symbolic moments in the ‘language war’ came in the Sixties—fully half a century after Dutch had been officially approved for use in Flemish schools, courts and local government, and four decades after its use there was made mandatory—when Dutch-speaking students at the University of Leuven (Louvain) objected to the presence of French-speaking professors at a university situated within the Dutch-speaking province of Flanders-Brabant. Marching to the slogan of ‘Walen buiten!’ (‘Walloons Out!’) they succeeded in breaking apart the university, whose francophone members headed south into French-speaking Brabant-Wallon and established there the University of Louvain-la-Neuve (in due course the university library, too, was divided and its holdings redistributed, to mutual disadvantage).
The dramatic events at Leuven—a curiously parochial and chauvinist echo of contemporary student protests elsewhere—brought down a government and led directly to a series of constitutional revisions (seven in all) over the course of the ensuing thirty years. Although devised by moderate politicians as concessions to satisfy the demands of the separatists,the institutional re-arrangements of Belgium were always understood by the latter as mere stepping stones on the road to ultimate divorce. In the end neither side quite achieved its aims, but they did come close to dismantling the Belgian unitary state.
The outcome was byzantine in its complexity. Belgium was sub-divided into three ‘Regions’: Flanders, Wallonia, and ‘Brussels-Capital’, each with its own elected parliament (in addition to the national parliament). Then there were the three formally instituted ‘Communities’: the Dutch-speaking, the French-speaking, and the German-speaking (the latter representing the approximately 65,000 German speakers who live in eastern Wallonia near the German border). The communities, too, were assigned their own parliaments.
The regions and the linguistic communities don't exactly correspond—there are German speakers in Wallonia and a number of French-speaking towns (or parts of towns) within Flanders. Special privileges, concessions, and protections were established for all of these, a continuing source of resentment on all sides. Two of the regions, Flanders and Wallonia, are effectively unilingual, with the exceptions noted. Brussels was pronounced officially bilingual, even though at least 85 percent of the population speaks French.
In addition to the regional and linguistic communities, Belgium was also divided into ten provinces (five each in Flanders and Wallonia). These, too, were assigned administrative and governing functions. But in the course of the various constitutional revisions real authority came increasingly to lie either with the region (in matters of urbanism, environment, the economy, public works, transport and external commerce) or the linguistic community (education, language) culture and some social services).
The outcome of all these changes was comically cumbersome. Linguistic correctness (and the constitution) now required, for example, that all national governments, whatever their political color, be ‘balanced’ between Dutch- and French-speaking ministers, with the prime minister the only one who has to be bilingual (and who is therefore typically from Flanders). Linguistic equality on the Cour d'Arbitrage (Constitutional Court) was similarly mandated, with the presidency alternating annually across the language barrier. In Brussels, the four members of the executive of the capital region would henceforth sit together (and speak in the language of their choice) to decide matters of common concern; but for Flemish or Francophone ‘community’ affairs they would sit separately, two by two.
As a consequence Belgium was no longer one, or even two, states but an uneven quilt of overlapping and duplicating authorities. To form a government was difficult: it required multi-party deals within and across regions, ‘symmetry’ between national, regional, community, provincial, and local party coalitions, a working majority in both major language groups, and linguistic parity at every political and administrative level. And when a government was formed it had little initiative: even foreign policy—in theory one of the last remaining responsibilities of the national government—was effectively in the hands of the regions, since for contemporary Belgium it mostly means foreign trade agreements and these are a regional prerogative.
The politics of this constitutional upheaval were just as convoluted as the institutional reforms themselves. On the Flemish side, extreme nationalist and separatist parties emerged to press for the changes and benefit from the new opportunities to which they gave rise. When the Vlaams Blok, spiritual heir to the wartime ultranationalists, rose to become the leading party in Antwerp and some Dutch-speaking suburbs north of Brussels, the more traditional Dutch-speaking parties felt obliged to adopt more sectarian positions in order to compete.
Similarly, in Wallonia and Brussels, politicians from the French-speaking mainstream parties adopted a harder ‘communitarian’ line, the better to accommodate Walloon voters who resented Flemish domination of the political agenda. As a result, all the mainstream parties were eventually forced to split along linguistic and community lines: in Belgium the Christian Democrats (since 1968), the Liberals (since 1972), and the Socialists (since 1978) all exist in duplicate, with one party of each type for each linguistic community. The inevitable result was a further deepening of the rift between the communities, as politicians now addressed only their own ‘kind’.**The main newspapers, Le Soir and De Standaard, have almost no readers outside the French- and Dutch-speaking communities, respectively. As a result, neither takes much trouble to report news from the other half of the country. When someone speaks Dutch on Walloon television (and vice versa) subtitles are provided. Even the automatic information boards on interregional trains switch back and forth between Dutch and French (or to both, in the case of Brussels) as they cross regional frontiers. It is only partly a jest to say that English is now the common language of Belgium.
UPDATE: Judt provides useful background to the report last month by Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times entitled Calls for Breakup Grow Ever Louder, filed in the wake of a celebration of "100 dagen belgische Chaos" by the Flemish Bloc.