- Aug 27, 2004
Calls for a Breakup Grow Ever Louder in Belgium
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
The New York Times, Sept. 21
BRUSSELS, Sept. 16 — Belgium has given the world Audrey Hepburn, René Magritte, the saxophone and deep-fried potato slices that somehow are called French. But the back story of this flat, Maryland-size country of 10.4 million is of a bad marriage writ large — two nationalities living together that cannot stand each other. Now, more than three months after a general election, Belgium has failed to create a government, producing a crisis so profound that it has led to a flood of warnings, predictions, even promises that the country is about to disappear. “We are two different nations, an artificial state created as a buffer between big powers, and we have nothing in common except a king, chocolate and beer,” said Filip Dewinter, the leader of Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Bloc, the extreme-right, xenophobic Flemish party, in an interview. “It’s ‘bye-bye, Belgium’ time.”
Radical Flemish separatists like Mr. Dewinter want to slice the country horizontally along ethnic and economic lines: to the north, their beloved Flanders — where Dutch (known locally as Flemish) is spoken and money is increasingly made — and to the south, French-speaking Wallonia, where a kind of provincial snobbery was once polished to a fine sheen and where today old factories dominate the gray landscape.
“There are two extremes, some screaming that Belgium will last forever and others saying that we are standing at the edge of a ravine,” said Caroline Sägesser, a Belgian political analyst at Crisp, a socio-political research organization in Brussels. “I don’t believe Belgium is about to split up right now. But in my lifetime? I’d be surprised if I were to die in Belgium.”
With the headquarters of both NATO and the European Union in Brussels, the crisis is not limited to this country because it could embolden other European separatist movements, among them the Basques, the Lombards and the Catalans.
Since the kingdom of Belgium was created as an obstacle to French expansionism in 1830, it has struggled for cohesion. Anyone who has spoken French in a Flemish city quickly gets a sense of the mutual hostility that is a part of daily life here. The current crisis dates from June 10, when the Flemish Christian Democrats, who demand greater autonomy for Flanders, came in first with one-fifth of the seats in Parliament. Yves Leterme, the party leader, would have become prime minister if he had been able to put together a coalition government. But he was rejected by French speakers because of his contempt for them — an oddity since his own father is a French speaker. He further alienated them, and even some moderate Flemish leaders, on Belgium’s national holiday, July 21, when he appeared unable — or unwilling — to sing Belgium’s national anthem.
Belgium’s mild-mannered, 73-year-old king, Albert II, has struggled to mediate, even though under the Constitution he has no power other than to appoint ministers and rubber-stamp laws passed by Parliament. He has welcomed a parade of politicians and elder statesmen to the Belvedere palace in Brussels, successively appointing four political leaders to resolve the crisis. All have failed.
On one level, there is normalcy and calm here. The country is governed largely by a patchwork of regional bureaucracies, so trains run on time, mail is delivered, garbage is collected, the police keep order. Officials from the former government — including former Prime Minister Guy Verhhofstadt, who is ethnically Flemish — report for work every day and continue to collect salaries. The former government is allowed to pay bills, carry out previously decided policies and make urgent decisions on peace and security. Earlier this month, for example, the governing Council of Ministers approved the deployment of 80 to 100 peacekeeping troops to Chad and a six-month extension for 400 Belgian peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon under United Nations mandates. But a new government will be needed to approve a budget for next year.
Certainly, there are reasons Belgium is likely to stay together, at least in the short term. Brussels, the country’s overwhelmingly French-speaking capital, is in Flanders and historically was a Flemish-speaking city. There would be overwhelming local and international resistance to turning Brussels into the capital of a country called Flanders. The economies of the two regions are inextricably intertwined, and separation would be a fiscal nightmare. Then there is the issue of the national debt (90% of Belgium’s gross domestic product) and how to divide it equitably.
But there is also deep resentment in Flanders that its much healthier economy must subsidize the French-speaking south, where unemployment is double that of the north. A poll by the private Field Research Institute released on Tuesday indicated that 66% of the inhabitants of Flanders believe that the country will split up “sooner or later,” and 46% favor such a division. The poll, which was conducted by telephone, interviewed 1000 people.
French speakers, meanwhile, favor the status quo. “Ladies and gentlemen, everything’s fine!” exclaimed Mayor Jacques Étienne of Namur, the Walloon capital, at the annual Walloon festival last Saturday. Acknowledging that talk of a “divorce” had returned, he reminded the audience that this was a day to celebrate, saying, “We have to, if possible, forget about our personal worries and the anxieties of our time.”
Belgium has suffered through previous political crises and threats of partition. But a number of political analysts believe this one is different. The turning point is widely believed to have been last December when RTBF, a French-language public television channel, broadcast a hoax on the breakup of Belgium. The two-hour live television report showed images of cheering, flag-waving Flemish nationalists and crowds of French-speaking Walloons preparing to leave, while also reporting that the king had fled the country. Panicked viewers called the station, and the prime minister’s office condemned the program as irresponsible and tasteless. But for the first time, in the public imagination, the possibility of a breakup seemed real.
Contributing to the difficulty in forming a new government now is the fact that all 11 parties in the national Parliament are local, not national, parties. The country has eight regional or language-based parliaments.
Oddly, there is no panic just now, just exasperation and a hint of embarrassment. “We must not worry too much,” said Baudouin Bruggeman, a 55-year-old schoolteacher, as he sipped Champagne at the festival in Namur. “Belgium has survived on compromise since 1830. Everyone puffs himself up in this banana republic. You have to remember that this is Magritte country, the country of surrealism. Anything can happen.”