Calls for a Breakup Grow Ever Louder in Belgium

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Sep 21 15:34:12 UTC 2007

September 21, 2007

Calls for a Breakup Grow Ever Louder in Belgium


BRUSSELS, Sept. 16 Belgium has given the world Audrey Hepburn, Ren
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. Its
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
Sgesser, a Belgian political analyst at Crisp, a socio-political research
organization in Brussels. I dont believe Belgium is about to split up
right now. But in my lifetime? Id 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 Belgiums national
holiday, July 21, when he appeared unable or unwilling to sing Belgiums
national anthem. Belgiums 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 countrys 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 percent of Belgiums 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 percent of the inhabitants of Flanders believe that the
country will split up sooner or later, and 46 percent favor such a
division. The poll, which was conducted by telephone, interviewed 1,000

French speakers, meanwhile, favor the status quo. Ladies and gentlemen,
everythings fine! exclaimed Mayor Jacques tienne 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

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 ministers 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.

Maia de la Baume contributed reporting from Namur.


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