Belgium faces a crisis, in any language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Jul 13 15:48:22 UTC 2008

Belgium faces a crisis, in any language French- and Dutch-speakers have long
been at odds. A vote on power-sharing could spell trouble.

By Paul Ames and Robert Wielaard

Associated Press
**MEISE, Belgium - At the National Botanical Gardens, office windows are
cracked, doors are broken, and two greenhouses have collapsed in recent
years. > The reason for the decrepitude is that the gardens lie in a
Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, and French-speaking lawmakers won't approve
the money for improvements.

> It's just one of many signs that Belgium's perennial language time bomb is
again approaching critical mass. It has plunged the country into a
constitutional crisis that makes some wonder if Belgium can - or should -
survive in its present rancorous jigsaw-puzzle shape.

> Authorities in the Flemish towns of Zaventem and Vilvoorde limit social
housing to Dutch-speakers; nearby Overijse encourages citizens to denounce
shopkeepers who advertise in languages other than Dutch; and the mayor has
sent letters to citizens asking them to take down signs in English or

> The local council in Liedekerke drew widespread criticism for suggesting
that only Dutch-speaking children could use municipal playgrounds.

> Much of all this is happening less than a 20-minute car ride from
Brussels, home of the European Union with its grand design of Europe-wide

> The next major test comes on Tuesday, the deadline set by Prime Minister
Yves Leterme for parties to agree on a new balance of power between
Belgium's 6.5 million Dutch speakers and 4 million Francophones.

> Leterme's fragile seven-party coalition government was sworn in only in
March, nine months after elections that strengthened parties demanding more
self-government for Dutch-speaking Flanders. If no breakthrough is made on
Tuesday, the government could collapse.

> "I really don't see any way out," says Damien Thiery, mayor of the town of
Linkebeek. "It's like a broken marriage. Where there is one person who
really doesn't want to live with the other anymore, there's no point in
hanging on. If they want to leave, then they should go."

> Thiery insists relations are cordial in Linkebeek, a Flemish suburb of
bilingual Brussels where 80 percent of the population speaks French. Placid
scenes of people in the main square on a warm summer evening, snacking,
sipping ale, and browsing at the bookstore, seem to confirm his opinion.

> But the mayor is worried because Flemish nationalists plan to stage a
rally in his town in September. "I don't want to be responsible here in my
commune for a pitched battle between demonstrators from the two camps," he

> In the 1960s, when Belgium was cut up into separate language regions -
leaving only Brussels officially bilingual - French-speakers in Linkebeek
and five other Flemish towns outside the capital received special rights to
use French in dealing with their local councils.

> These towns have since become bedroom suburbs for French-speakers who work
in Brussels, and Flemish authorities are fighting back by demanding that the
towns conduct official business only in Dutch.

> Linkebeek's Thiery and two other French-speaking mayors have refused to
comply. Flemish authorities have blocked their nomination even though they
were legally elected, leaving the local councils in legal limbo.

> "The Flemish say, 'You are on our territory, so you have no say,' "
complains Thiery. "The Flemish politicians have become more and more

> At its heart, the quarrel is economic. Flanders is richer than
French-speaking Wallonia, and resents its taxes going toward subsidizing a
territory that is Belgium's rust belt with 15 percent unemployment, triple
the rate in Flanders.

> At the same time, they believe the influx of French-speaking commuters
from Brussels is eroding their cultural heritage. French-speakers say enough
powers have been devolved, and accuse the Flemish of trying to cut Wallonia

> Mindful that the Flemish image abroad is being hurt by its perceived
anti-Frenchness, Geert Bourgeois, Flanders' minister for foreign policy,
recently invited foreign journalists for dinner in a turreted castle outside
Brussels to hear him out.

> "Our policy is very moderate," he insisted. But he didn't hide his hope
for a breakup. "The Belgian system doesn't work," he said.

> The plight of the botanical gardens is a prime example. Its problems date
back to 2000, when it was shifted from the federal government to the Flemish
one, provoking a backlash from French lawmakers, says Jan Rammeloo, its

> "It's a psychological problem," he said. "It's politics in Belgium."

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