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Inside Europe

Belgium's Diversity Hinders Its Unity

Although Brussels is historically Dutch-speaking, the Belgian capital has become increasingly francophone. A longstanding conflict has been the result -- and reflects the situation in the country at large.

A Belgian flag blowing in the wind

One flag, but a divided country

Belgium has been experiencing an ongoing political crisis for years. Rival parties are unable to reach agreement over the division of power and wealth between the richer, Dutch-speaking province of Flanders and the poorer, French-speaking region of Wallonia.

The country's previous prime minister Yves Leterme failed in his efforts to decentralize power to the two regions in order to ease tensions between the Flemish and the Walloons. It had meant amending the Belgian constitution and Leterme was unable to accomplish this.

The new government under Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, who took office at the end of 2008, has been more concerned with the worldwide financial crisis.

However, this paralysis over devolution is not really impacting most Belgians, as Stephen Castle, a Brussels-based journalist points out.

Herman Van Rompuy

Can Van Rompuy find a solution?

"This political crisis has been going on for a very long time," Castle says. "Frankly, people are used to it and possibly, apart from the politicians themselves are bored of it."

According to Castle, even a paralyzed central government doesn't really impact people's day-to-day lives.

"Education continues, schools are open, hospitals are open, the garbage is cleared," he says. "From the practical point of view of most people, there really is very little impact."

Not too worried

Namur is the capital of the French-speaking part of Belgium, the region of Wallonia. At the central station, 30-year-old Jean-Francois says he has grown up with constant talk that Belgium has no real future.

"I've heard this rumor since I was very little," Jean-Francois says. "Belgium might disintegrate, but maybe people are seeing ghosts. Belgium has had an artificial side to it since its very beginnings."

Jean-Francois says he thinks the country could live like this for many years to come.

"I think there are more serious problems than that," he says.

Brussels must be resolved

Belgium is currently in the so-called sixth phase of a far-reaching political reform. The process was started in the 1970s when the unitary Belgian state became a federal state. But here the division between regional politicians from the two sides goes deeper than they would in other countries.

Map of Belgium

Belgium's two regions also differ economically

"In order to make your name as a politician in Belgium, you have to do that in your own community first," Castle says. "If you're, for example, a Flemish politician like Leterme, you really win no votes among your own core supporters by saying nice things about the francophone population in the south."

Luc Arnould is in charge of international relations at the city hall of Namur. He says that the country isn't likely to split unless the issue of Brussels is resolved. And he doesn't see that happening anytime soon. Most people in the capital speak French but belong to the Dutch-speaking part of the country.

"We have to adapt the constitution and the way of working in Belgium, but giving more and more autonomy to the regions," Arnould says. "Regions want to have more independence to organize their economies. But there's always the problem of Brussels. We need a lot of imagination to find a solution."

Division remains a possibility

Many Flemish people in Brussels have no problem with living side by side with Walloons. Bilingualism is a reality here in people's daily lives, says this Brussels native.

"We speak both languages every day -- French and Dutch and English," the man says. "So there are no problems between the people here. And in ten years' time, the next generation will speak both languages all across Belgium."

But the government turmoil has proven there is a problem between Belgium's communities on a political level. Journalist Castle says partition remains a possibility, although it's not likely anytime soon.

"It would make it more difficult for Belgium to be the center of the European Union if it divided," Castle says. "That would send a very poor message to a lot of countries which also have issues over devolution and how to divide up power. I think there's a general consensus that Belgians are probably better off."

Further devolution of power will be a long and arduous process. But Belgium's politicians are used to treading warily when it comes to negotiating greater rights for their communities. And that caution might stave off the breakup of Belgium.