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More Powers to Belgium's German Speaking Community?

The leader of Belgium's German-speaking minority is ruffling feathers in a country long torn by language sensitivities by calling for a local referendum on the identity and future of the country's German speakers.


Karl-Heinz Lambertz wants a bigger say for German speakers in Belgium

The three women working behind the counter of the busy local sandwich shop on the main street in Eupen, Belgium, non-chalantly switch between German and French as they take customers' orders. One asks for a Thunfisch-Sandwich, the next a baguette au thon. They may sound like fancy names for tuna fish sandwiches, but really they go to the heart of a cultural collision in a pocket-size enclave that has undergone one historical identity crisis after the other.

Eupen is part of Belgium's so-called east cantons, mostly clustered in an 854 square kilometer area that also includes the cities of St. Vith and Malmedy. As one of the country's three official language communities, the cities dominated by German speakers are afforded a considerable degree of autonomy under the Belgian constitution. But the area's approximately 71,000 residents still fall under the jurisdication of the mostly French-speaking Wallonian region - a situation which has led to considerable conflict in recent months.

Calling for a referendum

In July, the Wallonian government rejected a request by the German-speaking community to take over additional governing responsibilities. Ever since, the local minister president of Eupen's German-speaking community, has been calling for a referendum that could determine its future.

"We want to become Belgium's fourth region next to Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels," Minister President Karl-Heinz Lambertz told DW-WORLD.

Words like these are not among those Wallonian Minister President Jean-Cleude Van Cauwenberghe may be keen on hearing. Last month, in an interview with the Belgian daily "Le Soir," the Wallonian leader threatened to stop on-going negotiations aimed at transferring more authority to the German-speaking community if Lambertz didn't immediately cease with his referendum and fourth-region talk.

One of the reasons why Lambertz is pushing for more autonomy is that although the German-speaking community is well looked after, he says there is still a lot of unintended discrimination in the area.

"The Wallonians often like to say – and they don't mean this aggressively – that we are German-speaking Wallonians," he says, "but people here don't feel that way. Yes, they're residents of Wallonia, but they don't feel like Wallonians because their language and culture are different." He also emphasizes that locals are proud Belgians, and that their biggest connection to Germany, besides economic ties, is the language.

The road to self-determination

Under reforms made to the Belgian constitution in 1980, the country's German-speaking areas were given special minority language protections and partial autonomy that are similar to those enjoyed by the Flemish and the Wallonians, who until then and even now are often mired in rivalry.

Many critical decisions about the German-speaking region's fate are carried out by the Wallonian government in the regional capital of Namur - a situation which can lead to great irritation in Eupen.

Despite federal laws requiring that Belgian residents must be able to deal with government authorities in any of three official languages, decisions affecting the German speaking community are often made in French-speaking Wallonia by officials who don't have command of the German language or a clear understanding of the differences in culture, Lambertz contends.

Pushing for a referendum

Currently, the community has its own parliament, it runs its own German-language schools and it has its own media – all of which are subsidized by Brussels and Wallonia to the tune of 25 million euro a year. The German-speaking community is also responsible for education, family, public health, labor and cultural policies. Lambertz likes to cite the fact that the community has the lowest unemployment rate in all of Belgium, to support his case for greater autonomy.

But the bid by the German-speaking community to take over responsibility for roads, regional planning, community planning and local administration, agriculture and housing in the nine-community area was rejected by the Wallonian government in July. Wallonian Minister President Van Cauwenberghe tersely rejected the proposal, describing the community as "Wallonians who speak German" and the idea of creating a full-fledged fourth region as "crazy."

"We're talking about 71,000 people"

Van Cauwenberghe feared that the bid was merely the first step toward secession from Wallonia. "Some people have chosen to attack, but is this serious?" he told "Le Soir." "We're talking about 200 farms in nine communities -- is that a reason to turn agriculture policy over to the German speakers? We're talking about 71,000 people in total. That's one-third of the population of Cherleroi (a major Belgian city). Does that count as a region?" he asked the paper.

His choice of words was not welcomed in the German-speaking community.

Lambertz, for his part, says the German-speaking community is not seeking to become estranged from Belgium or the Wallonians -- they just want more leeway to make their own decisions. "We're not seeking separation from Belgium but rather greater integration," he says.

Despite his hopes and aspirations, Lambertz is not wearing rose-colored glasses. He says it could take years before the German-speaking community is provided with a status equal to Wallonia or Flanders. Besides, he needs approval from the local parliament in order to push the referendum through, and some members, including parliament president Fred Evers, are opposed to any referendum at all.

Lambertz says he's not going to give up easily: "We've learned over the years to be patient, and that the movement has to go step-by-step."

Acting locally, thinking globally

Part of that process is increasing awareness of the German-speaking community.

Within days of the Wallonian decision, the German speaking community's government sent stickers to every household in the area with the letters "DG" for Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft (German-speaking community). Residents have been asked to place the stickers, which look like those used to denote the nationality of a car's owner, on their vehicles.

Lambertz says the timing was coincidental and not purely a political move. He says he wants to use it as a tool to help locals build a sense of identity as German speakers and as an advertisement for Belgium's little known German-speaking community.

A difficult history

Identity is often a difficult theme because of the region's complex history. At various junctures in time, Belgium's German-speaking pockets were ruled by Rome, Vienna, Paris and Berlin. In 1924, it became part of Belgium only to be annexed by Hitler when the Nazis invaded.

Many Belgians accused the German-speaking region of collaborating with Hitler and fighting against their own people to help the invading Nazis. Indeed, after the war, the country passed a law that led the government to strip the citizenship of more than 1,000 Belgian German speakers who had helped the Nazis. It has taken decades for the community to shed its difficult history, which continues to cast a shadow.

This time around, fortunately, the attention being paid to Eupen and other German-speaking communities is more positive.

"Even if the bumper sticker campaign and referendum question isn't a complete success, the fact that people are talking about it -- both in and outside of Belgium -- makes it a success in some ways," says Gerd Zeimers, political editor of the community's German-language newspaper, "Grenz Echo."

  • Date 03.09.2002
  • Author Daryl Lindsey
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2Z1d
  • Date 03.09.2002
  • Author Daryl Lindsey
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2Z1d