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Crisis in Belgium

Nick AmiesOctober 2, 2007

As the Belgian government remains locked in a stalemate over the formation of a coalition, the divisions along linguistic lines have fuelled fears that the Flemish and French-speaking regions may go their separate ways.

Belgian flags in support of a unified nation fly from a block of flats in Brussels
Belgians show their support for national unity at a time of concern over the country's futureImage: AP

To the casual observer or tourist, the thousands of Belgian flags that hang from the balconies of Brussels could be a show of support for one of the country's national teams. While the flags do represent a show of national unity, it is a statement of allegiance not to a team but to the country itself. The message in Brussels is clear: "We are Belgium; we are one."

The people of Brussels are united behind the flag as the political crisis in Belgium continues. It is now 112 days since elections triggered a deadlock over more self-rule for Belgium's rival linguistic camps and set the Dutch and French-speaking sides against each other in a complex row that doomsayers say could tear the country in two.

The Belgian political system has been in paralysis since the June 10 election when the country's Christian Democrats and Liberals won a legislative majority to form a coalition government. However, both sides then split into Dutch and French-speaking parties with the Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats and Liberals demanding more autonomy for the northern Flanders region.

The Francophone politicians accuse the Flemish of trying to split the country by demanding increasing independence for Flanders, saying that the unity and structure of the state is at risk if the north gets more autonomy. A bigger say for Flanders in areas such as the economy and employment would effectively give the region the power of a small state, they argue, and would have a detrimental effect on the rest of the country.

Prosperous Flanders wants more autonomy

Map of Belgium showing Flemish and French-speaking regions
Split down the middleImage: AP Graphics Bank/Wolf Broszies

There has been tension between Francophone, Wallonia in the south and Flanders in the north ever since Belgium won its independence in 1830.

But the main problem with modern Belgium as far as the Flemings are concerned is that their more prosperous region has to continually prop up Wallonia, a region which is poorer and has higher unemployment. The Flemings want Wallonia to become more accountable and to keep more money in their wealthy Dutch-speaking region.

This feeling of disparity has fuelled resurgence in Flemish nationalism and, in turn, the rising success of Flemish separatist parties.

The stand-off has led to almost four months of stalemate over the formation of the government. While Belgian King Albert II has appointing a series of politicians with the unenviable job of hammering out a compromise and forming a coalition, each has so far failed.

"The problem is that we are still stuck in an electoral situation where any movement by one side or the other towards an agreement is seen as a sign of weakness," Johan Buelens, a professor of political science at the Free University of Brussels, told DW-WORLD.DE. "It's like a game of political chicken. Who will blink first?"

Belgian flags in support of a unified nation fly from a block of flats in Brussels
Officially bilingual Brussels aligns itself with WalloniaImage: AP

Brussels, Wallonia see no reason for split

The political split along linguistic lines has generated discussions in many quarters over a possible geographical separation of the nation. While the general impression outside Belgium is of a country on the verge of collapse, the people, at least those in the capital, are far more relaxed.

"This talk of separation comes only from the politicians," said Anne Wilmots, a physiotherapist in the predominantly Flemish quarter of Woluwe Sint Pieters in Brussels. "The people, at least in Brussels and Wallonia, don't want a split and don't believe there will be one. It is a tactic, an empty threat in a game of politics. No one really believes this will happen."

The opinion of many of those living in the largely Francophone but officially bilingual municipality of Brussels is much the same as that of the majority of French-speakers in Wallonia, including the region's largest political party.

"This is not a new discussion," a senior politician with Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH), a Christian democratic party, told DW-WORLD.DE under the condition of anonymity. "We have been talking along linguistic lines for over 50 years and the country is still together. The regions are compatible, whatever people may say. The CDH supports a unified Belgium and will continue to do so. We don't foresee any changes in our ideology or the structure of our nation."

Flemish nationalism fuelling independence debate

Vlaams Belang members Frank Vanhecke, center, Gerolf Annemans and Marie-Rose Morel
Flemish nationalist parties have made gains in FlandersImage: AP

However, the view from the north is quite different. A recent poll in the Flemish-language daily Het Laatste Nieuws showed that 46.1 percent of Flemings polled wanted Belgium to split, compared to 49.6 percent who said they didn't.

"Many Flemings believe that a split would make them richer," said Buelens. "Every two months Vlaams Belang [a Flemish nationalist party] sends out flyers saying that Flemings pay enough towards Wallonia to buy a Walloon family a 15,000-euro car ($21,000) every two years. Those who believe that believe that this money would go to them if the country was divided. It is not as simple as that.

"It is like a child in a quarreling family," he continued. "If the parents row all the time, maybe the child thinks it would be better for them to divorce. But it thinks this without any real knowledge of the consequences. The child just thinks things would be better than the quarreling. This is how it is in Belgium."

While the opinions of the people show just how complicated and diverse life in Belgium can be, the final decision to split the country -- should it come to that -- will be made by the politicians. But just how likely and how possible would it be to dissolve Belgium?

Practical problems, lack of will make divorce unlikely

"For a start it is really only a small part of the Flemish political elite which favors a split," said Buelens. "But the Flemish have a larger federal presence, with about 60 percent of the population. Even so, there would have to be agreement on both sides of the divide to separate the country and we've seen how hard it is to gain a consensus here."

Belgian campaign posters on a wall in Brussels
Belgium is rife with political and linguistic divisionsImage: AP

Buelens believes that there are too many issues involved in breaking up the country to make it a viable option, from the payment of the national debt to the future of Brussels. But, he concluded, it was worth debating the idea as it could lead to the resolution of other long-standing problems in Belgium.

"It's good that the politicians are talking about this," he said. "This debate could lead to a reform of the regional structure which would make things fairer for everyone; how power can be shared and distributed, how wealth and employment can be spread around the whole country."

"It is better that they resolve their differences over 100, 200 or even 300 days rather than take up arms against each other and decide it that way."