A Belgian Waffle: Flemish Unrest and Secessionism

By Diodato, Michael | Harvard International Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

A Belgian Waffle: Flemish Unrest and Secessionism


Diodato, Michael, Harvard International Review


Belgium is hardly first in anyone's mind when it comes to the question of secession. The small lowlands nation boasts a higher per capita GDP than Britain or Japan and serves as the seat of the European Union. But Belgium's unassuming appearance masks a more complex picture. Its three-month-old government--which filled a nine-month-long governmental vacuum--collapsed in July, and with it went the hope for a political settlement in the near future. Moreover, the constitutional crisis has revived talks of secession, with the Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders estranged from French-speaking Wallonia in the south. Certainly, nothing like the bitter secessionism of Kosovo or South Ossetia is ever likely to surface in Belgium. But the nation's current troubles highlight the lingering cultural and linguistic divides in a Europe currently pelting toward integration.

The reasons for the current crisis derive from Belgium's patchwork origins. Originally united with the present-day Netherlands as a single region, Belgium grew distinct in the wake of the Reformation as a rural Catholic area, in contrast to the Protestant, industrialized northern Netherlands. But the modern state was not created until 1830, when the Congress of Europe annexed portions of the Netherlands and Luxembourg to Belgium, forming a sort of federalized bilingual hodgepodge. Brussels, which is located in southern Flanders and was thus originally Dutch-speaking, came under French influence beginning in the 18th century. It now serves as the flashpoint of Belgian linguistic tension: a predominantly French-speaking enclave in Dutch Flanders, just miles away from French-speaking Wallonia.

The political developments of the past two centuries have also exacerbated the linguistic divide in Belgium. Belgium has long been dominated by a French-speaking establishment, which, when the country began to democratize in the 20th century, granted French Wallonia a veto over all major decisions. It also guaranteed the Walloons at least half of the seats in Parliament, despite the fact that the Flemish represent 60 percent of the population. Moreover, the socialist policies of the south, where once-vibrant coal and steel industries are now flagging, have left Wallonia dependent on transfers of US$7 billion per year. Increasing tensions between the Flemish and the Walloons over the past several decades derives largely from Flemish resentment of Wallonia's welfare status.

The current paralysis dates from June 2007, when, after an inconclusive election, King Albert II directed the longest government-formation process in Belgian history. The transitional period ended in March 2008 with the inauguration of Prime Minister Yves Leterme, but by July Leterme had attempted to resign. The disagreement revolves around the desire of Leterme's Flemish parties to enact constitutional reform and bring the question of secession to a referendum.

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