Economic Change and the National Question in Twentieth-Century Europe

By Alice Teichova; Herbert Matis et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Economic aspects of the nationality problem in
nineteenth- and twentieth-century Belgium
Erik Buyst

INTRODUCTION

The tensions between Dutch- and French-speakers in Belgium have a long history. Even before the creation of the Belgian state in 1830, we already find traces of linguistic controversies. 1 The political aspects of this conflict have been the subject of much scholarly research and argument. 2 The impact of economic developments on the issue, however, has received far less attention. Economists started a debate in the late 1970s about the magnitude of the financial transfers between Flanders and Wallonia. Most of these analyses take 1975 as a starting point, which is, for a historical economist, a very short time horizon. 3 Moreover, the link between shifts in relative economic performance and its effect on the political bargaining power of the two linguistic groups is rarely taken explicitly into consideration.

The goal of this chapter is to analyse long-term changes in the economic structure of Flanders and Wallonia from the second half of the nineteenth century to the present day. It will be demonstrated that changes in the relative economic performance of both regions affected profoundly their bargaining power in political issues.


THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

The official linguistic census of 1846 indicated clearly that a majority (57 per cent) of the Belgian population used Dutch as its mother tongue. Moreover, the census showed that the two linguistic groups were confined to specific areas: Dutch was spoken in the north of the country (Flanders) and French in the south (Wallonia). Brussels and its suburbs took up a somewhat unusual position. The agglomeration was located north of the linguistic frontier — and was thus in Dutch-speaking territory — but contained a substantial minority (approximately 30 per cent of the population) of French-speakers. 4

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