Ethnic conflict in Belgium has been intense, but peaceful. Its roots are linguistic: a majority of the population speaks Dutch, but the official language in the nineteenth century was French. Ethnic demands and conflict management strategies were initially non-territorial, but increasingly acquired a territorial aspect. The fact that Dutch- and French-speakers were to a large extent territorially segregated facilitated this evolution. At a later stage, ethnic conflict also acquired a socio-economic dimension. The increased territorial emphasis in ethnolinguistic politics had made the emergence of economic ethnonationalism easier and was in its turn reinforced by these later developments.
Each of the two forms of nationalism demanded a slightly different type of territorial settlement. This made the ethnic challenge ambivalent in two ways. First, language and socio-economic interests were treated as separate criteria in drawing and redrawing boundaries. Which was to have priority? Second, the two were to some extent contradictory. Was a territorial solution really the better choice for the management of ethnic conflict in Belgium, or did the nature of ethnic conflict call for a non-territorial solution? This ambiguity gave ammunition to those who sought to postpone or prevent territorial devolution.
Hence, political actors in Belgium had considerable leeway in dealing with the ethnic issue. This leeway was a consequence of the structure of the conflict, and the actors used it to their political advantage. Thus they were likely to change definitions of the groups-in-conflict when political opportunities altered. Furthermore, actors who favoured a territorial position on one occasion might be found to take a much less radical or even a non-territorial stand in another situation. Put differently, political actors in Belgium were prepared to draw and redraw boundaries such that inter-group contact was lessened, but only when it was to their advantage.
This chapter starts with a short historical introduction and data on the current ethno-linguistic balance. It continues with an analysis of the prin-