Sunday, 9 September 2007

Old quarrel, new twist (2): a short history of the conflict between Flemish and Walloon conflict (background)

The language conflict in Belgium seemed almost solved around 1990. But the growing economic gap between Flanders and Wallony added new fire to the nationalistic tensions.

In 1989 for the first time long and difficult negotiations were held about dividing parts of the national treasury into regional ones. This led the then chief-minister of Flanders to say that ‘Belgium is a country with two different economic speeds.’ Around 1970 Flanders, backward and mainly agricultural in the 19th century, had surpassed Wallony in economic strength. The former now obtained most of the foreign investments, whereas the latter had steadily declined since the high-days of its textile, steel and coal-industries around 1900.

Just as old the language-conflict was about to be solved, this growing economic split gave a new twist to the legacy of nationalist tensions. In a first reaction to the decline of their region, around 1970, the dominant socialists in Wallony under the leadership of André Cools had decided to cooperate in the process of devolution. They were driven by the belief that they could follow their own socialist path towards recovery without further intervention from Brussels. A quarter of a century later, with unemployment above 20 % and still rising, this proved to be an illusion. It ended in corruption scandals, clientelism and the murder in 1991 of Cools just outside the appartment of his mistress in Liege (picture by Gerard Guissard of the murdered Cools on July the 18th 1991).

Gradually the Walloon politicians gave up on devolution.

Their own success, the strains of a long budgetary crisis between 1980 and 1995 and no doubt also some arrogance about their economic achievements, made the Flemish grow increasingly impatient about the inability of Walloon politicians to clean up their mess. The idea of breaking Flanders apart from Belgium was absurd as long as the late Soviet Union held more than a million soldiers at 400 kilometers of the Belgian border. But it became a debatable issue among Dutch-speaking politicians and journalists in 1992, when nationalist tensions inside Belgium were running high again and Czechoslovakia broke up peacefully. Flemish independence was picked up as a demand by the extreme-right party of Vlaams Blok, which won votes in each election from 1985 onwards – mainly riding on the immigration-issue - to reach a peak of 24 % in the whole of Flanders in regional elections in 2004.

The situation has not much changed since 1990. The recovery of Wallony is still too weak to keep unemployment under 15 %. Last year the Walloon socialists were rocked by another huge scandal in the main Walloon city of Charleroi. Meanwhile they also succeeded in raising the level of unemployment in Brussels to 20 %, largely by stimulating the immigration of tens of thousands unskilled immigrants from North and black Africa. Due to the high level of the minimum wage, no official work is available for them.

Impatience in Flanders grew year by year stronger and resulted in ever-sharper demands for devolution. But this Flemish radicalization, combined with a homegrown sentiment of despair, confirmed both the Walloon population and the politicians in their stubbornness to refuse every form of new constitutional reforms. Surely, the antagonism is far from general, and in both communities many contest the wisdom of putting politics in a one-dimensional nationalist perspective. Nevertheless the 6 million Dutch-speaking and 4 million French-speaking Belgians have never been as much apart as today.

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