Saturday, 8 September 2007

Old quarrel, new twist (1): a short history of the conflict between Flemish and Walloons (background) ,

Language incidents on the territory of what is today Belgium have existed at least since the middle Ages. But the nationality-conflict between Flemish and Walloons, as it unfolds today, is not much more than a century old.

Belgium as in independent state came into existence in 1830 after its territory had been a military vacuum and the most intricate diplomatic headache of Western Europe for almost 200 years (picture: fighting between revolutionaries and the regular army at the Royal square in Brussels in September 1830). But between 1848 and 1914 it was one of the most successful nations on earth, with the second industrial economy after Britain and successive liberal governments (even when they were from the catholic party). The ruling bourgeois class spoke French, as the self-evident language of civilization, in the same way as the bourgeois and intellectual elite of the cities in Bohemia and Poland spoke German. (for a more detailed history of the country, see the official website of the Belgian authorities).

Universal suffrage, introduced in 1893, brought the whole population into politics. It laid bare that sixty percent of the Belgians spoke Dutch, and by far the largest part of them only Dutch. Social and language emancipation henceforth went hand in hand in Flanders, and created a powerful nationalist movement.

Gradually, and never without resistance of the Walloon politicians, it saw its demands realized. Towards 1930 the principle was accepted that the country would, more or less like Switzerland, be divided in monolingual administrative units, with Dutch as the official language of the northern provinces of the country, and French of the south. Only the capital Brussels would remain bilingual.

This reform was almost completed after a formal language border was drawn in 1963 (one exception being the area around Brussels: see the previous background-article about the disputes at the heart of the stalemate). In a side effect with far-reaching consequences, all the national parties split up into Flemish and Walloon sections that rapidly estranged from each other. Henceforth each of these parties appealed to the electorate in only half the country.

In 1970 a devolution-process was started, through arduous negotiations and constitutional reforms. It led to the creation of three regional governments – in Flanders, Wallony and Brussels – but with a different structure for culture, health and education, where you had Dutch-speaking, French-speaking and German-speaking areas and governments. After education, public works, media policy, large parts of economic policy and the supervision of local authorities also became regional competences, this highly complicated structure with far too many political mandates to distribute, nevertheless succeeded in reducing nationalistic tensions.

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