The Fries Revolution - Belgium's Political Crisis Foretells EU's Future

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Niccolo and Donkey
Belgium's Political Crisis Foretells EU's Future

Der Spiegel

Walter Mayr

March 17, 2011

Belgium has just broken the world record for taking the longest time to build a government. The tension between the country's French- and Dutch-speaking halves holds a lesson for the rest of Europe. As the European Union gets stronger, and national governments get weaker, ethnic groups are demanding more self-determination within a Europe of regions.

Brussels is home to two political arenas, a small one and a large one, which are located just a short walk apart. In the dark, winding corridors of the Belgian parliament, Dutch-speaking representatives from Flanders in northern Belgium are locked in a stalemate with their French-speaking counterparts from the southern region of Wallonia that could tear their kingdom apart. From here, it's just a few steps down the Rue de la Loi to number 175, the square glass-and-stone building that houses the Council of the European Union, the EU's main decision-making body.

It is here that the brave new world envisioned by the EU's leaders is being shaped. It is here that politicians are planning the continent's future, a system symbolized by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

For many years, Van Rompuy was employed on the other side of the trench that divides the national and international politicians working in Brussels. Before Van Rompuy was catapulted into the EU's top job in December 2009, and placed at the pinnacle of a political bloc comprising 500 million people, the slightly built Flanders native was the speaker of the Belgian parliament before becoming Belgian prime minister. That was over at the other end of the Rue de la Loi -- precisely where Belgium's latest political crisis has been playing out.

It is more than 270 days since parliamentary elections were held in Belgium, and a new government still hasn't been found. The exasperated Belgian people have employed all manner of tactics to try to cajole their elected representatives into reaching agreement. They've tried large-scale demonstrations, public stripteases, and even declared a French fry revolution in a tongue-in-cheek reference to their supposed favorite food.

To no avail. Instead of a new political leadership, Belgium now holds a new record: In no other country anywhere in the world -- not even Iraq -- have negotiations to form a government taken so long.

'It Can't Go on Like This'
The rivalry between Belgium's linguistic communities has long deteriorated into mutual recrimination. The Dutch-speaking Flemings blame the French-speaking Walloons in the south for the deadlock, claiming the Walloons simply want to live off the more prosperous north. The Walloons counter that Flemish nationalists stalled the talks with their demands for ever greater autonomy.

"Strength through unity" is the country's national motto. The phrase is engraved at the front of the parliament's plenary session room, where the Chamber of Representatives meets. Flemish members of parliament can look at the motto from their seats in the right half of the room, while the Walloon representatives sit on the left. Between them sits Kattrin Jadin. As the representative of her country's 74,000-strong German-speaking minority, she has been observing the stalemate between the two ethnic groups with growing concern. "It's a poker game in which nobody wants to lose face with their voters," she says. "But it can't go on like this."

The situation in Belgium does indeed look like the outcome of a brilliantly diabolical plan by militant anti-EU forces. Ironically, the EU's central goal of preserving cultural diversity under a common political roof now appears to be failing in one of its founding member states, the very country whose capital has for decades hosted the headquarters of the highly-paid champions of European ideals.

Sixty percent of Belgium's 11 million people are Flemish, the remaining 40 percent are mostly Walloon. For centuries the two ethnic groups have been neatly divided along an ancient cultural border: the former military road that separated the Roman Empire in the south from the barbarian hordes in the north.

Geopolitical Dynamite
After Belgium split off from the kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830, the inherited balance of power was later set in stone in the country's constitution. The new state's official language became French, and it was ruled by the francophone bourgeoisie.

It wasn't until 1966 that Flanders caught up economically with its southern neighbor. Shortly before, the political division of Belgium had been sealed through the establishment of the linguistic border between the "Germanic" Flemish peoples and the "Latin" Walloons. Since that time, five state reforms have underpinned the autonomy of the different regions and heightened tensions between the main ethnic groups. The election victory by Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever in June 2010 turned the wrangling over language laws and constituencies into geopolitical dynamite.

De Wever, whose N-VA party now has the most seats in parliament, has announced his intention to sit back and watch Belgium "evaporate." Walloon socialist Paul Magnette, who is still the incumbent energy minister, has already drawn up a list of possible scenarios. Were Belgium to break up, he cautions the Walloon south against merging with France. "If we had to join another country one day, then Germany must be our best hope," he says.

That question is unlikely to arise, says philosophy professor Philippe Van Parijs, one of the leading figures in the fight to prevent Belgium's disintegration. "But if it weren't for the question of Brussels, we'd have long gone the way of Czechoslovakia, which broke up peacefully," he admits. "Neither ethnic group could, or wants, to live without the capital." Van Parijs, a gaunt intellectual, regularly invites academics and politicians from both sides for talks in the library of his villa in Brussels.

'There Are No Belgians'
So how could this Gordian knot be cut? The solution is a far-reaching reform of the state, Van Parijs says. "Brussels, which is home to so many foreigners, must officially become trilingual: Flemish, Walloon and English," Van Parijs says. "In addition, Brussels, Flanders, Wallonia and the German-speaking area must become independent entities within Belgium, each with its own regional identity." After all, the Belgian capital -- which also happens to be the capital of Flanders -- has become a bone of contention between the Flemings and Walloons precisely because it is populated nowadays mainly by French speakers.

The political debate in Belgium completely ignores the fact that one in every six of Brussels' inhabitants are of Moroccan descent, and that some areas of the city, such as Molenbeek, are overwhelmingly inhabited by people of North African descent. But, in contrast to the rest of Europe, there is no debate about immigration in the country, since the Flemings and Walloons are already kept occupied by their mutual animosity.

At the heart of the problem lies the question of whether the existence of the Belgian state is merely the consequence of a little white lie from the heady days of the country's secessionist youth: the illusion that there can ever be such a thing as a Belgian nation. "Sire, il n'y a pas de Belges" ("Your Majesty, there are no Belgians"), Walloon socialist Jules Destrée famously told his king, Albert I, almost a hundred years ago.

In 2007, when a reporter asked Yves Leterme to sing his country's national anthem, the man who is technically still Belgium's prime minister broke into the Marseillaise -- the French anthem. After the last election, the men who were supposed to lead the coalition talks on behalf of the strongest parties in parliament, Flemish politician De Wever and his Walloon counterpart Elio Di Rupo, first had to ask for each other's cell phone numbers because they had previously had so little contact with one another.

Typical reactions by non-Belgians to such oddities range from a helpless shrug of the shoulder, to comments that a country that spawned the painter René Magritte must have a surrealist gene pool. A more likely explanation is that Belgium is experiencing a phenomenon that can be seen across an increasingly united Europe. The stronger the Brussels-based EU becomes, and the weaker its member states, the louder are the calls by small, long-disadvantaged ethnic groups for self-determination within a Europe of regions.

Scots, Catalans, Basques and Corsicans are eagerly following events in Belgium, partly out of curiosity over how the situation will unfold, and partly because the Flemings have managed to force their desire for a separate state onto the political agenda, even though their language was long derided as one spoken only by farmers and maids.

'Flush Belgium Away'
Roel De Leener, the head of the Language Action Committee (TAK), has been fighting for Flemish rights since his youth. In his high-school days in Brussels, he learnt what it meant to be Flemish in the capital of Flanders and yet still feel like a foreigner, unable to make himself understood. De Leener has since become a father and a business software developer. But in his spare time he paints the linguistic borders from past centuries onto the roads in and around Brussels to delineate future state boundaries.

De Leener and his ilk see themselves as provocateurs and Situationist-style pranksters. They tour their country under the TAK logo "Flush Belgium away," which depicts Belgium's black, yellow and red tricolor hanging over a toilet. "It's all non-violent," says De Leener, who has a penchant for speaking up loudly in town-hall meetings with Walloon mayors. "It's just a disturbance of the peace, no more. We're always released again within 12 hours."

De Leener is demanding an independent Flanders with Brussels as its capital. He says Bart De Wever's election victory brought widespread support for his secession plans. "Forty-five percent of Flemings now back independence, and 80 percent would agree to a confederation of what would in principle be two independent states," he says. "Until recently, we were considered right-wing extremists because of our policies, but opinions have now changed."

Pelted with Stones
However, TAK's deliberate tactic of playing with fire has become riskier for its activists. When TAK activists carrying the Flanders flag recently joined pro-Belgian demonstrators, they were pelted with stones and beer cans.

The TAK got off more lightly a year earlier with an action on the Lion Mound monument in Waterloo, some 15 kilometers (9 miles) south of Brussels on the linguistic border of the Walloon region. The site was the scene of the 1815 battle in which the Duke of Wellington defeated French Emperor Napoleon, thus paving the way for Europe's restoration. Flemish and Walloon soldiers mostly fought on opposite sides of the conflict.

De Leener and his friends say they still can't understand why they were arrested. After all, they had merely encircled the 28-ton bronze lion on the mound with their Flanders flags, and put up a banner declaring "Linguistic borders are state borders." "Do you know which direction the lion is looking?" asks the TAK activist. "To the south, of course; to France, where the danger is coming from."

Waterloo, where that landmark battle took place, has grown into a town which now finds itself at the center of Belgium's ethnic bickering. The Flemish side complains about the so-called "oil slick" along the linguistic border, by which it means the growing exodus of francophone citizens from Brussels to the surrounding countryside.

The six areas known as "linguistic border communities" enjoy a special place in the odder sections of Belgian legislation. These municipalities lie on Flemish territory, but the majority of their population is now francophone. Kafkaesque bureaucratic skirmishes break out time and again. For instance, government officials are tasked with ensuring local council meetings are held in Flemish and that no more than a quarter of library shelves are filled with French-language literature -- no matter what the local population's mother tongue is.

Mouth Taped Shut
Damien Thiéry, a mayor in one of the six linguistic border communities, has his mouth taped shut and is tied to a chair with packaging string. Thiéry is spending the afternoon with two similarly bound gentlemen in a Brussels factory building. Photographer Michel Loriaux wants it to look like a hostage-taking.

Loriaux's image is intended to symbolize everything that has gone wrong in Belgium. He's brought together three famous mayors from around Belgium for a photo shoot. Although Damien Thiéry and his colleagues were elected back in 2006, they have yet to take office. The reason? The three French-speaking officials sent Walloon voters in their Flanders constituencies election documents in French. However Belgian law stipulates that such materials must be sent out in Dutch first, a language most Walloons can't understand.

Because of their action, the Flanders government refused to appoint the elected mayors. "I'm not officially the head of my municipality, although I may still carry out my duties," jokes Thiéry once the photographer removes the duct tape from his mouth and unties him. He wants to use the "hostage" photo for an election campaign. "We're just waiting for the right moment," he says.

'What a Strange Creature'
If Belgium were reorganized or even split in two, the small town of Sint-Genesius-Rode is sure to land in the spotlight. It lies directly between Brussels and Waterloo and is thus a thorn in the side of Walloons who would like to connect the two residential areas.

The majority of people in Sint-Genesius-Rode are wealthy Francophones, many of whom prefer to live apart from their Flemish neighbors in hipped-roofed villas sheltered behind high walls. The remaining Flemings are clustered around the churches, where pubs can be found whose menus are only in Dutch.

But the town's most famous Fleming resident is known for his sobriety. On Sundays he cycles to church for mass, then heads straight back to his clinker brick house. He can sometimes be spied writing in the woods. "Haiku Herman," as he's been dubbed, is a fan of Japanese verse. One composition, in translation, reads as follows: "In the snowy night/ An owl cries through the stillness/ What a strange creature."

The abstemious poet is Herman Van Rompuy, who was Belgium's prime minister when the national crisis came to a head. But even he, a man known for his outstanding diplomatic skills, could not prevent the Flemings and Walloons from drifting further and further apart, because he was relieved of his office -- so that he could take the top job in the European Union.
Niccolo and Donkey

Was the French-speaking part once loyal to the Hapsburgs?