Belgium's deep linguistic divide overshadows political dialogue

Tue, Jul 22, 2008, 01:00

EUROPEAN DIARY:Francophone and Flemish parties cannot agree on forming a new government, writes Jamie Smyth

THE CROWDS turned out on Belgian national day yesterday but the political mood was as gloomy as the wet weather with little sign of compromise between the two linguistic communities. For the second year in a row the annual celebration of the formation of Belgium on July 21st, 1831, was overshadowed by squabbling between Flemish and Francophone political parties over the amount of power that should be devolved to each region.

Once again Belgium's King Albert II issued a televised plea for unity on the eve of the national day telling the six million Flemish speakers in Flanders and the four and a half million French speakers in Wallonia that they must "invent new ways to live together".

"Our country is going through serious political difficulties, but I would like to observe that difficulties and crises are also a time to rally and rebound," said King Albert, who last week refused to accept the resignation of standing prime minister Yves Leterme.

Leterme tendered his resignation just four months after cobbling together a five-party coalition government, which under the terms of the Belgian constitution has to straddle the linguistic divide. It took a record nine months to form the coalition and the parties only agreed to come together when the issue of devolution was shelved until July 15th.

Leterme's Flemish Christian Democrat party had promised voters it would deliver constitutional reform to devolve more powers over taxes, labour market policy and healthcare spending from the federal to the regional level. But these plans have been frustrated by the Francophone parties in the coalition, which fear that any further devolution of power could threaten the flow of subsidies from the richer, Flemish-speaking north of the country, to the poorer region of Wallonia. A bitter dispute over how to split the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde voting district between French and Flemish-speaking parties has also complicated the political landscape since Leterme won federal elections in June 2007.

King Albert has appointed three politicians - two Francophones and the leader of Belgium's tiny German-speaking region - to try to broker a compromise. But analysts in Belgium do not hold out much hope for success given the failure of talks up until now.

"I think compromise is unlikely before the June 2009 regional and European elections in Belgium," says Carl Devos, a political scientist at Ghent University. "Leterme must now choose whether to call new elections, where we are likely to see a radicalisation of the electorate, or break his coalition agreement with the Flemish nationalist NVA party."

Both routes are unpalatable and the intransigence shown by politicians on both sides threatens to further strain tensions between French and Flemish speakers, who lead separate lives unless they live in bilingual Brussels. The concept of a distinct Belgian identity is often viewed differently by people from Flanders and Wallonia.

Danielle, a Flemish mother from Antwerp attending the national celebrations in Brussels, said she came to the event because it was a day out for her children, not out of any nationalistic pride. "I don't feel Belgian, I feel European. This is a day out for the children with fireworks and a military parade," she told The Irish Times.

But for 20-year-old Denis Taillandier from the small town of Bouillon in Wallonia, who waved the Belgian flag, celebrating national day is an important tradition.

"I do feel Belgian and I do have some hope for Belgium. Language should not be part of the problem," said Taillandier, who comes from a mixed marriage with his mother speaking Flemish as her first language and his father speaking French.

The joke at the national celebrations was that yesterday's event could end up being the last one with Belgium splitting apart along linguistic lines. For the moment such predictions seem far-fetched if only because the capital, Brussels, is rooted in Flanders yet has a clear majority Francophone population. But if the political deadlock drags on for much longer at a time when inflation is running at 5.8 per cent and the Belgian economy is grinding to a halt, who knows where the current impasse will lead the country?

"We're facing the worst financial and economic crisis since the end of the second World War and nobody in Belgium seems to care," said Mark Eyskens, a member of Leterme's Christian Democratic Party who served in Belgian governments from 1976 to 1992 and was prime minister in 1981-82, last week. "We need a government."

Yet given the tortuous pace of negotiations between the Francophone and Flemish parties over the past 12 months few people would bet against a political crisis wrecking next year's national celebrations too.