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Last Updated: Friday, 13 May 2005, 17:09 GMT 18:09 UK
Language dispute divides Belgium
By Chris Morris
BBC News, Brussels

Defaced sign
The Belgian government has won a vote of confidence in parliament after months of failed negotiations about language rights in an electoral district on the edge of Brussels.

The dispute pits the country's Dutch-speaking Flemish population against the French-speaking Walloons.

A decision about how to solve the problem has now been put off for another two years - but it has already brought bigger questions into focus about Belgium's future as a unified country.

The current dispute is complicated - how should an electoral district which includes suburban Flanders and parts of Brussels be split up between the country's Flemish and French-speaking political parties?

Many French speakers have been moving into the Dutch-speaking suburbs in the last few years - and the Flemish parties are determined not to lose control.

"It bothers me as a Flemish person that people who come and live here don't want to adapt," says an elderly resident of the town of Vilvoorde. "Immigrants have to learn our language, but the French don't. What does that tell you?"

One nation?

Similar arguments have been raging for years. Belgium is a federal state, painstakingly constructed. The regional governments in Flanders and Wallonia already enjoy considerable autonomy - controlling things like education, healthcare and social security.

Defaced sign
Streets signs are sometimes defaced in the language dispute

As other political powers are transferred in the other direction, towards the European Union, many commentators here are confronting an uncomfortable issue: what's the point of Belgium?

"This is not a technicality any more," says Michel De Meulenaere, the National Editor of Le Soir newspaper. "We have to ask more fundamental questions. What do we have in common, and do we still have the will to live together in a united country?"

The Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities tend to keep themselves to themselves, but tensions rise close to the country's internal border, where any attempt to change the linguistic balance is hotly disputed.

In the years following World War II, violent clashes were not uncommon. That does not happen now. But serious questions are being asked about the long-term future of a country in which the two main communities, divided by language, have so little in common.

Blow to Belgium's far right
09 Nov 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Belgium
10 May 05 |  Country profiles


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