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Viewpoints: Belgian crisis
Belgium has been in a political impasse since the Flemish Christian Democrats emerged as the biggest single party after June elections but failed to form a new coalition government.

Here two leading Belgian journalists, one Dutch-speaking and the other French-speaking, give their views on the crisis, which has highlighted the country's linguistic split.


Dominique Minten, De Standaard

A few years ago, a journalist from the Spanish newspaper El Pais asked me:

"If Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin are playing the final of a Grand Slam tournament, do all the Flemish want Clijsters to win and do all the French-speaking Belgians support Henin?"

I had to disappoint him. In that situation, it doesn't matter much who wins - they are both Belgian tennis players.

There is such a thing as a Belgian identity, and sometimes Belgians are proud to be Belgian.

Another example came in 1993 when King Boudewijn (Baudouin) died. The unexpected death of the man who personified Belgium was a shock for the entire country. For days and nights, Belgians went to Brussels to pay their respects.

That was 1993. Today it's 2007. Have things changed? Yes and no.

Most of the time, we live not with each other but next to each other

If tomorrow King Albert died, I'd say we would see the same endless queues of people waiting to pay their respects. Yet everybody is saying: "Belgium is fading away". Are they right?

Again, the answer is: yes and no. For most of the time, Flemings and French-speaking Belgians live in two different countries.

We don't watch each other's television programmes, we don't read each other's newspapers, we hardly know each other's celebrities.

So most of the time, we live not with each other, but next to each other.

And we find that okay. Because if we live next to each other, we don't have problems. It is only when we have to work with each other that the problems arise.

When we want to reform our justice system or our employment policy, politicians on both sides of the linguistic barrier have totally different/opposite views. The result is a standstill.

Does this - essentially political - problem affect public opinion? Probably yes.

In March, the newspapers De Standaard (Dutch-language) and Le Soir (French-language) conducted a survey among 2,000 Belgians.

One question was: "Do you expect Belgium to still exist in 10 years' time?" Nine out of ten answered "yes". And there were no differences between Flemings and French-speaking Belgians.

However, when looking beyond 2050, more than 50% of Belgians think that our kingdom will come to an end.

In August, another survey was held and this time 38% of the Flemings said that Flanders had to become independent.

I'm the first to say that you have to be careful with surveys, but maybe this political crisis is indeed changing people's minds.

If it really is that difficult to come to an agreement with the French-speaking Belgians, than it might be better to go our own way.

But having said that, if politicians were to decide in a couple of weeks that Belgium no longer exists (an unrealistic scenario), most of the Flemings would be in shock.

And most of them would cry out: "Those Walloons are not that bad after all!"


Beatrice Delvaux,  Le Soir

If you asked me a few years ago whether Belgium could break up I would have laughed at your naivety. I was convinced that this country, for all its complications, had an in-built capacity for finding compromises and enabling north and south to cohabit.

Today, even our business leaders and politicians are wary of hazarding a reply, leaving that question unanswered but laden with portent and fear.

In just a few months, the unimaginable has become a possibility.

So how likely is it that in the coming five years Belgium's two language communities will separate?

It would certainly be a dreadful symbol for Europe as a whole if this country were to fall apart. Belgium lies at its heart and was a founding member of the European Union - for 50 years it has played host to its key institutions.

But looked at more closely, and putting to one side all the symbolism, there is a simple crude fact - there are good reasons for divorce, and the tensions and conflicts run deep.

The only thing that may prevent this country's break-up is the fragile reality that - unlike the Czech and Slovak separation - it would be extremely difficult to put into effect.

Brussels, as both national capital and a francophone enclave in Flemish territory, is the Gordian knot that is likely to defy either unravelling or cutting.

For the Flemish, an independent Flanders without Brussels would be the only option if the country were to be divided rapidly and clearly.

We Belgians have made our bed and must lie in it, but it doesn't hold out much promise

To me that seems a possible but unlikely route. The Flemings would have to think hard before cutting off their only real gateway to the world, as building up Flanders' own autonomous identity would cost billions.

In the words of Karel De Gucht, the outgoing Belgian Foreign Minister who as a leading Flemish Liberal is closely involved in the search for a new government: "Separation is an illusory scenario."

So five years from now, I expect still to see a unitary Belgium, with an increasingly multicultural Brussels at its heart.

But unitary, I should say, because it is forced to remain so for want of a better solution. We Belgians have made our bed and must lie in it, but it doesn't hold out much promise or peaceful rest for the two occupants.

And that sombre thought compels me to utter a heartfelt warning of my own: let us not abandon the idea of Belgium as a country, assuming that it somehow overcomes the present deepening crisis.

We need to open up a new dialogue between all its political parties, revisit and re-invent a form of Belgian federalism that could foster growth and progress in both of the language communities, and handle our differences much more smoothly.

For francophones, this would involve taking our destiny in our own hands but it also means developing a much greater spirit of compromise.

It also means the Flemings must somehow deal with the extremists and nationalists in their midst.

The last word belongs not to myself but to Rik Torfs, a prominent Fleming: "Don't dig your own graves, you the victors of the elections... Just stop and think what would happen if Flanders at last gained independence.

"If we Flemish were in effect to shoot our Walloon scapegoat, we and we alone would then become responsible for all our failures."

A longer version of chief editor Beatrice Delvaux's piece appeared in The Bulletin, a Brussels English-language weekly.

Country profile: Belgium
18 Jul 07 |  Country profiles

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