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Rich Flanders seeks more autonomy

Belgian politicians are struggling to end a crisis that has paralysed the government for 15 months. At the heart of the stalemate are the rival aspirations of Dutch and French-speakers. In the first of a series of articles on divided Belgium, Henri Astier profiles Flanders.


Antwerp cathedral
Beautiful Antwerp exudes the prosperity and confidence of Flanders

Speed cameras - hardly popular anywhere - are a source of particular irritation in Flanders.

More than 1,000 have been installed across the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium, while Wallonia, the French-speaking southern half, has only a handful.

Yet revenue from fines is collected centrally and redistributed. Many Flemish motorists not only resent being caught speeding, but feel they are subsidising freewheeling Walloons in the process.

The speed cameras provide a neat snapshot of Flemish grievances.

"The hard-working north is supporting the south, just like in Italy," says Pascal Francois, 42, an architect from the town of Aalst.

Flanders indeed has wealth, a hard-working population, and beautiful, world-famous cities - like Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.

Many there are asking why their taxes should prop up what they regard as a lagging, mismanaged region.

"Walloons should be responsible for what they do," says Roger Vandervoorde, 65, a retired sales director, sipping a drink in front of Ghent's picture-perfect cathedral.

"The best would be a confederation, with each part responsible for itself and only a few small matters handled federally."

Deadlock

Such reform is precisely what the Belgian government, dominated by Flemish conservatives, has in mind.

BELGIAN DEVOLUTION
Map

Federal government: foreign affairs, defence, justice, health, welfare
Language-based communities: education, culture
Regional governments: economic policy, labour, housing, environment, energy, transport

But the Walloons are digging in their heels. They regard confederation as secession in all but name, and insist on keeping tax and welfare policies at federal level.

As a result Belgium has not had an effective government since the June 2007 elections.

Pressure in Flanders for more devolution is coming from both ordinary voters and business leaders.

Luc De Bruyckere, chairman of the Ghent-based food group Ter Beke and vice-president of FEB, Belgium's main employers' federation, says a more regional approach to economic policy is urgently needed.

He points out that Flanders has a very tight labour market, while Wallonia is suffering from 17% unemployment.

"We have to organise ourselves in such a way that the different problems can be answered," Mr De Bruykere says.

"One size fits all is not a solution."

Remi Vermeiren, a former chairman of the banking giant KBC, contends that Flemish people "believe more in a market economy" than Walloons, and argues for outright independence for Flanders.

Flemish and Walloons give their views on tensions in Belgium

But resurgent Flemish pride is based on much deeper forces than just material wealth.

The cultural divide between Europe's Germanic north and Latin south has run through the middle of Belgium since the Roman Empire.

"We are a very dual country with two areas that differ in many, many ways," Mr Vermeiren says.

Language problem

The sense of Flemish identity is all the more acute as it was suppressed by the French-speaking elites that ran Belgium after the 1830 revolution.

The constitution was written in French. A Dutch version, written a century later, was not given equal legal force until 1967.

As the Dutch-speaking majority demanded recognition, it was mainly pressing claims against the Belgian state.

From the 1960s - with the south's old mining and steel industries in terminal decline and the north powering ahead - a series of constitutional reforms gradually devolved more powers to the regions.

But for all its economic dominance and political assertiveness, the Flemish still feels culturally on the back foot - and this contributes to their prickliness.

Johan Daelman of Vlaams Belang
You don't have a Belgian language or a Belgian nation - you only have Flemish and Walloon people, plus a few Germans
Johann Daelman
Vlaams Belang

Wallonia may be poorer, but it is part of the 200m-strong francophone community.

The Flemish are not standing on the shoulders of a friendly giant next door - and can be irked by Walloon cultural self-assurance.

Language is a particular sore point. Like their Dutch brethren, the Flemish are taught from an early age the need to learn foreign languages. Walloons are not.

"If we take part in a meeting with, say, eight Dutch-speakers and two French-speakers - we often all end up speaking French so everyone can understand," says Naima Charkaoui of Minderhedenforum, a Brussels-based umbrella group for immigrant associations.

Suburban fears

Flemish defensiveness is at its sharpest near Brussels. The capital, which used to have a Dutch-speaking majority until the early 20th Century, is now overwhelmingly francophone.

Its population is spreading outward in search of greenery and cheaper homes - a move that many in the Flemish suburbs find threatening.

Liederkerke, a traditionally working-class town 15 miles (25km) west of Brussels, is one of many suburbs that have seen an influx of both rich expatriates and African immigrants.

Sign in Liekerke: "Where the Flemish are at home."
In Liederkerke, the Flemish are at home, and respectful guests welcome

"That cocktail is leading to Liederkerke being more French and that is growing fast," says town councillor Johan Daelman, who worries about the "invasion" faced by the city.

The number of families without a Dutch-speaking parent has doubled in the past four years, to reach almost a quarter of the 13,000-strong population.

The town clearly feels the need to remind newcomers where they are.

One sign, featuring a nationalist version of the Flemish lion, proclaims: "Liedekerke, where the Flemish are at home."

Another signs reads: "Welcome to our Flemish commune." From Mr Daelman, the message is: "You can come, but don't bring big-city problems and respect local people."

Mr Daelman belongs to the right-wing Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party, which seeks a separate Flemish Republic.

"Belgium will not stay united," he predicts. "You don't have a Belgian language or a Belgian nation. You only have Flemish and Walloon people - plus a few Germans."

Allegiance

Vlaams Belang, widely regarded as xenophobic, is shunned by mainstream parties and in opposition everywhere, including the Liedekerke municipality.

Despite - or perhaps because of - its pariah status, the party has achieved considerable success in recent years by attracting protest votes.

It is the largest single party in the Flemish parliament.

However a wide majority in Flanders reject Flemish separatism. Most people just want more autonomy within the Belgian state.

"The problem with parties like Vlaams Belang is that they make our job a lot more difficult," says Sam Custers, director of a Flemish cultural centre in Kraainem, another suburb of Brussels.

"They create a negative image of Flanders. Our message is: we're open to everyone."

Flemish pride rarely takes a virulent form. French-speakers visiting Flanders are not in hostile territory. The worst risk they might take is not being served until they make a token attempt to speak Dutch.

But even the least nationalist among the Flemish know where their main allegiance lies.

"I am Flemish first, Belgian second," says Pascal Francois of Aalst.


SEE ALSO
New Belgian PM faces rocky road
20 Mar 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Belgium
10 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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