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Belgium Upside Down [EN]

In surrealist-minded Belgium, a stupid error may easily turn into a wise comment.

French TF1 Television channel was going to inform their public, yesterday night, about the actual political turmoil in the neighbouring country. A map was needed, to indicate where Belgium is, and how it is divided in three regions.

Here is the map. Please, find the TWO biggest errors:

You saw it!

The French speaking Walloons are living in the Southern part of Belgium and the Dutch speaking Flanders people live in the North. That is the first error. The second one is less evident for everybody who is not Belgian. The third Belgian region is the Brussels agglomeration. It lies just some Kilometers north of Wallonia and not in the middle of Flanders. An informed French blogger jubilated ironically: ‘This is a final solution to the Belgian mess! French speaking Brussels in the middle of Wallonia, in stead of being surrounded by frustrated Flemish.’ Only the mutual ethnic cleaning between North and South, would be somewhat onerous…

Why is that turning upside-down of the Belgian crisis so funny?

You should know, that the division of the country into regions is language-based. Dutch-speaking Belgians were overlorded by French-speaking elites since Belgian independence (1830, from Holland). A cultural, regional and political upsurge of the Flemish since the end of the 19th century, forced the Brussels and Walloon bourgeois to accept equality of the two main national languages first, and subsequently a series of state-reforms that leaves Belgium as it is now: a country governed by the two main (linguistic) regions, each jealously guarding its prerogatives. Even international trading has become a regional matter!

(Imagine the Chinese, receiving a Belgian economic mission, that is split up between Flemish, Walloons and representatives of the separate Brussels region! This really happened a few years ago. I’m told, that the Chinese are still laughing…)

Most problems about frontiers are about asymmetry. In Belgium, we have an asymmetry between language and soil. If you divide a country along linguistic lines, you have to take into account, that there are areas of mixed language that do not fit into your scheme.

This is, where the capital, Brussels comes in.


A long time ago, Brussels was a Flemish city. We are speaking about the early Middle Ages. Then the Bourguignons came in and attached the whole of the Low Countries (the actual Benelux) to their powerful French duchy. Court- and bureaucratic language became French, the Church turned French. Later on, the Spanish Habsburgs were masters of the country, speaking French. Next (beginning 18th century) came the Austrian Habsburgs, guarding the country against the Dutch, the French and the English and fighting many wars on its soil. The last 18th century war, the one against the French Revolution, they lost. The French sansculottes occupied Belgium and Brussels. Napoleon I even made Belgium part of the French ‘nation’, splitting it up into French Départements. The Vienna arrangements of 1815 gave the Austrian Low countries to the new Dutch king. William I did not bother much about language. His latest spouse was a member of the French speaking Belgian nobility. The Belgian revolution of 1830 was made in Brussels by the new higher middle class of traders and industrialists, closely tied to mighty Great-Britain.

That is why the city (or: region) of Brussels became, in majority, a French speaking city. It has in some neighbourhoods still authentically Flemish speaking citizens and in some places, people mix up both languages in a creative potpourri.  There are no Flemish or French neighbourhoods, anybody can live everywhere. So, Brussels could not fit into the linguistic definitions of the ‘State-Reforms’. And it would not, either, for it has a mission of being a capital, as well for the 60% Flemish majority, as for the 40% French speaking minority in Belgium.

If you consider Brussels as an exception, you have to allow that it is a BIG exception. Brussels bilingual region has 1,2 million inhabitants. Greater Brussels (the agglomeration and surroundings) can claim 2 millions out of a total of 11 million Belgians.

The frontiers between the linguistic regions have been fixed in 1962. After half a century, you may assume, that there have been some changes to the linguistical composition of some areas next to the “frontiers”. This is of course more than true for the growing Brussels agglomeration. To cut it short: Some rural communities around Brussels receive an influx of French-speaking inhabitants, and, as the EU develops, also of many Eurocrats, who do not speak French, maybe, but certainly not Dutch, in most cases.

As an immigrant into Brussels since twenty years, I admire the loose way in which common citizens in the city as well as in the rural communities around it, cope with the linguistical problems in day-to-day life. “Les Belges se débrouillent” - the Belgians find a way out. That is the result of many centuries of foreign occupation, I think. The Belgians let their politicians do and find their own solutions among themselves. In that respect, I see no distinction between Walloons, Flemish or ‘Brusseleers’.

The aloofness of my new compatriots has its merits. But it is also responsible for a surrealistically complicated government, that is the playing ground of regional politicians who are unable to swallow the compromises that inevitably have to be made for the survival of the Belgian contraption.

As I told on several occasions before this, the irresponsible politics of Flemish separatists and Walloon regionalists, are suffocating the city of Brussels, which, on its own, provides 20% of the economic strength of the country. The last citizens rebellion of Brussels (against the Burgundian aristocracy) dates from the 1511 carnival. Will 2011 see a repeat of it?

I must confess: I hope so!

This article was first published in At Home in Europe (at Euractiv)

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