Belgium:Keep it Simple!! (part 1)

Belgium is in trouble. It's been more than a year since the last elections, and still there is no government, no agreement between parties and communities. There is only uncertainty about the future, nobody knows what will happen next. My guess is the same as most people : nothing will happen in the (near) future.

So let's keep it simple and take a look at the problems that exist (please add missing problems, a follow-up post with simple solutions will follow).

Problem: What to do with Brussels ?!

Many people talk about splitting Belgium in two or more parts. Independence will solve all problems (yeah right). But nobody has a good solution on where our capital fits in such a scenario.
Brussels is an island in Flanders, completely surrounded by (officially) Flemish communities. But Brussels has only a small minority of native Dutch (aka Flemish) speaking inhabitants.
In the present situation, Brussels is suffocated by artificial boundaries. One example is Strombeek-bever. Strombeek-bever is a community that is part of Brussels in a structural/economical/regional/physical sense, but it belongs to Flanders in a legal/official/bureaucratical sense.

Problem: Languages ?!

Most Belgians are native Dutch speaking (65%) or native French speaking (35%). Some native Flemish regions contain French minorities and vice versa. These minorities are annoyed, teased, even pestered with irrational language demands. Some people are not allowed to use their native language in their own country ?! Add to this minor annoyances like road signs (Liege/Luik/Luttich, Antwerpen/Anvers, Geldenaken/Jodoigne...) that are confusing for everyone!

Problem: Too many governments ?!

Belgium has a King, a federal government, some regional (Flanders, Brussels, Wallonia) governments, some community (French, Flemish, German) governments, a bunch of provincial (ten provinces since the Brabant split) governments. This besides hundreds of municipalities. So who is responsible for what ? The paperwork to get anything done is too much, and most people complain about getting the right documents from the right organization (think Kafka or Task 8).

Problem: Too many political parties ?!

About a gazillion little parties participated in the last elections, resulting in none of them getting more than about ten percent of votes. Add to this that those getting the most votes are cartels (temporary alliances between different parties). A minimum of five to eight parties need to agree before any government can be formed.

Problem: Cultural differences ?!

Not a big problem in itself (cultural differences enrich a country!), but it occupies the minds of many Belgians. Expressions like "Walloons are lazy!" or "Too much money is transferred from Flanders to Wallonia!" are common. People always blame someone and Belgians tend to blame the other (language) side of being irrational or being the cause of problems.
Hint: The same would happen in an independent Flanders, so let's quickly get rid of the "Westhoek" and "de Limburgers"...and so on...until you stand all alone in the world and can only blame yourself!

Problem: What to do with Europe ?!

Europe poses some problems for Belgium. First, it adds another layer to the government (oh no). Second, people tend to forget great European achievements (like the euro!). Instead they complain about politicians going to Europe (like it is their pension and they do nothing there but relax) and they complain about the European rules.
Europe is also a threat to Belgium as a state. In the (far?) future, Europe will have one European government and many cultural regions. We can keep the countries for the World Cup and the Olympics, but any real responsibility should go to Europe and only cultural/recreational/tourist stuff should belong to a regional level.

Anything else in Belgium that poses a big problem, or that causes the current situation ?


elise said...

you forget all the old feelings of resentment, that are still very much there. In the children and grandchildren of the people who were actually wronged.

This adds a layer of irrationality to the whole mess.

Paul Cobbaut said...

Sorry for asking Elise, but wronged how ?

Bruno De Wolf said...

"Some people are not allowed to use their native language in their own country ?!"

Well, sorry but this just untrue. Everybody has the right to speak whatever language he wants (Dutch, French, Elbonian) at home, to his friends, in shops, whereever. The only thing is that in some regions, there is only one official language (=the language in which the local government makes its official papers) but this official language is not accepted by part of the local population.

Bram said...

Paul, you're absolutely right. The problem with regional independency is that there will never be an end to it. You can find differences between any group of people, regardless of size. That's the way people are. Everyone's different, but at the same time everyone's the same. Some people look at it the former way, I prefer the latter.

Bruno De Wolf said...

Oh, and I think you missed 'money' on the list. The Flemish part is richer than the French speaking part and indirectly (via social security mechanisms) gives money to them. A lot of Flemish people think the amount of money that flows from north to south is 'too high'.

Paul Cobbaut said...

@Bruno: I think you just proved my point...

The idea behind this post is to enumerate problems that exist in Belgium. Language is a problem because some people will agree with you, while other will disagree...

There are artificial boundaries (like the language border), and crossing them can mean that your native French or Dutch will not be respected by one or more of the Belgian governments. Belgium is 65 percent Dutch, but you cannot use Dutch for official papers in some parts of Belgium (and vice versa). This is a problem.

Paul Cobbaut said...

@Bruno: The 'money' discussion again proves my point.

Even if Flanders is independent, then "too much" money will flow to Limburg or to other parts. So we ditch them too ? You can continue like this until you are all alone in your 'country'.

There is more than enough money in Belgium, a lot more than in most other countries. So money is not a problem...perhaps greed is, or unwillingness to share the wealth.

Matt Casters said...

No sane person has a problem giving even large amounts of money (>$12B / year) if that improves the economy and gets folks out of a sticky situation. That would be good for all, increases wealth, etc.

Unfortunately, some politicians in the South think that giving people a government job solves the problem or they think that giving Google and Microsoft millions of Euro is going to create employment. It doesn't, it increases the problem of finding good people in ICT.

Suppose one of your family members, say your brother, asks you for 300 Euro every month because he's in a bit of a fix. He keeps asking this, month after month, year after year, and he keeps unemployed, never lifts a finger. Would you keep supporting him? Essentially that's the question to answer. My bet is that nobody in his right mind would keep up with this.

Oh well, perhaps the Flemish people just sick and tired of being called anti-social by the intellectually dishonest politicians (and apparently you as well) in the South because we point to the incredible unfair situations that have been created while at the same time they're paying these insane amounts of money all the time.

I guess saying that the North is anti-social, racist, etc is easy. As a French speaking politician it allows you to sit back and relax and not lift a finger to fix the problems. Or here's another idea: why don't you say that the gas price and inflation are the main problems to worry about: another great reason to chicken out of the debate. (unfortunately not a good one since you can't do anything about those issues anyway)

localhost said...

Ok, this is part one, where you describe some (but not all) of the problems.
Will you suggest solutions in part two?

About language: it isn't an artificial border but a real border. Altough it isn't a straight line, it's more like a gradient.
If people don't understand each other because they speak different languages, problems will automatically occur. And even if they do speak the other language, the finer nuances get lost in translation. I can't even perfectly explain what I mean in English because it isn't my mother language.

@elise: I think I can guess what you mean. It's indeed irrational but people (and I mean real people, not geeks like us) will always be irrational.

Bruno De Wolf said...

You're exaggerating the internal differences within Flanders and minimizing the differences between Flanders and the rest of Belgium.
E.g. unemployment rates in 2006 (Eurostat figures):
Average of Flanders: 5%
Limburg (the region with highest unemployment rates in Flanders): 6.2%
Average in Wallonia: 11.7% (or 88% higher than Limburg)
In fact, unemployment in Limburg is lower than region with the lowest unemployment of Wallonia.

These are the objective numbers. Now, of course you can argue whether the social security system is ok or whether it is too generous: you call it 'greed', I call it 'responsibility', but these are personal opinions.

The bare fact remains though that there is a huge economic gap between Flanders and Wallonia.

Christophe Vandeplas said...

@Bruno: When people speak about unemployment and economic wealth they tend to use numbers of 'right now'. A rhetoric question that could be made is: 'What about the economic wealth 40 years ago when industrial activity was huge in the south?'.

No need to answer this question. It's just to show that there are different ways to look at the big picture.

And besides, the more you separate the more differences you'll see. (economic, linguistic, cultural,...)

Bruno De Wolf said...

I'll answer your rhetoric question anyway. When economic activity was higher in the south (which is more than 40 years ago btw), social security was nearly inexisting. So, people from the north went working in the south and made the north richer through earned income via work. Or via the free market if you want. Today's money flow that's under discussion is money flow via the social security system. Which is money flow generated through anything except work.

Paul Cobbaut said...

@Bruno: Yes, there is a bigger difference between Wallonia and Flanders than between Antwerp and Limburg.
There is an even bigger difference between several European countries so according to your logic we have to split up the European Union (or at least ditch the countries with higher unemployment rate than Flanders...).

By the way, 45 regions in Europe have an unemployment rate below 4.5...makes Flanders look bad huh ;-)

You can also compare the number of days we go on strike (yes eurostat)...the average Flemish worker has a lot more strike-days and absent-days than the average Walloon.

Point is that we all make progress, yes even the poor part of Belgium gets richer and gets more employment.

We are in this boat (planet Earth) together, and separating the Walloons in another country will not make them disappear and will not solve any problems.

I agree however with your point! The difference is too big, and this problem needs to be tackled! Question is, how do we tackle it ? Adding more layers of governments does not sound like a good idea to me...

Paul Cobbaut said...

@localhost: Yes Amedee i will suggest my solutions in part two! I don't expect everyone to agree with them...since it will be SIMPLE solutions.

The language 'border' is in reality indeed a gradient that sometimes stretches many kilometers. The official language border is therefor always wrong.

The language border is the Belgian version of the big wall in Israel to keep the Palestinians out. Same goal: keep out the 'others'.

In some municipalities that have a majority of French speaking inhabitants, everything needs to be (legally) done in Dutch. Language legislation is abused in Belgium as a way to discriminate and pester people, based solely on their native language. This causes tension on both sides of the language border, and therefor i consider it a problem!

Paul Cobbaut said...

@matt: i'm going to eat something now...but will reply to you later.
@all: Thanks for all the comments!

Bruno De Wolf said...

There is no EU-wide social security. Irish workers don't pay for unemployed Greeks.

My main point was not that one community is or isn't superior over the other. My point (and I think you understand it), is that for social security to work, a certain degree of homogeneity is necessary.

Matt Casters said...

> By the way, 45 regions in Europe have an unemployment rate below 4.5...makes Flanders look bad huh ;-)

No Paul, 5-6% is about the minimum you need for sustained economic growth.
In those regions in Flanders where they reached the 4-5% figures, they are screaming to find good people. Ironically, that includes a large portion of the Flanders/Wallonia border are.

The unemployment rate for the EU was 7% a year ago.


Again, that figure doesn't put anybody in a bad perspective at all. Except for maybe... well, you know. ;-)

Dag said...


> The language border is the Belgian version of the big wall in Israel to keep the Palestinians out. Same goal: keep out the 'others'.

I find your statement appalling, the border between Flanders and Wallonia was an agreement in the past, like many borders in Europe.

The borders define what laws rules where, and in this case it was agreed by the Belgian government what part was Dutch-speaking, what part was French-speaking and what part was bilingual. Mostly because the French-speaking politicians did not want Wallonia to be bilingual (this was when then bilingual Flanders wanted the whole of Belgium to be bilingual and not just Flanders).

As soon as you start questioning borders, you are questioning law. Nobody in Flanders is asking Bauvechain (Bevekom) to become Dutch even though a large population is Dutch-speaking and the official language is French.

And no, you do not change borders based on language. People are expected to learn another language when they move across borders. And that is exactly the problem in Belgium and why in a few parts of Flanders a large part speaks French and refuses to learn the local language.

Apparently the French-speaking politicians dare to bet the existence of Belgium just to get some things done and for the first time since a long time Flanders is not willing to let go or give in.

I also blogged about some other things you've said that I do not agree with at:


localhost said...

If someone is going to suggest to make the whole of Belgium bilingual: that will never work.
While Flanders has been officially bilingual in the past, there has never been a period in history where Wallonia was officially bilingual. If someone would ever suggest that Wallonia should become officially bilingual, there will be a lot of protest in the south. A *lot*. And that's only an understatement. It will make BHV look like a walk in the park.