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Culture clash may break up Belgium
financialtimes.com ^ | Sarah Laitner

Posted on 09/19/2007 10:21:54 AM PDT by Republicain

Belgium, it is business as usual. Trains run, the prime minister greets visiting foreign leaders, social security benefits are paid and the country’s famed bureaucracy functions unabated.

If everything seems normal, it is – bar one glitch. Belgium has no new government, 101 days after a general election.

Since it won independence in 1830, the country has had trouble keeping itself together. Now, concerns are growing that the Franco-phone Walloons of the south and the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north will finally split. While Belgium bears few visible scars of political impasse, disagreements over state reform have left negotiators unable to form a centre-right governing coalition since the election on June 10.

This week, Herman Van Rompuy, the Flemish Christian Democrat acting as mediator between the bickering parties, presented his report to King Albert II.

Mr Van Rompuy’s action came as a poll suggested that two-thirds of people in Dutch-speaking Flanders thought that Belgium would sooner or later split, and nearly half wanted a division. So could Belgium break up, and are tensions worse than ever?

“More and more people are openly discussing separation,” Caroline Sägesser, of Crisp, a Brussels-based think-tank, says. “This is partly because the political negotiations are going on away from the public eye and people can only speculate on what is happening.”

She adds: “But the obstacles to a split – such as intertwined economies, how to divide the high national debt, and the status of Brussels – remain strong.”

The relationship between Walloons and Flemings has been described as that of step-siblings, with ties too strong to break. But tensions have grown. A television hoax show last year on public broadcaster RTBF caused panic by claiming Flanders had declared independence.

Flemish nationalism has surged in recent years with Flanders’ emergence as the economic powerhouse, and the region – home to the majority of Belgium’s 10.4m population – props up ailing Wallonia with handouts.

Yves Leterme, a Flemish Christian Democrat, triumphed in his region in the election with a call for more self-rule. He infuriated Walloons by declaring them either unwilling or too stupid to learn Dutch, and many fear he is uninterested in Belgian unity. Mr Let-erme was tipped to become national premier, with the country voting along language lines and Walloons unable to block him.

But he failed to reconcile the views of Christian Democrats from Wallonia and Flanders, the Dutch-language Liberals, their French-speaking counterparts and the Flemish nationalists, and coalition talks collapsed.

Belgium has faced political impasse before. In 1988, it took 148 days to agree on a government. Is it different this time? Stefaan Walgrave, professor of political science at the University of Antwerp, says: “It is not the duration [of the talks] that is worrisome. It seems as if there is no progress. After 100 days there is not an embryo of an agreement.”

Wilfried Martens, a former prime minister, says differences this time include the fact that northern and southern politicians lack the informal contacts of the past and no longer have similar goals.

At the heart of the dispute are the voting rights of French-speakers in the Flemish-dominated outskirts of Brussels, and the broader question of whether to devolve more power – such as employment policy – to the regions.

Belgium has zealously rolled back the federal state, but Wallonia, where unemployment is sharply higher than in Flanders, is wary of further devolution.

For the present, Guy Verhofstadt, Liberal premier, remains in office. Many services – such as education, housing, agriculture – covered by regional administrations and the federal government continue to function.

But with a new budget needed and parliament due to return from recess next month, pressure is mounting for a coalition-building deal.

Mr Martens says: “We are the centre of the European Union. How could we give such a bad example to all the member states if we were to split?”

A history of two halves

The majority of Belgians live in Dutch-speaking Flanders. The northern region has a population of 6m, against about 3.4m in Wallonia, the poorer, Francophone south. Parties from both must be represented in the federal government. Brussels is officially a bilingual region. However, most of its 1m inhabitants are French- speaking. A small, German-language community exists in the east.

Belgium enacted constitutional changes in 1993 that brought a transformation from a highly centralised state to one with three levels of government: federal, regional and linguistic community.

Federal elections took place on June 10. In Flanders, the Christian Democrats took 30 of the 150 seats in the national chamber of representatives.

In Wallonia, the MR Liberals won 23 seats.


TOPICS: Foreign Affairs; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: belgium; benelux; dutch; eu; europe; europeanunion; flemish; french; rustleinbrussels; separatism
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To: Heatseeker

I guess the Slovaks didn’t accept Czechs.

(Thank you, I’ll be here until Thursday, please make sure to tip your waitresses)


41 posted on 09/19/2007 1:59:27 PM PDT by dfwgator (The University of Florida - Still Championship U)
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To: DirtyPigpen
Q: What's green and skates on ice?

A: Peggy Phlegm!

42 posted on 09/19/2007 2:02:37 PM PDT by -=SoylentSquirrel=-
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To: Republicain

LET US PRAY that this breakup will occur. I have good freinds in Antwerp and Brugge, and they are disgusted by the French South. Plus most of the growth of the nation comes from the Flemish North. And they are VERY Conservative and hostile to Islam.


43 posted on 09/19/2007 2:19:05 PM PDT by montag813
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To: Republicain

The best result would be to let them break apart, the Dutch north could merge with the dutch Netherlands, and the south could merge with Luxembourg. Problem solved


44 posted on 09/19/2007 2:27:05 PM PDT by ulm1 (“There are scandals that need to be addressed. Republicans address them, Democrats re-elect them.”)
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To: Republicain
Culture clash may break up Belgium

And nobody will notice.
Or care.

Alors!
Les Belges!

45 posted on 09/19/2007 5:09:48 PM PDT by Publius6961 (MSM: Israelis are killed by rockets; Lebanese are killed by Israelis.)
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