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Apartheid in Europe? How Belgium is divising

04 April, 2008 18:28  EasyExpat EasyExpat

Europe was founded on principles of tolerance and freedom of movement for the population and the business. Brussels was lobbying the European Community to become the host of most of the European institutions and is now broadly seen as the capital of Europe. Therefore, it is awkward to see that it is actually in the country symbol of Europe (one of the sixth founders), and mainly in the neighbourhood of the main city, that we observe now all the signs of communitarian and racism.

One country, 2 languages, no unity 

Linguistic divide in Belgium There are 3 linguistic communities in Belgium: Flanders (with 6 millions inhabitants - but not all speaking Dutch), Wallonia (3.4 millions), Brussels-Capital (1 million) and some Eastern cantons speaking German (70,000). Contrary to what you might think, the country is not bilingual, but apply two strict monolingualism: in Flanders, the official language is Dutch, in Wallonia the official language is French. only Brussels-Capital (city of Brussels + additional neighbourhood) is officially bilingual. In order to make things more complex, Brussels is inhabited by more than 80% of non-Dutch speakers, but is located in Flemish territory.

The "lingual" border follow a line that can start from about Tourcoing (in France) to Maastricht (in the Netherlands). Initially, at the birth of Belgium, in 1830, the country was meant to speak French, as it was the most important language at the time, and symbol of modernity. However from that early date it ignored that actually 60% of the country was not made by French speakers. This is the law of 8th November 1962 that fixes the boundaries and the 19 counties in the Brussels-Capital Region. Amongst those limits, the law defined 6 counties in the area of Brussels, 10 along the lingual border and in the German areas, where inhabitants can address the local authorities in their language, disregarding whereas they are located in Flanders or in Wallonia. Nowadays, in addition to the language complexity, there is an economic reasons that push the Flemish part of Belgium to demand for more autonomy: unemployment is 17.7% in Wallonia (20.9% in Brussels) but only 6.43% in Flanders. And because of fund transfer within the country, the Northern territories (with a local Flemish government) are actually subsidising the French speaking areas in the South (with a French-speaking government).

Linguistic discrimination 

Since the last election, with the government of Yves Leterme (or the body he tried to form following the victory of his party at the national election in 2007), the Flemish appetite has proven to be hungrier than ever. 

The Flanders government has voted, since last May, a new text aiming to remove the French names from Flanders: amongst the 39 cities that were hisorically named in both languages, the road signs will appear now in Dutch only, i.e Bruges will be only Brugge (easy), Courtrai will only be Kortrijk (more difficult) and Montaigu only Scherpenheuvel-Zichem.

In the area of Brussels-Capital, the cities of Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde (Dutch), Bruxelles-Halle Vilvorde-(French) or BHV represent a district formed by Brussels (bilingual) and Halle-Vilvoorde (Flemish). Historically, there was always facilities to speak French in the latest 2 areas (one knows that Flemish speak better French than Wallons speak Dutch). However recently, due to vows of Flemish authorities, it seems that nobody will understand you if you speak French in any official building (as the city hall) - or at least it looks like they understand perfectly but cannot speak it. However there is no problem to discuss the same matter in English.

Since December 2006, the Wooncode (Flemish accommodation law) states that it is necessary to speak Dutch - or at least willing to do so - in Flanders, to be able to apply for a social accommodation (council flat).  In addition, in some areas in Flanders such as Zaventem, Volvoorde, Zemst or Hoeilaart, the sale of land to promotion price is now reserved to Dutch-speakers (which means also, for the Flemish community, people born in Flanders) or people following language courses in a registered school.

In March, the local authorities of Liedekerke (22km from Brussels) have decided the non Dutch-speaking children from 6-12 will be excluded from the playground areas. Other decisions have been taken such as to forbid any mention of French on the outside boards in cities of the bilingual zone of Halle-Vilvoorde (you cannot display A VENDRE on you property anymore and must write in Dutch TE KOOP, but apparently you can show SALE or any other language but French) or to punish children who speak French even in playground at schools located in Flanders. Other example, in Overijse, the local council have decided to suppress the French writing part of the monument engraved in memory of 2 French-speaking Belgian who escaped during World War II.

Condemnation from the UN and European institutions

Of course the Flemish authority decisions have raised more and more suspicion outside but also inside. De Morgen, leftist Flemish newspaper, express concerns and talk about linguistic apartheid alike situation. In the last week of March, Marino Keulen, Minister in charge of interior affairs in the Flemish government, has cancelled the rules set in Liedekerke. He is already under pressure as the Council of Europe is currently investigating as some French-speaking mayors in the Flemish areas have not been officially recognised by Flemish authorities as they failed to address letters in Dutch only to their French fellow citizen. The Council of Europe has already condemned tree times (1998, 2002 and 2005) Flanders for its treatment and discrimination towards the French-speaking community. The United Nations has published recently a report stating that the fact of reserving council accommodation to certain category of the population based on place of birth and language was ethnic and regional discrimination.

The European Court of Justice has also published a report stating that the 30th March 1999 law of the Flemish parliament, setting a healthcare system reserved to inhabitants of Flanders or Brussels-Capital only is actually against the European freedom of movement. In 2004 the rules were changed in order to include those living in other countries... but always excluding inhabitants of Wallonia. Since then, no change.

Belgians have humour... but until when?

Most of the jokes of April's fool were addressing the political and community divide in Belgium. Thus, a Wallon Minister explained in the newspaper La Dernière Heure, that he intended to realize "French corridor" in Flanders, by buying back the parts of the E411 motorway located on Flanders territory to allow French speakers to drive from Brussels to Wallonia. On the French TV RTL-TVI, the news displayed a report showing the in the Flemish city of Meise they decided to test a way of cutting all phone conversation in French. A test that will be extended in all Flanders territory if successful. Again a joke, but that shows what is the main concern of Belgians nowadays...

   



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         EasyExpat on

language conflict [Reply]

The Belgians should see the various languages as an asset and not as a permanent conflict! It's a real shame what is going on esp. in a so-called United Europe (by the way: high potential for many jokes)! I'm living in a Flemish community next to Brussels, do not speak Flemish and have to feel every day that most people here expect me to speak Flemish. Reactions and consequences are mostly not very nice but intimidating - which in the long-term makes live not very easy. Will definitely not stay here as I do not feel welcome. After all the Belgians take the risk that other countries make a lot of fun out of their Flamish and Wallonian pig-headedness. I usually live in a country where 4 languages are spoken which is slightly bigger than Belgium - w/o any comparable conflicts - and I find live there really enriching, interesting and peaceful whereas the live of (many) Belgians might impoverish on various levels by neglecting the other language/s.

svr     17 Apr 2008, 19:30