Belgium breaks Iraq’s world record for government impasse
Belgium, split between the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south, still doesn’t have a government after June elections last year. The rift may eventually cause a national divorce.
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"For the Flemish, the main idea is a birthright of the soil, a claim on territory and the right to control it," says Ms. Delacroix-Rolin. "For the Francophones, the issue is the universal rights they are entitled to."Skip to next paragraph
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"The aim now is not simply to force us to speak Dutch, but for French to leave," she continues. "The majority do learn Dutch. I'm perfectly fluent in both languages; the entire city hall staff is bilingual. But as rights are removed year after year, it is clear that even if we are all bilingual, that would not be enough, because we are still not culturally Flemish. I've been mayor for 22 years. But I'm no longer brought into decisions. When decisions are made, I read it in the newspaper."
The rules stem from Flemish interpretations of federal laws adopted in 1994, according to Willy Fautre, head of Human Rights Without Frontiers in Brussels. Francophones argue that the Flemish can't reinterpret laws to suit their interests. But Mr. Fautre says the 1994 federal changes "allowed for interpretation … that has emphasized and strengthened the separate identity question."
Wallonia was not always the underdog. For most of Belgian history, Francophone elites ran the country. Flanders was poor and rural. Wallonia was a steel and coal capital of Europe. Francophone aristocrats in the 19th century controlled the port of Antwerp in Flanders. In World War I, Flemish foot soldiers took orders from French-speaking officers they often didn't understand, resulting in great casualties. One result was a Flemish and anti-French pacifist movement. The initials of its motto, AVV-VVK (Everything for Flanders – Flanders for Christ), appeared on the masthead of the leading Flemish daily, de Standaard, from 1918 to 1999.
After World War II, the fortunes of the two communities reversed. Flanders began to rise in the global economy, and Wallonia receded into rust-belt status. A drive from the port of Antwerp through Brussels to Wallonia feels like a drive through three different countries.
Trapped by 'the rules of the game'
For Brussels' cosmopolitans – and many younger people here – the standoff is a dark time. Few seem to see a way out and the Constitution, which many call incoherent, does not offer clear solutions. Political figures seem trapped by "the rules of the game" and stuck in petty squabbles, says Mr. Lagrou. "The rules must be changed, and no one sees how to do this, and so we feel trapped in a system of degeneration. Belgium needs a new Constitution and a new federal system … but how?" he wonders.
Just north of Brussels are charming Flemish suburbs with French minorities. Dutch is the only official language here. Down a side street of one town is a tile shop belonging to a Francophone who didn't want his name published. He's owned the shop most of his life and wants his son to take over, but he's pessimistic. He's also clearly spooked. Last year, as sales fell, he put small, bilingual business cards on his counter in hopes of getting more business from both communities.
A week after the cards appeared, the police came and gave him 24 hours to remove them. "They were not friendly," he says of the police.
Now he feels as though others in the city look at him differently, he says, and petty differences seem larger. "It's sad, it's sad, it's sad," he says. "The police won't speak French to us. They act like they don't understand anything we say, and they've become rude and hostile. But when they go to the Greek fish seller, I hear them speaking French. I don't know what is happening to us."