Belgium Halts Drive to Separate

Once taken with Europe's nationalist fervor, Belgians now seek unity through a new charter that eases divisions

AROUND Belgium's cities and towns, it is not uncommon these days to see the country's black, yellow, and red flag, in large and small formats, fluttering from balconies or draped across street-front windows.

The flags are ostensibly in honor of the late King Baudouin, who died unexpectedly July 31. But for many Belgians, showing the national colors also expresses a desire for unity in a country that a year ago appeared so taken with Europe's nationalist fervor that a splitting of its French- and Dutch-speaking populations into two separate countries began to look plausible.

That eventuality still cannot be ruled out, political leaders and analysts here agree. But most observers believe several factors - most importantly a new constitution making the country a federation of the Brussels, Walloon (French-speaking), and Flemish regions; the shock of the king's death; and the horror of inter-ethnic conflict in Bosnia - have worked together in recent months to reduce the attraction of a split. Europe's cues

``A year ago there were certain Belgians for whom the examples of the Czech-Slovak split, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia were evidence that we could separate,'' says Etienne Cerexhe, a constitutional law expert and Belgian senator. ``But today the picture is a little more complete, and no longer does anyone cite those examples. People have realized it's not so easy, nor does it work in the common interest, to break up a state.''

Belgium did not wait for the fall of the Berlin Wall to begin its evolution toward a complex state structure based on ethnic communities. Created in 1830 as a buffer between the oft-warring Dutch and French powers, Belgium from its beginning was an uneasy union of a Flemish peasant majority ruled by a French-speaking industrial and political elite.

For more than a century the Flemish, though numerically superior, remained the lesser of two equals. But while the old industries of French-speaking Wallonia stagnated, Dutch-speaking Flanders flourished, and its gradual transition into Belgium's dominant economic region led its people to demand a greater political presence. In the 1960s a reform process began - first with ``linguistic borders,'' then separate linguistic regions responsible for educational, cultural, and administrative affairs -

that culminated in this year's constitutional revision.

Belgium's new Constitution, signed last spring, has at its heart a deal between the country's two dominant communities: more money for financially strapped Wallonia in exchange for a popularly elected parliament for Flanders. The government's executive retains responsibility for little beyond national defense, foreign and monetary policies, and social welfare.

For a number of experts, this Constitution has taken Belgium as far as it can go. ``We have arrived at the end of the evolution of the Belgian state,'' Mr. Cerexhe says. ``To go any further, to cede either social security or monetary responsibility to the regions, would be the end of the Belgian state.''

By increasing the regions' powers ``we're going to see a deeper sense of responsibility on the part of the communities,'' says Andre Alen, a legal expert at the University of Leuven. ``That will cut the path of the separatists.''

Adds Xavier Mabille, a noted Belgian political scientist, ``The reform will allow a stabilization, and one interpretation of the public outpouring over the king's death is that [stability] is what the public wants.''

Yet for all the voices saying Belgium's evolution toward separation has reached its destination, others are unsure.

``The question now is whether this [reform] is the end of a long process, or a step toward separation,'' says Jozef Van Ginderachter, an economic counselor to the Brussels region. The answer, he says, depends on a coming reform of the country's social welfare system.

With public debt running at 130 percent of gross national product - the highest in Europe - Belgium must cut public spending. Likely targets are health care and unemployment compensation. And with studies showing such spending highest in Wallonia, with every inhabitant of Flanders sending about $1,000 overall to the French-speaking region, calls for separate welfare financing could grow.

``The social security system must be divided in a very clear and definitive manner,'' says Roland Raes, a senator with the right-wing Vlaams Blok party, which favors Flemish independence. ``We cannot accept to be the financiers of an infinite national solidarity.''

Supporters of Belgian unity worry that bitter negotiations over public finances and spending cuts could work in the interest of the separatists, whom experts believe represent less than 10 percent of Belgium's 10 million people. Peaceful disagreement

Both sides in the union-separation debate point out that not one life has been lost in the long years of Belgium's often heated evolution, and no one expects a degeneration of the anticipated financial battle beyond fiery rhetoric.

Still, some analysts say the desire for unity manifested publicly at Baudouin's death, and a sense of uneasiness over the fragility of nations in the wake of war in the former Yugoslavia, are likely to temper what might otherwise have been a dangerous discussion for Belgian unity.

``Certainly there is a cost to Belgium's status quo, but I think even most of the Flemish see that peace among the communities has no price,'' Mr. Alen says. ``Given the alternative, most see it as a good investment.''

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