Monday, 6 September 2010

“We must prepare for the end of Belgium”

Is it a bluff, or are they serious? That’s the question all the Belgian media is asking today after the Francophone Socialist party leaders made an abrupt U-turn this weekend and, for the first time, started openly talking about the break-up of the country.

Up until now only the Flemish Dutch-speaking politicians that have seriously proposed breaking up the country, while the Francophone parties have refused to even entertain the possibility. But that seemed to change quite suddenly this weekend after talks on forming a new Belgian government collapsed yet again and the king accepted the resignation of Socialist leader Elio di Rupo as lead negotiator. Francophone socialist Philippe Moureaux came out saying Belgium is on the verge of an orderly separation. Rudy Demotte, the head of the government of Wallonia, said that “all options” are now on the table for them. Francophone Socialist Laurette Onkelinx told the magazine DH Dimanche, “We must prepare for the end of Belgium, otherwise we might be the ones to suffer.”

There is lots of speculation that this is just a negotiating tactic by the Socialists, who may be making a threat to scare the Flemish parties into backing down on their demands. At least, this is the analysis being offered by the Flemish newspapers today. But it seems to me this would be an odd tactic, trying to threaten your opponant by saying he will probably get his long-term goal in the end. What kind of a threat is that? Perhaps more likely is that the Francophone socialists believe the Flemish people don't actually want this. Perhaps they are trying to call the Flemish on their bluff, thinking that in the end they won’t have the nerve to actually pull the trigger on a divorce? This seems a risky tactic considering all indications are that the NVA is completely committed to an eventual separation and regardless of what the people actually want, the political momentum is headed in the direction of divorce

But taking a look at Onkelinx’s quote above, I think this actually does represent an actual change in strategy and not a negotiating tactic. She is right that if the Walloons just shut their eyes and pretend the separation isn’t going to happen, they will lose out in the end by getting the short end of the stick in the final separation. On the other hand, if they start thinking realistically now about what they would want in a divorce, they will be more likely to get it in the end – if it comes to that.

Both the Flemish and the Walloons want Brussels, which sits geographically within Flanders but is French-speaking. Each has a legitimate claim to the city (it is historically Dutch-speaking but became French-speaking over the past century). If it comes to a separation, there is going to be an epic battle between the two sides over who gets Brussels. And if Belgium is heading for divorce, then the Francophones need to start preparing for the battle now if they want to be left with “Brussels-Wallonia” instead of just Wallonia.

It’s been really interesting to see the coverage of this today in the Belgian media. I speak only French and I can’t read Dutch, but I’ve been getting the jist of the Flemish media’s reaction from friends. Essentially the Francophone papers reacted with shock and alarm, while the Flemish papers reaction with scepticism and derision. It’s quite strange because the Francophone newspapers and TV stations always talk about Flanders and the Flemish as if it is some strange other country (and, I assume, vice versa). A big 2-page spread in today's Le Soir is called "What does Flanders want?"  The country has no united Franco-Dutch media outlet, so I imagine the Belgians would need to go to the Anglophone press to get an unbiased analysis – but the Anglophone press is usually not very well-informed about the Belgian political situation (this blog included!).

I think people outside Belgium have a tendency to just say, “Well fine, just split up already, what’s the big deal?” But I have to say that in all the time I’ve lived here I’ve never met one Belgian who wants the country to split, and that includes my Flemish friends. Perhaps it’s because they know how unpleasant the fight over who gets what will be. To some outside the country it might seem like an easy fix, but to Belgians the prospect of seperation is enormously complicated and, for some, even frightening.

Perhaps this change over at the Francophone Socialist party headquarters is just an attempt to call the Flemish on a bluff. Perhaps they think that even though the Flemish people voted in the separatist NVA as the largest party representing them in June, they don’t really want the country to split up – they just wanted some tough negotiators who would use the threat of secession to get Flanders more regional powers within the current federation. If the Francophone parties start seriously talking about a split, could it provoke a backlash amongst the Flemish against the separatist the NVA?

It’s an enormously complicated situation that has been made much more so by the sea change this weekend. But if the Socialists are serious about separation, then there may be no stopping this train. Belgium could cease to exist within five years.


K C Mellem said...

I understand that German is the third, much less widely-spoken, official language of Belgium. In a split, where would the German-speakers end up?

Gulf Stream Blues said...

They'd end up in Wallonia. It's a very small community (just 0.73% of the population) just on the border with Germany. These two small territories (in blue on the map above) were taken from Germany after World War I as punishment. My understanding is there isn't much sentiment there for trying to rejoin Germany, but maybe such a movement would start if a split occurred. It's really just a bunch of villages though, but they do have some influence through the German-Speaking Community of Belgium