Despite the display of unity on the national day, the tectonic plates dividing Belgium’s linguistic communities show no signs of moving closer together. Even though most Belgians are against a Czechoslovakian-style ‘velvet revolution’ they agree that major irritants in ties between the north and the south are not likely to go away anytime soon. “There’s been a crisis for a number of years,” one man remarked, “but it’s mainly political. Most people want to remain part of Belgium.”
The French-speaking people are a bit different,” said one woman, “but then Belgium has two different faces.” However, the far-right Vlaams Belang party has been accused of stirring up tensions by claiming independence for Flanders, Belgium’s richest region.
Professor Steffan Fries from Leuven University explained: “There are not a lot of people who wish the division of the country, but there’s a difference between what people want and what is going on at the political level. They are not willing to compromise on highly symbolic issues.”
In May the current government came close to resigning because of an intractable linguistic and administrative conflict between Francophone and Flemish-speaking communities near Brussels. Rows over the status of the capital have long been a thorn in the side of the federal system, which also guarantees the rights of a small German-speaking minority in the east.
Political analyst Benoit Pilet contends that federalism is a bind because “to change anything you have no alternative but to deal with the side that you are in conflict with.” A straitjacket it may be, but unless there is a sea change in favour of separation, Belgians will have to make do with it.
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