Belgium has lived through some difficult months recently but the next few hours will be even worse.
Supporters of Belgian unity are tramping the streets of Brussels to show their love of the nation while the politicians fire off ultimatums and threats.
If the Flemish community strongarms its way on what is known as the “BHV question,” it will resolve nothing. Any unilateral decision on its part to break-up the electoral map will be countered by the French-speakers scuppering Yves Leterme’s quest to stitch together a new government.
BHV, or Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde, is the capital’s 19 electoral districts plus the 35 districts in surrounding Flanders. French-speakers there can vote for either French-speaking or Flemish candidates, and of the 35, six have special privileges, or facilities, where all official documents come in both languages. In this half-dozen, French speakers have a big majority.
Brussels is the country’s only mixed region, an island of majority French-speakers in a sea of Flemish culture. “Largely French-speaking Brussels is uncoupled from the Flemish point of view. We have decided to isolate the city in a sort of coffer and Flemish parties have never accepted that the capital should be so French-dominated while the country as a whole has a large Flemish majority”, said Olivier Maingain, a Liberal Democrat MP.
Brussel’s Flemish-speakers, at heart, have found it difficult to stomach the unwanted domination of their region by French-speakers and resent their special rights.
“Districts that were in the past entirely Flemish have been invaded by French-speakers moving to the Brussels suburbs, and, in some areas, they are now 70 or 80 percent of the population. The Flemish speakers are fed up with the newcomers’ refusal to adapt to Dutch cultural ways, so it is also a psychological problem,” said Christian Democrat Mark Eyskens.
Psychological, symbolic, or sentimental, the BHV problem resonates on many troubling levels and contains the seeds of a possible future – the French-speakers’ fear that if the Flemish get their way here, the road to a break-up of Belgium could be wide open.