Belgium’s BHV region, Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, is divided over whether to remain ‘united’. It is the country’s only constituency and judicial district which overlaps French and Dutch language areas. It consists of cantons of the Brussels Capital Region and the Province of Flemish Brabant in the Flemish Region. Yet, with the linguistic influence of the capital, Dutch speakers have felt sidelined.
Although it is officially bilingual, Brussels is 60 percent Francophone. As the French language permeated the territory around it, Flemish resentment grew.
The Flemings, after all, make up around 60 percent of the country’s population; the French-speaking Walloons 40 percent, with a small German-speaking community thrown in. The federal-regional permutations make for six different government administrations.
In the early 1960s, the Flemings took a stand and a political deal was hammered out, defining today’s complicated political line-drawing on linguistic foundations. Yet fault lines remained.
Independent from the Netherlands since 1830, the Kingdom of Belgium had had a monolingual French-speaking Walloon south, while the Flemish north used Dutch. The BHV bubble in the middle was more complicated. The French-speaking communities here were extended linguistic and political facilities. It meant doing many things in duplicate.
Flemish politicians worked steadily to split up the constitutency. But the country’s French parties blocked division proposals. They want to stay connected with the municipalities with language facilities.
Vincent de Coorebyter, with the Centre for Socio-Political Research and Information, said: “As far as the duration of these facilities goes, the law text is clear; there is no mechanism for revision or evaluation — no time limit. Very quickly, however, comes an interpretation on the Flemish side, which says the philosophy of the regime is to allow francophones in Flanders, and vice versa, the time of one generation to adapt and afterwards make the facilities disappear.”
As the dispute escalated, Flemish towns introduced policy preventing French-speakers from buying property — even if they were fully Belgian.
The Flemings talked of stopping an ‘invasion’ of French-speakers, and of preserving Flemish character.
Marc Van Asch, the Mayor of Vilvoorde, said: “We asked the building promoters to inform us about buyers, so we can contact them to urge them to speak Dutch.”
On a personal level, residents of either language group generally say they get on with each other normally. But the tensions have become increasingly party politicised, often reinforcing extremism.
Charles Piqué, the Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region says: “BHV is only the tip of the iceberg, perhaps prefiguring the borders of the country tomorrow — if the separatists in Flanders win there.”
While integration is one of Europe’s watchwords, this is patently less the case in Belgium; one of the EU’s founder countries needs to find solutions for recurring internal problems, if it is to ensure that everyone’s cultural linguistic rights are respected.