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BELGIUM: Language Laws and Regional Divisions

Amelia Mathias, Pitt Law '11, spent her summer conducting research at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels, Belgium...

In early spring, I told a close friend in Pittsburgh that I would be spending the summer in Belgium. "It's good you're going now," he told me seriously, "since it's not going to be around that much longer." From my then-rudimentary knowledge of Belgian politics, I delivered a little lecture about the cohesive state of Belgium. When I arrived in Brussels, however, it became clear that while my friend's statement may have been more dramatic than reality warranted, Belgium's language barrier and the politics behind it were far more pronounced than I had imagined.

Belgium is composed of three main population blocks: Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels. Flanders, to the north, is home to the famous cities of Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent. The people in Flanders speak Dutch, and tend to be a conservative, Catholic people. Wallonia, the region in the south of the country, is composed of a francophone population. While this region is also traditionally Catholic, Wallonia tends to be more liberal, and is run by a socialist government. Wallonia, however, is more economically depressed than Flanders. Then there is Brussels, the so-called "capital of Europe," a title it holds as the seat of the European Union and home to thousands of workers from all over the Continent. Brussels is completely surrounded by Flanders; you must drive half an hour to the south before you hit Wallonia. Brussels is primarily francophone, but every language can be heard on the Metro. To get a simple job in a shop on the posh Avenue Louise, one must speak fluent Dutch, French, and English.

The divisive problems among the three regions, particularly between Flanders and Wallonia, have their roots in history. France has had a strong traditional and cultural influence over the years. The French speakers were generally in charge; there are numerous stories of Dutch men accused of crimes and found guilty because they could not understand a word in their trial. It was only after their execution that their innocence was discovered. These stories reached their height with tales of French commanders in World War I sending their Dutch soldiers to their deaths because they refused to speak the language of the enlisted under their command. Lobbying for inclusion, Dutch speakers' rights were included in the Constitution, but persistent francophone prejudice continued. One might argue now, with the economic predominance of Flanders, that the revenge of the Dutch-speaking provinces is sweet.

In Brussels, a francophone or multilingual island amid the sea of culturally-possessive Flanders, problems are occurring as the city expands into the suburbs. The francophone city-dwellers are searching for a little air and running into the Dutch-dominated villages around the city. In Zaventem, a municipality just outside of Brussels where the main airport is located, francophone families are moving to the pleasant suburbs, but finding that they have a hard time getting the recognition that the Constitution guarantees them as a 30% minority. Parents can lobby for education in French, and it will be granted. Four out of the twenty-nine council posts are reserved for French speakers, but these numbers do not reflect the realities of the population. This is itself a change from a famous 1968 case before the European Court of Human Rights, where French-speaking families in Flanders were told that the Constitution did not guarantee their children the right to be educated in the language of their choice - just the right to be educated in the language of the province they lived in. An international resident of Zaventem told me that when French speakers try to talk to the police or hospital workers in French, the native Dutch speakers will quietly stand and wait for them to switch to Dutch or even English and will not respond in French at all. All this is unlikely to change any time soon, because Belgium is forbidden from performing a language-based census. Numbers are all out of date and hardly representative of the actual population in a given municipality. Even as the population changes, the laws regarding which language governs a town remain static.

But even though the main tension is between the French- and the Dutch-speakers, one also has to mention the small cluster of German-speakers living in the southeast part of the country in the Ardennes Forest. Numbering just 73,000 people, less than one tenth of Belgium's population, they are the third part of Belgium's federalist system. Though they maintain such a small portion of the country, their influence and right to their language is witnessed even in Brussels, where ATMs offer German as a language option, and throughout the rest of the country many of the museums and attractions offer German as an option along with English, French and Dutch. The language distinctions are codified in the Belgian Constitution of 1970, which states that "The limits of the four linguistic regions can only be changed or modified by a law adopted by majority vote in each linguistic group in each Chamber, on the condition that the majority of the members of each group are gathered together and from the moment that the total of affirmative votes given by the two linguistic groups is equal to at least two-thirds of the votes expressed." The chances of this happening and at all changing the uncomfortable but sustainable status quo is slim to none.

However, despite all the tension between Flanders and Wallonia, it seems unlikely that the two will split into two countries any time soon. In fact, everyone I have asked seems to think it will never happen. When asked why, their answer is one word: Brussels. The capital city of Belgium is now the "capital of Europe," and is situated solidly in Flanders territory, not conveniently on the border between Flanders and Wallonia as, say, Washington D.C. is between Maryland and Virginia. The only possible solution floated by Brussels' inhabitants would be to make the city some kind of neutral zone, an official capital of Europe and monument to the nation that was Belgium while making Flanders move its capital to Antwerp or Leuven. Yet the city brings so much to the country and contains so many francophone speakers that it is unlikely that Wallonia or Flanders would be willing to give it up, forcing them to continue to work together as one federalist country for the foreseeable future.


Belgian Constitution

European Court of Human Rights 1968 Belgian Language Case

Photo Credits: Amelia Mathias

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