Inside Story

Border control: the complexities of life along one of Europe’s hottest cultural fault-lines

In Brussels, it can seem like language is no barrier. But Belgium as a whole is divided and uncertain, writes James Panichi

James Panichi 18 December 2012 4796 words

Blingual capital: a street sign in Brussels. chatirygirl/Flickr

A TEN-MINUTE train ride is all it takes to get from the heart of the European Union to the battlefields of Belgium’s all-consuming secessionist struggle. It’s easy: just head east on the Brussels metro’s line 1 and stay on board until the terminus; when you emerge from the station, take a few steps in the wrong direction and you’ll have arrived at your destination. The affluent streetscape won’t change, but the invisible border you’ve crossed places you firmly in the dark wood of “communal politics.” From now on, the language you speak – and how you choose to speak it – is what matters.

Welcome to Kraainem, one of a handful of municipalities around the capital in which linguistic demographics rule supreme. Just metres away, back across the Brussels borderline, council elections are all about the dreary mechanics of rubbish collection and street maintenance. But here it’s strictly big-picture, revolving around ideas of linguistic solidarity. In Kraainem you vote not for the best candidate but for a candidate who speaks your language; when your elected representatives say they’re turning down much-needed grants for cultural reasons, you know exactly where they’re coming from.

Here in la périphérie – the area just outside greater Brussels – the maths of demography is simple. As the French-speaking metropolis expands, its outer suburbs are spilling into what was once idyllic farmland in Dutch-speaking Flanders. Yet the political reverberations of the process of suburbanisation are much harder to pin down, which is why the results of recent municipal elections are being parsed and analysed by people asking a very basic question: what does this mean for Belgium?

To the city’s north, meanwhile, secessionism is on the march. In Antwerp, forty kilometres away, newly elected Flemish nationalist mayor Bart De Wever has kickstarted a campaign to strip the federal government of powers by stages, until there’s nothing left for it to do. It’s a slow-mo split rather than a secessionist ticking time-bomb: Flanders will claim sovereignty one federal power – and one municipality – at a time.

Suddenly, the clunky old twentieth-century notion of statehood, which European unity was supposed to supersede, is back on the table. Just as the EU institutions down the road are helping members divest themselves of sovereignty (national currencies and economic borders being oh-so last century), secessionists in Flanders are demanding nothing less than the full symphony of statehood. Unrecognised nations in Europe want borders of their own within which a culturally homogeneous group of people can live and prosper while speaking their own language —“masters of our own house,” as they’d say in Quebec.

The message for Europe is this: borders still matter. Even as the euro and transnational courts are busy unifying the continent, state sovereignty has never mattered more to those Europeans who don’t have it.

Language and geography: Belgium’s mainly Dutch-speaking region, Flanders (shown in brown), which surrounds the bilingual capital, and its mainly French-speaking Walloon region (yellow).
Map: IUG

Kraainem is one of Belgium’s most affluent and culturally diverse municipalities – and it shows. On Saturday mornings the carpark of the large Carrefour shopping centre fills up with luxury station wagons full of families speaking many of the European Union’s twenty-three official languages. Of Kraainem’s 13,000 residents, 3500 aren’t even Belgian: they are largely expats working for NATO, the European Union or the many NGOs that inevitably orbit centres of power. Foreigners live here for the comfortable lifestyle (there are cornfields among the modern houses) and easy access to international schools.

Many of them may have assumed they were moving to a typical suburb of mainly French-speaking Brussels. But they were wrong: on this side of the border we are in Dutch-speaking Flanders, even though the majority of the Kraainem population is francophone. In Belgium’s border areas, that’s not a day-to-day problem. At the Ikea store not far away even the guys doing the heavy lifting in the storeroom go from Dutch to French or English without batting an eyelid. And most shopkeepers here do the same: a customer’s bonjour or goedemorgen is the only cue they need. The municipality’s dominance by francophones often leaves Dutch-speakers and expats politically disenfranchised, but whatever the linguistic reality at the ballot box, border-Belgians are reliably polite and pragmatic.

Some people – like Carel Edwards, a retired Anglo-Dutch European bureaucrat and long-term community activist – want to see that easy-going attitude reflected in the way politics is conducted. Edwards has chosen a culturally neutral venue for our chat: a Greek restaurant on the very street that marks the border between Brussels and Flanders (we’re on the Flemish side, although the gregarious owner of the restaurant welcomes me in French). I find Edwards reading a Dutch-language newspaper at a corner table.

The local community movement to which he belongs decided – amid some soul-searching, he tells me – to contest the recent municipal elections as a political party. The new party, Kraainem-Unie, was born with a mission to subvert a political culture that assumes people vote along language lines. The party fielded candidates from both language groups and kept its campaign literature bilingual.

Edwards hands me the party’s business card. On the front there’s a child’s drawing of a Belgian flag with the EU stars in the middle; on the left two people embrace beneath the words peuple/volk (“the people”) and on the right two people are hitting each other with boxing gloves, under the words politiek/politique (“politics”). The message is kid’s play: people get along fine; politicians create the conflict.

Edwards is softly spoken but his party ran a very assertive grassroots campaign in Kraainem, and ended up with four of the twenty-three seats on council. “The tensions that exist are to a large extent due to the insensitivity in the ways the two communities deal with one another, particularly at a political level,” he tells me over Greek dips. “But there’s a whole political class that makes a living out of this.”

It’s a common complaint in la périphérie. Municipalities with French-speaking majorities elect mayors who promise to stand up to the Flemish bully-boys (real or imagined) in the regional assembly – but good governance is often overlooked amid the ethno-linguistic zeal. “This commune [municipality] is being run in an appallingly bad way,” Edwards says. “Just go across the street,” he says, pointing towards the “Brussels” side. “You will see the difference. Local politics here have become an extension of Belgian communautaire [language] politics, which have little to do with local issues. There is a clear mismanagement of what they call the ‘public space.’”

As an example of this, Edwards talks about a local school that’s been grappling with funding issues for some time. Classes are housed in portable structures – but not for a lack of funds. “In order to get the money to extend the school, the council has to go to the authority that has the subsidies. But that authority is the Flemish regional government and the war-cry of this French-speaking administration is that they would rather have no money than Flemish money, even if the population suffers.”

IN ALMOST all of the municipalities just across the border of greater Brussels, municipal governments are locked in a tug-of-war over language policy. It comes down to how municipal resources are being used and the language spoken by those using them. And it can get ugly.

Strombeek-Bever looks like a northern suburb of Brussels, but like Kraainem it’s just over the border. It’s what Queanbeyan might be to Canberra: a suburb which comes under a separate jurisdiction. But unlike Kraainem, French-speaking residents in Strombeek-Bever are a minority, meaning the council is dominated by Dutch-speakers.

With the support of the local Flemish provincial government, the council cut the financial assistance to a local youth soccer team, KFC Strombeek, after it engaged in “unacceptable” conduct. Streaking fans and unsavoury player antics at the pub weren’t to blame: it was all about the language being used by the club’s trainers. Apparently, too often instructions were being barked at the players in French, and the council pointed out that four of the seven trainers couldn’t speak Dutch at all.

KFC Strombeek’s manager for youth activities, Felicien Verheyden, told La Libre Belgique newspaper that it would be hard to recover from the loss of an annual €5000 and being locked out of municipal grounds. “We ask our youth team trainers to speak mainly Dutch,” he said. “But because the club is so close to Brussels, can we and should we be the ones to solve this problem? We are just a link in a chain – we are trying to do our best, but we need support.” In other words, the problems of la périphérie are much bigger than a kids’ soccer team.

The irony is that many of the language conflict hotspots around Brussels are in the very municipalities where language rights are constitutionally protected. In the early 1960s, legislation was passed (and later constitutionally entrenched) to protect “minority” languages – French spoken in parts of Flanders, Dutch spoken in parts of franco-phone Wallonia (of which more later) and German spoken along part of Belgium’s eastern border. Thirty municipalities (including Kraainem) with sizeable linguistic minorities were listed as communes à facilités. Residents in these areas can request documents in either French or Dutch (or German in the east), and may have access to the legal system in their official language of choice.

Yet the facilités have done little to foster peace. Flemish governments resent having to provide services in French, arguing that anyone moving to Flanders should accept that they will be living in a Dutch-speaking part of the country. Others argue that facilités delay integration – that francophones won’t learn Dutch if they don’t have to.

This resentment permeates local politics in most areas around Belgium’s national capital territory. In some instances, Flemish regional authorities choose not to “appoint” the elected mayors – meaning they are free to run their municipalities, but they can’t represent their town before the Flemish provincial or regional governments. The lack of dialogue in turn exacerbates bad relations and can hurt the francophone councils.

According to Jean-Benoit Pilet, a political scientist from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, this political impasse is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. “The solution would be that the French-speaking majorities in these municipalities accept that they are in Flanders and that it’s not a bilingual region,” Pilet says. “If not, the Flemish government should accept that these municipalities are bilingual and therefore should go to the bilingual region [of Brussels].”

In short: nothing’s going to change. Francophones in Belgium have traditionally been more reluctant than their Dutch-speaking counterparts to learn the other’s language. And the state government of Flanders suspects that handing francophone suburbs over to Brussels will do nothing to stem the tide of French-language expansion: the border that rings Brussels is their line in the sand.

I’M STUCK in a lift just a few metres away from the office of the European Free Alliance in downtown Brussels. A female voice outside urges me to go up an extra floor and then come back down. I follow orders and introduce myself to Eva Bidania Ibargutxi, the Alliance’s articulate Basque political adviser, who is here to show me through to the group’s president.

The Alliance is made up of forty-one political groupings representing a variety of nations in eleven European states. A “nation” in this context is a grouping of people who share a common language or ethnicity (and so not necessarily a country); a “state” is a sovereign political community in which a government controls the territory right up to the border (definitely a country). A nation-state is what you get in the rare event that nations and state borders coincide; Belgium is what you get when they don’t.

There’s a map of European nations on the wall of the Alliance’s headquarters, although I’m told it’s a bit misleading: some regions shown are simply demanding greater autonomy rather than full-blown statehood. I’m relieved: the case for independence in Spain’s Catalonia and Basque Country I can get; the secessionist cause of the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna (also on the map) is where things get a bit out of hand. But there they all are: Germans in Belgium, Slovenians in Austria, Macedonians in Bulgaria and Macedonians in Greece (by far the biggest can of worms); the Slovak Republic’s South-East; Cymru-Wales; Occitania (a huge chunk of southern France); Corsica; the Alsace. On and on they go. Last on the list (purely for alphabetical reasons) is Vlaanderen, Flanders, the six-point-something million people who make up the nation of Belgians who speak Dutch (the language is no longer referred to as Flemish – at least, not by the Flemish).

Eric Defoort is one such Belgian. He’s the avuncular president of this pan-European movement, a retired history professor from the University of Leuven and an outspoken activist for Belgium’s most successful and most controversial Flemish nationalist party, the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, or N-VA. He provides his own political party and other national causes with the credibility that comes from a lifetime of thinking and writing about self-determination.

The first misconception Defoort is keen to dispel is the view that N-VA politicians are nuts. I understand his concern: those who (like me) rely on French-language media to get their Flemish news are often left with the sense that the party and its charismatic leader, newly elected mayor of Antwerp Bart De Wever, are run-of-the-mill ethno-chauvinists whose dislike of Belgium comes from a visceral hatred of French culture.

Defoort argues that he is living proof that anti-French prejudice isn’t a factor. His interest in French culture has been both personal and professional and he breaks into French on several occasions during our conversation. “Sometimes I dream in French,” he says, laughing. He also pounces on any suggestion that the N-VA is xenophobic, saying the party prefers a French revolutionary notion of citizenship. “Those who are living in Flanders freely are Flemish citizens – even when they are French-speaking Flemish citizens,” he says.

Sure – but citizenship is still a prerogative of the state, so there won’t be any Flemish citizens until Flanders leaves Belgium. “But Flanders is already a sub-nation,” he says. “What’s in a name?”

It shouldn’t be too hard for the N-VA to come across as a moderate party given that the other Flemish nationalist party, the extreme-right Vlaams Belang, makes Genghis Khan look like a tax-and-spend social democrat. Yet De Wever has made some unwise statements in the past: he appeared to play down Belgian responsibility for the deportation of Jews during the second world war (he later apologised) and he has enjoyed the company of French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. What’s more, he wore a casual shirt (no tie!) to meet King Albert II of Belgium – something French-speaking monarchists still can’t get over.

The N-VA appeared to come from nowhere. It was founded in 2001, but it was only at the 2009 elections for the parliament of the Flemish region (the equivalent of a state) that electoral success started to kick in. De Wever himself was the key to this success: a university history researcher by background, his TV appearances were slick and his debating skills second to none. At the 2010 federal election the party won twenty-seven of the lower house’s 150 seats, claiming almost 30 per cent of the vote in Flanders.

The N-VA makes no secret of its separatist objectives – although its leaders cautiously refer to a “gradual withdrawal” of Flanders from Belgium. “We are not saying, ‘Dear God, let us have independence tomorrow!’” Defoort tells me. “No: confederation is our aim.” By “confederation” the N-VA is really talking about ending fiscal redistribution: wealthy Flanders should be able to collect its own taxes and prevent money heading south to the relatively impoverished French-speaking Wallonia.

The theory is that once Flanders controls its own money, the electorate will no longer be daunted by the idea of full independence. “You can take the people to the river and point to the other side and say, ‘There is happiness,’” Defoort says. “But the water is cold; swimming is exhausting. People aren’t going to just jump into that river: not here, not in Quebec, not in Basque Country, not in Scotland. You must build them a bridge.”

De Wever’s successful candidacy for the mayorship of Antwerp, the largest municipal government in Belgium, was part of the bridge-building exercise. The newly elected mayor wants to reassure the Flemish that he will be able to sail the ship of a future

Flemish state through troubled waters. The plan is relatively simple: De Wever is building up his personal credibility (he even shed an incredible sixty kilos on the campaign trail – his before-and-after photos appear in the papers almost daily); and his party will seek to accumulate powers for Flanders in a bid to leave the Belgian government with nothing but defence and foreign affairs to tinker with.

According to Jean-Benoit Pilet, it’s at this point that the European Union is expected to play a part. “[De Wever’s] hope is that what is dealt with at the national Belgian level would be transferred to the EU,” he says. “If there is only one European defence, if there is a real EU minister of foreign affairs… Then with all that moving to the EU, you don’t need Belgium any more.” In this context, the 2014 federal elections won’t really matter: the idea of confederation may have already won the day in Flanders and the course will be set.

The pursuit of full independence “within the European Union” is something that is gaining wide acceptance among other separatist movements. With foreign affairs and defence eventually ending up in Europe anyway (or so the theory goes), breaking free of national governments – whether it’s by the Catalans or the Flemish – doesn’t have to be traumatic. Catalonia, Scotland and Flanders can all work harmoniously with what remains of Spain, Britain and Belgium in the oasis of love and respect that is the European Union. Of course, that’s assuming that the breakaway states inherit European membership from their spurned masters. (Scottish nationalists are struggling with that very problem as they prepare for the 2014 referendum on independence.)

In the course of my long conversation with Defoort, the only time he bristles is when I suggest state sovereignty is old-fashioned, a relic of an era in which statehood was the nation’s only means of expression. “It could be that nation-states are old-fashioned, but you must address your comments to François Hollande or Angela Merkel,” Defoort says. “France is represented in the EU, but the French state that we know is a nineteenth-century construct. It’s not the Basques, or Catalans, or Flemings, or Scots who are saying, ‘We want a nineteenth-century state’! It’s the others! Oh, they are in love with their nineteenth-century constructs!”

But why language? Why do many Belgians struggle to accept an identity that takes in more than just the sounds that come out of their mouth? “It was Umberto Eco who said that language was the élément fédérateur [the federating element],” Defoort says. And that may be what it boils down to: language as the hearth around which a grateful nation will gather. If so, the N-VA is ready to lead.

IT’S A cold morning in a semi-rural area of the Flemish countryside and historian Brigitte Raskin is relieved to see me arrive. She shows me why people usually get lost along the way: the numbers on the other side of her road are out of kilter (her house is in the 300s, while opposite it’s 51). This, she explains, is all part of life on Belgium’s internal borders.

“We once had a problem on this street with a cyclist who was seriously injured,” she says. “The cyclist fell on one side of the road but his bike ended up on the other. The problem was which police to call and which ambulance to call.”

The city of Brussels is a linguistic enclave: a mainly French-speaking city totally surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders. Yet a ten-minute drive south will take you to another border, this one between Flanders and Wallonia, the French-speaking south of Belgium. The converted farm-worker house that Raskin lives in is smack-bang on the frontier: her side comes under the Flemish municipality of Overijse; those across the road live in the Walloon town of La Hulpe.

Raskin, an author and retired teacher, has just written a book about Belgium’s divisions, called simply De Taalgrens (The Language Border). She argues that the divisions between Belgium’s Germanic and Romance languages are as much about social class as they are about geography – and this is the key to understanding what’s happening today.

As she flicks through maps starting from the early days of Roman settlements, Raskin’s finger traces a line across the middle of what is now Belgium: this is how far the Romans got. Above the line, Germanic settlers moved in; beneath it, Latin grammar took hold. But that’s the easy part. What the maps don’t show is that north of the border, even in Flemish strongholds like Antwerp or Ghent, the establishment had long spoken French. What’s more, French was usually the language chosen for public administration and schooling, marginalising Dutch both north and south of the border.

“It’s what I call the ‘social’ border,” Raskin tells me. “Even in the little Flemish town where I was from, it was all in French: my father did his schooling in French and my mother, who was from a small agricultural town in Flanders, also studied in French. If you wanted to get ahead in society, you had to be French-speaking.”

But Raskin says that while the resentment of past language policy may inform the secessionist push of the N-VA, things are now changing. “Today, even the prime minister [Elio Di Rupo], who is a Walloon, tries to speak Dutch,” she says. “Sure, he’s not perfect, but he does his best. Some French families are sending their children to Dutch schools to make them bilingual. The relationship between the languages is changing.”

Raskin admits that her refusal to give up on Belgium may have something to do with her being from a border area, where people see things differently. “I am Flemish, but when I go to Brussels I take the train from La Hulpe,” she says. “I don’t even think about crossing a border to get there. On both sides of my street there are French-speaking people and Dutch-speaking people; I have a neighbour who doesn’t speak a word of Dutch, but that’s okay. It’s not about politics, it’s about neighbours. We have the same problems: the weather, our children, buses, security.”

As for her attitude towards Bart De Wever’s ideology, Raskin says it is along traditional political lines: left-leaning Flemish intellectuals dislike the nationalists’ conservatism. “We left-Flemish people are Belgian loyalists,” Raskin says with a smile. “But that’s also because I know I can have many identities: I’m Flemish, Belgian and European. I am also from [the province of] Brabant. If I went to Australia I would say I was European.”

SIX months ago I moved with my family into a flat overlooking a square within the southern border of the greater Brussels. Until the city started to expand in the 1950s, the area of Boondael (“Boondaal” in Dutch) was semi-rural; the square has a small 1400s chapel (now a council-run theatre) and an old hotel that has become a fashionable reception centre.

The original landowners, the de Hulstbosch family, were culturally Flemish but likely to have been French-speaking; the labourers they employed would have spoken Dutch. While today French is the language of the square, back then the marketplace would have sounded very different.

The “francisation” of Brussels came about as a result of demands for social mobility and the discriminatory language policies put in place by governments well before Belgian unification in 1830. Dutch-speakers realised that their children would have to speak French if they were to climb the social ladder in Brussels, and language laws (with some exceptions) made French the language of public administration. Dutch-language schools offered only basic education; tertiary education had to be in French. By the early twentieth century, francophones in Brussels were outnumbering Dutch-speakers.

Today the city’s non-immigrant Belgian population is made up of the descendants of French-speaking Walloon settlers and people whose Flemish families were assimilated by French culture. This is why so many Brussels francophones have Flemish surnames. In fact, the city recently erected a statue to one of its most famous sons: actor Jean-Claude Van Varenberg (better known as Jean-Claude Van Damme – “the muscles from Brussels”).

By the 1960s, language borders had been officially sanctioned and Flemish nationalists began to focus their efforts on making Flanders monolingual. It was in this period that the Brussels urban sprawl – and the argument over how to contain it – started to dominate the public debate.

Yet for a brief period in the late twentieth century, a different Belgium – and a different Brussels – was being discussed. The idea was to make the country truly bilingual, with all public administration in both languages, a bilingual government and a bicultural Belgian identity. The suggestion was rejected by francophones, who had little appetite for learning Dutch and feared losing their positions to the already bilingual Flemish establishment.

Yet somewhere deep in the heart of Brussels’s federal role, that bilingual dream is still alive. Flemish nationalists scoff at the capital territory’s bilingual signage and complain that municipal offices’ commitment to language services is shaky (a Dutch-speaking receptionist does not a bilingual office make). And, of course, francophone politicians, with their often-wonky Dutch, aren’t always bicultural trailblazers.

Yet even as Belgium grapples with the secessionist forces that may ultimately bring it undone, in Brussels something is changing. In my daughter’s French-language primary school, her regular neérlandaise classes are taken seriously. Her Dutch teacher isn’t there just for the folklore: twice a week she takes them through their paces and expects to hear Dutch spoken with confidence.

Meanwhile, back in my square, Thursday is the day the Flemish fruit-sellers come to town. They can all speak French – in fact, they seem to speak any European language you throw at them. But with a smile and a wink they test customers for their knowledge of Dutch – a price, a question, a comment. “Ça fait combien?” the old lady asks. “Vijf vijftien, madame,” the seller says with a wink. And the French-speaking Belgians play along. For a few hours my part of Brussels is filled with the sounds of its past. •