A tradition of compromise is losing its force in Belgium.

By Stephan Castle – Herald Tribune – November 12, 2007

BRUSSELS: Using his authority as one of the few unifying symbols of the Belgian state, King Albert II held talks with party leaders Monday as he sought to end a 155-day political crisis that has called the country's future into question.

Negotiations on forming a coalition government fell apart last week when Flemish parties pushed through a preliminary vote to break up a bilingual electoral district in and around Brussels. That vote, which swept aside the principle of compromise at the heart of Belgian politics, enraged Francophones.

The reaction to the vote and the continued failure of the parties to cobble together a government despite interminable discussions has raised speculation about an eventual breakup of Belgium.

Conceived as a buffer state, Belgium was born in 1830 and is made up of a predominantly French-speaking south - Wallonia - and the mainly Dutch-speaking north - Flanders - with a small German-speaking community in the southeast.

Once the political and cultural masters of the country, French speakers have had to accept inferior economic status as heavy industry has declined in Wallonia and prosperity has risen in Flanders.

Language and money issues have become the main battlegrounds between the two communities. One recent study from the Facultés Universitaires Notre-Dame de la Paix in Namur suggests that in 2005 €5.6 billion passed from Flanders to Wallonia, representing a subsidy of €2.50 each day from each Flemish speaker to each Francophone.

Flemish politicians want to revise the Constitution to keep more economic issues at the regional level. French speakers fear this would be the beginning of the end of the cash subsidies.

At one crucial flashpoint, passions have been aroused over the issue of splitting an electoral district called Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde.

Flemish politicians argue that the issue is obeying the laws and learning the language of the place they make their home, while preventing Francophone encroachment in Flanders. French-speaking voters fear the split could deprive them of their right to vote for Francophone political parties and to attend court in their own language.

"If you, as a francophone, get called into court and you have to defend yourself in Dutch, that is very difficult," said Caroline Sagesser, researcher at the Centre de Recherche et d'Information Socio-Politique in Brussels. "The Flemish should, perhaps, remember that one of their first claims - correctly - was that all the judicial system used to be in French and Flemish people were unable to understand what was happening in court."

The area around Brussels is sensitive because the city is a special linguistic case. Geographically in Flanders, of which it is the capital, Brussels is now francophone but officially bilingual.

Carl Devos, professor of political science at the University of Ghent, says the so-called BHV dispute is a "border conflict" limited to a small area. "The average French and Flemish speakers do not have much contact with each other," he said - "perhaps when the Flemish visit the Ardennes or the francophones visit the Belgian coast. But we don't watch each other's TV or read each other's newspapers because they are in a different language."

The crisis reflects the extent to which the two communities have gone separate ways and the problems created by a complex political system designed to satisfy both communities.

The enlargement of the EU to include a host of countries much smaller than Flanders, which has a population of about six million, has made the prospect of separation more realistic. That factor has been reflected in the growing assertiveness of separatist parties from Catalonia to Scotland.

In Belgium the willingness of each community to learn the other's language has declined. "We prefer to speak English than the other language," Sagesser said.

"We could have tried to make bilingualism mandatory," he said. "Instead, what happens now is that, except in Brussels, you are free to opt for English instead of French or Dutch as your second language in high school. English has been progressing to such an extent that some people have joked that a solution would be to adopt English as a common language."

Belgium is having to tackle the problems in the federal system it created to stave off conflicts between its two main communities.

Coalition building at the federal level becomes more difficult if potential partners oppose each other in regional parliaments.

Yves Leterme, the man most likely to become the next prime minister, is part of a generation of politicians unschooled in the ways of the traditional Belgian compromise, having made his career so far in Flemish politics.

"Switching to a federal state did help to appease the conflict, but it added a different framework and so people are now thinking in this framework," Sagesser said. "People like Leterme are very popular in their part of the country but virtually unknown in the other where they are viewed with suspicion."

"They only need to talk to one half of the country to be elected," he said.

And while the crisis has generated passions among politicians, it has left most of the public unmoved, thus giving leaders little incentive to compromise. With many basic functions of the state devolved to the regions, most Belgians have gone 155 days without a government with few ill effects.

© R.W.F. Dernière mise à jour le Thursday, November 22, 2007 - Ce site est le seul officiel du R.W.F.