Belgium’s anxieties ‘based on false assumptions’

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The anxieties of the French and Dutch-speaking communities of Belgium are being exacerbated by extremist politicians, according to Jean-Michel de Waele, professor of political science at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. In an interview with EURACTIV, he argues that only "national therapy" can help the country shackle its demons.

Belgium, the country hosting the EU institutions, is holding early elections on 13 June. The new poll results from persisting tensions between Belgium's French and Dutch-speaking communities.

Elections were triggered by Alexander De Croo, the new leader of Flemish liberal party Open VLD, who decided to leave the government after attempts to reform the federal state failed to give more powers to the country's regions (EURACTIV 24/04/10).

De Waele argues that more experienced politicians such as Guy Verhofstadt, De Croo's predecessor at Open VLD, could have saved the country from its latest crisis, which in his words has given Flemish separatists new opportunities to claim that the country "cannot function".

Also putting the blame on French radicals such as Olivier Maingain, leader of the federalist FDF party, (Fédéralistes Démocrates Francophones), De Waele argues that extremists from both sides are manipulating the electorate and exacerbating the nation's anxieties.

On the French-speaking side, fear is rife that the richer Flanders will split from Belgium, leaving Wallonia "poor and helpless" without the financial help of its richer neighbour, he said.

When they are told that a majority of Dutch-speakers do not in fact want Belgium to split, many francophones still argue that the Flemish have a secret plan to achieve this goal in fifty years' time, De Waele said. And although such a plan seems absurd, partly because of its distant timing, people still believe it, he claimed.

On the Dutch-speaking side, the fear is that their national identity is under threat from swathes of French-speakers seeking to settle on Flemish territory, eager to "eat" their land.

De Waele argues that French-speaking politicians unfairly criticise the Flemish authorities for sending electoral invitations in Dutch only to inhabitants of the contested Brussels suburbs, which have become the bone of contention between the two communities.

Although these neighbourhoods are geographically situated in Flanders, French-speakers there enjoy special privileges, like being able to cast their ballot in their native language.

De Waele said that if someone decides to settle in a Flemish community, they should expect the local authorities to send them their correspondence in Dutch.

In the long run, he says all children across the country should receive education enabling them to become fluent in Dutch, French and English, which he believes would resolve the issue.

He also argues that if ex-pats living in Belgium could vote in regional elections, it would tip the demographic balance in some Brussels suburbs to the disadvantage of Dutch-speakers. "This is the fear of the Flemish: that eurocrats who live on the periphery – in Waterloo, Sint-Genesius-Rode, Alsemberg or Beersel – will make the balance tilt."

But he was quick to add that the country's territorial and linguistic laws have to be respected. "What would happen if one day in certain districts we have a Turkish majority?" he asked.

To read a full version of this interview in French, please click here.

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