World News

Splitting up the perennial problem

Peter Lewis March 19 1979
World News

Splitting up the perennial problem

Peter Lewis March 19 1979

Splitting up the perennial problem

Belgium

When Belgians realized that the longest (125-day) political crisis since the turbulent 1930s might be ending last week with the appointment of a new government, few could hide their misgivings. The least informed had hardly noticed the lack of one, the indifferent had not cared and many of the most knowledgeable felt the country had been getting along perfectly well without one.

To be sure, King Baudouin’s request to Paul Vanden Boeynants, a stocky 59year-old former butcher, to form Belgium’s 25th government since the war was a step toward resolving the immediate situation. But even if he succeeded in forming a cabinet, and that seemed doubtful at week’s end, few thought he would be any luckier than his predecessors in solving the thorny “community problem,” the name which Belgians give the power struggle between the country’s Flemishand French-speaking areas.

The parliament that was voted into power last December was given a mandate to push through constitutional reforms which would split Belgium into a three-part federation consisting of Flemish Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and “bilingual” Brussels, the capital. But any reforms would need a two-thirds majority and the chances of mustering that appear thin, given the antagonism and suspicion which have greeted every recent attempt to produce an acceptable deal.

If anyone can do it, Vanden Boeynants may be that man. Since the October resignation of former premier Leo Tindemans, which precipitated the indecisive elections, he has headed a caretaker administration and—as the linguistic quarrel raged, and others attempted in vain to put together a cabinet—silently tended to affairs. He dispatched Belgian paratroops to Zaire following reports of further unrest there and ruled that Belgium would buy Hawk anti-aircraft missiles as part of its commitment to NATO. As a result his caretaker team was credited by ordinary Belgians with working far more smoothly than any regular government.

But neither of those decisions bulks large against the linguistic problem and the economic and social pressures—industrial decline and unemployment up to more than twice the nine-per-cent national average in Wallonia, fears of cultural domination in Flanders—

which a new leader will have to address urgently.

Most Belgians were pleased when the political parties met last year in Brussels’ Egmont Palace to sign a pact endorsing the principle of a federal solution. But the wrangling soon resumed. The Egmont deal failed to spell out the rights of minorities on each side (roughly 250,000 francophones live in Flanders and a similar number of Flemish speakers in Wallonia) and left the problem of Brussels largely unresolved.

The capital is a strong focal point of tension. Both sides accept that the largely francophone city should form the third element in the federation. But they disagree about means. The Flemish worry that urban sprawl is spilling thousands of francophones into Brussels’ suburbs which are supposed to be Flemish. They insist that the Flemish character should be preserved administratively, while the French-speaking

newcomers are agitating for more francophone facilities: schools, post offices and other public services. So the pushand-shove game will continue—until someone, Vanden Boeynants, perhaps, blows the whistle. Peter Lewis