WORLD

Belgium waffles on minority rights

Think our linguistic divide is vexing? Try this odd little country.

PAUL WELLS August 13 2007
WORLD

Belgium waffles on minority rights

Think our linguistic divide is vexing? Try this odd little country.

PAUL WELLS August 13 2007

Belgium waffles on minority rights

Think our linguistic divide is vexing? Try this odd little country.

PAUL WELLS

Diplomacy and a sharp wit have often been antagonistic skills. In his never-ending search for a punchline that will raise a hearty chuckle among his fellow Flemish Belgians, Yves Leterme seems to have decided he can’t afford to be diplomatic. Or that he doesn’t want to bother. Belgium’s French press is critical of him? “Well, you have to fill the newspapers with something,” he said at a news conference last week. People are saying Leterme might not be able to form a government for his odd little country? “Don’t take your dreams for reality.”

Ha! Except Leterme is currently auditioning, not for the role of Belgium’s satirist-inchief, but for the job of prime minister. It is going slowly. Forming a national government for the increasingly factious Belgians always goes slowly. But Leterme seems to care very little that with every move he makes, he drives Belgium’s French-speaking minority a little crazier with indignation and worry.

He has had a lot of practice at it. At first glance Leterme, 46, seems to have the background a complex country like Belgium needs: the son of Dutchand French-speaking parents, he speaks the country’s two dominant languages (there is also a small German-speaking community), and his ear-

lier career as an accountant and Eurocrat seems bland enough on its surface.

But as leader of the CD&V party—the centre-right Flemish Christian Democrats— he has appealed more and more openly to Flemish nationalism and the Flemish community’s resentment at having to pay for social programs in the smaller, less prosperous French region, Wallonia. A year ago, when he was minister-president of Flanders— essentially the provincial premier—he told a reporter from France that he would not belong to any federal government that did not radically decentralize power and money to the regions: “The necessity of having a federal government comes in second place, behind the interests of Flanders.” Not that he was a “separatist in principle,” but he took pains to emphasize that Flanders “could carry on perfectly well alone,” and that Belgium “was born from an accident of history, we mustn’t forget.” In this year’s June 10 federal election, Leterme ran in an alliance with the openly separatist NVA party.

Little wonder, then, that when Leterme’s

group won most of the seats in the election, the black-yellow-red tricolour of the Belgian flag was nowhere to be seen at his election headquarters. Only the Flemish flag, a black lion on a yellow background, was present.

Until now, the peculiarly ungainly genius of Belgian politics has been the way it forces antagonists into coalitions. Even with every Flemish-only party, Leterme cannot hold a majority in the Belgian parliament. He needs to woo a francophone party if he is to take power. This inevitably takes time. The two months that have passed since the election without a new government are not an unusually long delay. What is unusual is that Leterme’s stated condition for governing—a radical disentanglement from the powersharing between regions that is the essence of federalism—is anathema to every mainstream francophone party. Which is what Vincent de Coorebyter, the head of a Brussels think tank called CRISP, meant when he wrote soon after the election: “For the first time, the post-election arithmetic could lead to the end of Belgium.”

Delicate times, then. Leterme remains an indelicate man. On Belgium’s national holiday, a French-language TV crew stopped him on his way into a church service and asked him why the holiday falls on July 21. He didn’t know. (The date marks the coronation of Belgium’s first King, Léopold I, whose successors are seen by some to speak Flemish poorly.) Then the reporter asked Leterme if he knew the words to La Brabançonne, Belgium’s national anthem. Leterme gamely sung a few lines—of La Marseillaise, the anthem of the next country over, France.

Reactions to Leterme’s bizarre behaviour

were as telling as the gaffe, or joke, or whatever it was. Le Soir, an excitable French-language newspaper, carried an editorial saying Leterme had shown he “may not have the ‘intellectual capacities’ needed to unify a country whose founding symbols he knows nothing about.” (The line was a conscious dig at another of Leterme’s greatest hits: he has complained that Walloons seem too dumb to learn Flemish.) Over at the rival Dutch-language De Standaard, the editorialist called Leterme’s choice of anthems “a Belgian joke, unique of its kind, sumptuous, a good joke.”

Which is getting to be Belgium’s problem. Its government—still the social democrats who ran the country before the election, until Leterme can come up with a workable replacement—runs surplus budgets every year. Unemployment is around seven per cent, well below European averages. There is far less red tape and pointless bureaucracy than in France. Belgium is turning into an extreme version of the old joke about Canada as a country that works in practice, but not in theory.

But theory—or mutual good faith—matters too. Renaat Landuyt, the transport minister in the outgoing federal government, is considered a good-humoured moderate; in an interview with Maclean’s, he was more comfortable speaking French than English, a rarity among Flemish politicians. But even he sounded exasperated at some of his Frenchspeaking compatriots.

“We’re shocked by what we read in Le Soir,” Landuyt said. “It’s almost that they don’t want to understand the point of view of the Flemish.” And what is that point of view? “Solidarity has its limits. Federalism has no point if it only makes us pay for people who don’t work.”

Landuyt said the most shocking moment came last winter, when the French-language RTBF television network ran a fake “documentary” about a Flemish decision to break Belgium up. The show caused a brief panic in Wallonia. Yet all the viewers would have had to do to see nothing was happening, Landuyt said, was to flip to a Dutch-language channel. Almost nobody did. “The fact that the program had such an effect proves that nobody listens.”

Despite the frayed nerves, Landuyt is sure Leterme will be able to form a governmenteven if he has to learn, belatedly, a little about his French-language interlocutors to do so. “Belgians are the real masters of the European system. Nobody can form a government simply because he has the largest number of seats. You can only win through negotiation. Everybody is certain that eventually we will find a government here.” M