I wrote about Belgian politics already 3 years ago when it took several months to form a goverment after the elections (click on the link for some background information). Belgium has appeared in the news again, as the Prime Minister Yves Leterme (who famously confused the Belgian anthem for La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, 3 years ago!) resigned last week. Third time lucky / unlucky you might say, since it was the third time since July 2008 that he had offered his resignation to the Belgian king.
The crisis is due to failed negotiations on the so-called BHV-case. What is BHV you might ask – we certainly did when we first saw the abbreviation in the newspapers when arriving to Belgium almost 3 weeks ago. BHV stands for Brussels – Halle – Vilvoorde and is a disputed electoral district in and around Brussels. As you know Brussels is a mainly French-speaking city, but officially it is bilingual with Flemish (Dutch) as the other official language. However, Brussels and its 19 communes (municipalities), known as the Bruxelles-Capital region, is surrounded by Flanders where only Flemish is the accepted language (with some exceptions, see link below for explanation on the language laws).
During the political crisis of 2007 when Belgium was without a government for several months, and people were fearing for the future of the country, Belgian flags have been flying from the windows and balconies of houses and apartments to show the residents’ support for Belgium!
The political system of Belgium is completely divided and separate between Flemish and Walloon (French-speaking) parties, and people living in Flanders can only vote for Flemish parties and vice versa in Wallonia. Nevertheless, many French-speaking Belgians (and foreigners) have in recent years settled in some of the officially Flemish communes outside Bruxelles-Capital, and they want to be able to vote for whichever party they’d like.
Since I haven’t been following Belgian politics very closely the last few years, I have been trying to figure out the reasons for the problems facing the country at the moment. Obviously strong sentiments and opinions are flying high since the French-speaking Belgians and many Flemish are worried that this political crisis will eventually lead to the separation of Belgium, something that at least one Flemish party is aiming for. The current crisis might also influence the work of the European Union in just a few months as Belgium is set to hold the presidency of the EU (from the 1st July for 6 months).
Another reason for the political upheaval is the case of the three elected mayors of the communes Kraainem, Linkebeek and Wezembeek-Oppem, whom the Flemish Minister of Interior has refused to nominate. The official reason? They had sent out electoral information in only French to their voters. This was a breach of the country’s language laws because even though the three communes are mainly French-speaking, the municipalities are situated in Flanders (read more about the Belgian language laws and rules here). One politician compared the refusal of the Flemish minister to nominate the mayors, with the behaviour of the German occupiers during the Second World War, a comparison that was criticised from both sides but it shows how strong people feel about this case.
Various rumours that we have been told / read:
- Some Flemish members of parliament taunted the Walloons when the Prime Minister had announced his resignation and sang a Flemish separatist song! Honteux (Shameful) as the French would say, if this is true!
- Flemish mayors in the communes surrounding Bruxelles-capital have instructed real estate agents to not show & sell property to French-speakers and foreigners (who usually speak French instead of Flemish) (read more here, in French).
I spoke to two Flemish friends yesterday and they are as dismayed about the crisis and its possible implications for Belgium as a country, as we are. It has to be underligned that most Flemish seem to support the raison d’être of Belgium and it seems that is is mostly the politicians who are creating the tensions. I will write more about the linguistic issue another day, but here is a funny, but outrageous clip from France’s biggest tv-channel, TF1 (watch the Belgian map shown in the news):
The French news programme inverting the map of their neighbour Belgium is like if an Irish news broadcast would swap positions of Scotland and England on a map… Almost all my Belgian friends had this link on their FB pages yesterday!