Question of nationality still the 'gravest problem' in Belgium
02.05.12 @ 10:21
Belgium and the Monarchy: From National Independence to National Disintegration. By Herman Van Goethem and translated by Ian Connerty. University Press Antwerp (UPA); 295 pages; €27.83 (excl. VAT and shipping) at EUbookshop
Handsomely printed on heavy paper with 51 photographs, including a superb one of King Albert I on the beach at De Panne during World War I, this book is an adapted translation of author, Van Goethem’s De monarchie en ‘het einde van België’: Een communautaire geschiedenis van Leopold I tot Albert II with additional material added for the period 2008-2010. Contrary to what the English title suggests, this book is not about the history of Belgium and its monarchy, but about the history of the Belgian monarchy and its attitude towards the communitarian question, namely, the evolution of language as a divisive force culturally, economically, politically, and socially in Belgium since independence.
Divided into nine chapters, Van Goethem explains in chronological detail the divisive forces in Belgian society starting with the first King of Belgians, German-born Leopold I (1831-65), where the Flemish movement found its beginnings. Leopold developed a clear sympathy for the growing number of Flemings and their desire for linguistic equality, in part to ensure the survival of his fledgling permanently neutral country, but mostly because of his growing concern over possible French expansionism in the wake of the February 1848 revolution in Paris and the advent to power by Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the great Bonaparte (who the author mistakenly identifies as Bonaparte’s grandson). After the death of Leopold I in December 1865, the Flemish movement lost a sympathetic voice in governing circles.
For Van Goethem, the reign of King Leopold II (1865-1909) is important for the constitutional amendment of 1893, which brought about universal manhood suffrage with plural votes, and the Equality Law of 1898, which required that "all legislation would be discussed, voted and enacted in both Dutch and French." The author sees the electoral reform of 1893 as the pivotal event in the history of the communitarian question in Belgium.
By the time King Albert I (1909-34) succeeded to the throne of his unpopular uncle, a fully-fledged Walloon Movement had emerged, largely in reaction to the fact that the Catholic Party, which had its power-base in Flanders, controlled the central government since 1884. Following the elections of July 1912 that saw the Catholics increase their majority, Jules Destrée, a Socialist representative from Charleroi, penned his open ‘Letter to the King,’ in which he declared, "Sire. . . there are no such things as Belgians’ and went on to make an appeal for ‘administrative separation’ and hence, in our author’s words, he ‘let the genie out of the bottle."
During World War I, Berlin pursued Flamenpolitik, a policy of divide and rule that was designed to take advantage of discontent among the Flemings, who made up 55% of the Belgian population at the time. In 1917, collaborators, known as activists, obtained from the invaders the transformation of the University of Ghent into an exclusively Dutch-speaking institution and the administrative division of the country. Activists were a small minority among Flemish militants. Far more numerous were the so-called passivists (a term not employed by Van Goethem), who agreed that they should wait until the country had regained its independence before asserting their demands.
On 11 July 1917, Albert received an open letter of demands from representatives of what, as Van Goethem notes, would be known as the Front Movement (Frontbeweging). The government responded with increased disciplinary measures; but the king "wanted to meet the Flemings half way" and considered creating unilingual units in the army. However, nothing came of this idea during cabinet discussions in 1918.
On 22 November 1918, three days after the Armistice, Albert stressed national unity, but also stated that, "officials, magistrates and officers must learn the language of the people they administer." He declared that every Belgian had the right to "full cultural development in his own language, including the field of higher education." Unlike the constitutional oath he took in both Dutch and French during his coronation, Albert’s speech "was given exclusively in French" and nothing the king said could be interpreted as an endorsement of the Flemish Catholic politician, Frans Van Cauwelaert’s Minimum Programme, which called for "the removal of French language facilities in Flanders; and the splitting of the army into separate French and Flemish units."
But by the end of the 1920’s, it was clear that concessions had to be made. So, in April 1930, the University of Ghent became officially Dutch speaking. Then, by the law of June 1932, all official business, including primary and secondary education, had to be conducted exclusively in Dutch in Flanders and in French in Wallonia. Brussels was declared officially bilingual at the same time.
By the time Albert lost his life in a fall while rock climbing in the Ardennes on 17 February 1934, Hitler had come to power as Chancellor in Germany and the Front Party had metamorphosed into the stridently nationalist, authoritarian, and anti-democratic Vlaamse Nationaal Verbond (VNV). Belgian politics was now about to be polarized in a way not seen before.
King Leopold III (1934-50-1) took the constitutional oath in both Dutch and French, "and for the very first time the inaugural speech from the throne was also given in both languages." Leopold’s main concern was with his country’s security. The king, with strong support from most of his ministers, decided that getting a rearmament bill through parliament was the top priority. On 14 October, Leopold articulated his arguments in favour of a ‘free hand’ policy in a speech to the cabinet which was subsequently made public.
Belgium’s return to what was tantamount to neutrality virtually guaranteed parliament’s passage on 2 December 1936 of the government’s military bill, a fact not mentioned by our author. Though all Flemish nationalists voted against the bill, most Flemish Catholics supported it and this is what counted. Neutrality, however, could not save the country from invasion on 10 May 1940.
The Belgian army put up a valiant resistance until 28 May, when King Leopold III decided to surrender. Militarily this decision made sense; but the king’s determination to remain with his people and become a prisoner divided his government, as most ministers made their way to London to set up a government-in-exile.
Here Van Goethem states: "Throughout the remainder of the conflict, [Leopold] maintained a neutral position. In this sense, he was not a collaborator. He was an attentist—his policy was the policy of wait-and-see." We are not told, however, that thanks to arrangements made by his sister, Princess Marie-José, the Belgian king traveled to Berchtesgaden to meet with Hitler on 19 November 1940.
The extent to which the king sympathized with the views of those who wanted to impose a ‘New Order’ in Europe in collaboration with the Nazis remains a subject of controversy among scholars. Van Goethem avoids this debate, though he does mention the so-called ‘Political Testament,’ in which Leopold justified his neutralist policies, refused to welcome the Allies as liberators, and criticised bilingual Flemings (whom he called a "narrow-minded and egotistical minority"), parliament, and ‘successive governments’ for having responded too slowly in satisfying the "legitimate aspirations" of his "Flemish subjects."
Despite the king’s call for ‘reconciliation between Flemings and Walloons,’ the author rather cautiously admits that the Political Testament "was little short of an open attack on the political establishment and must, at the very least, cast serious doubt on his political wisdom." In fact, Leopold had done nothing less than outline an authoritarian future for his country, and thus, when the Belgian government-in-exile learned about the ‘Political Testament’ upon its return to Brussels on 8 September 1944, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Though liberated by American forces in Austria on 7 May 1945, King Leopold had to await the decision of the Belgian government before he could return home. During this time, his younger pro-Allied brother, Charles, who had been sworn in as Regent on 21 September 1944, carried out the king’s duties in his place.
Without going into detail on the "Royal Question," Van Goethem summarises the overall results of the referendum held in March 1950. In the country as a whole, 57% of the electorate voted in favour of Leopold remaining on the throne, with 72% voting in favour in Flanders, but with 58% and 52% voting against in Wallonia and Brussels respectively. Seven of nine provinces gave the king a majority, with the industrial provinces of Hainaut and Liège voting most heavily against Leopold. Nevertheless, the impression, at the time, was that Flemings were much more in favour of keeping Leopold III than were French-speakers, and hence, as our author concludes, "the referendum helped to further strengthen regional identities and led to a sharpening of political, ideological and social conflicts between the linguistic communities. The king who had stayed behind in 1940 to safeguard the nation’s existence, left it more divided than it had ever been before."
Leopold met violent demonstrations when he returned to Brussels from his exile in Switzerland with his sons on 22 July 1950. Civil calm was restored when Leopold III decided to abdicate in favour of his eldest son Boudewijn, who took the oath of office as head of state on 11 August 1950. Not yet 21, he was formally proclaimed king on 16 July 1951.
In addition to the divisive role of King Leopold III, Van Goethem stresses the nefarious effects that "[t]he large scale political collaboration with the Nazis in Flanders during the period 1940-1944 . . ." had on the Flemish Movement. He is especially critical of the VNV.
The last two chapters focus on the main highlights of the constitutional process of devolution in Belgium during the reigns of King Boudewijn (1951-93) and his brother, King Albert II (1993 to the present). The one thing both monarchs had in common is a reluctance to encourage anything that would threaten the integrity of the country as a nation-state, and, while they have remained well within the confines of their roles as constitutional monarchs, their opposition to separatism, which comes out in royal messages, has not made them popular among many Flemings. By the same token, however, they benefited from a growing royalism among French-speakers in general and Walloons in particular.
When the language census of 1947 indicated a growth in the number of French-speakers on the periphery of Brussels and led to an increase in the number of the city’s municipalities from 16 to 19, Flemings protested. Spearheaded by a new Flemish nationalist party - Volksunie (VU) (the People’s Union) founded in 1954 - the Flemings began marching on Brussels and boycotted en masse the language census of 1961. The renewed militancy among Flemings reinforced the feeling among Walloons, in the wake of the abortive strikes of 1961, that the only way to limit the impact of economic and fiscal policies that they perceived were detrimental to the industrial heartland of their region was to encourage further devolution of power to Wallonia. Such was the background to the so-called Gilson Language Laws of 1962-63, which fixed the linguistic frontier, so that the bilingual district of Brussels-Capital City was limited to 19 communes. In six communes surrounding Brussels - Drogenbos, Kraainem, Linkebeek, Sint-Genesius-Rode, Wemmel, and Wezembeek-Oppem - facilities for French-speakers, such as being able to deal with officials in French and having their children educated in the language of their choice, were to be provided. Language facilities were also guaranteed for the 70,000 or so German-speakers in the eastern part of the country.
More controversial, despite the guarantee of language facilities, was the transfer of the Voeren (Fourons) from the Province of Liège to the Province of Limburg. As Van Goethem writes: "Between 1970 and 1990 the Voer district was constantly in the news, largely because of the refusal of the local burgomaster, a farmer named José Happart, to use the Dutch language. . . . Happart’s principled stand not only led to street fights in the otherwise peaceful villages of the Voer, but also became a casus belli between the Flemings and Walloons, splitting national political life neatly down the linguistic middle and occasionally leading to the fall of the government."
The state reforms of 1970 came at the end of a decade that saw the appearance of two new political parties - the Brussels-based Front Démocratique des Francophones (not the Front des Francophones as called by Van Goethem) and the Rassamblement Wallon, which won their first parliamentary seats in the general election of March 1968. At the same time, radical Flemish student organisations succeeded in getting the French section of the Catholic University of Leuven transferred to Walloon Brabant (specifically to Ottignies, now called Louvain-la-Neuve) after a vehement campaign "with their insulting (but nonetheless popular) slogans, such as Walen buiten (Walloons Out!) and Leuven Vlaams (Leuven for the Flemish!)."
The key constitutional changes took place in 1970, 1980, and 1993. They created three Regions and three linguistic Communities with their respective Councils and Executives that would be able to issue decrees and sign treaties with foreign countries in matters for which they had competence. Legislation affecting the linguistic communities from 1970 on had to be the consequence of ‘special majority law’ that ‘could only be passed if there was a majority in favour in both the Flemish and Walloon groupings in both the Lower House and the Senate, on condition that a majority of the members of each language grouping was present during the vote and on condition that the resulting number of votes in favour of the law exceed two-thirds of the total number of votes cast.’ In addition, there was an alarm bell procedure: "If a proposed law threatened to seriously disrupt relations between the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities, it was possible for the parliamentary passage of this law to be temporarily suspended if this was requested by a motion of deferment signed by three-quarters of the members of a particular language grouping. In this case, the proposed law would be forwarded to the ministerial council, which would issue its findings on the matter in 30 days." As Van Goethem stresses, these measures were designed to protect the Walloon minority, as was the rule that "there would be equal numbers of Dutch-speaking and French-speaking ministers."
Following the elections of November 1991, which saw the breakaway Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) win 12 of 212 seats in the Chamber of Representatives, that is, two more seats than the VU, inter-party negotiations led to the signing of the St. Michael (St. Michel/St. Michiels) Accord on 29 September 1992. Article 1 of the Constitution amended in 1993 now read: "Belgium is a federal state, composed of different regions and communities." From now on, members of the Regional and Community Councils were to be directly elected, while further responsibilities and powers were devolved to them.
Given the significance of the St. Michael Accord, Van Goethem leaves out some important information that would benefit the reader, especially readers who may be unfamiliar with Belgian institutions or confused by their complexity. Most significantly, the number of MPs for the Lower House was reduced from 212 to 150, major changes were made to the composition of the Senate, and the Province of Brabant was officially divided into Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant. Important as well, in light of contentious recent debate over the division of the electoral district known by the initials BHV, is the fact that after 1993 the 150 seats in the Chamber of Representatives were divided among 11 constituencies. In descending order by number of seats they were: Antwerp (24), Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (22), East Flanders (20), Hainaut (19), West Flanders (16), Liège (15), Limburg (12), Leuven (Flemish Brabant—7), Namur (6), Walloon Brabant (5), and Luxembourg (4).
Under the leadership of Guy Verhofstadt, the Vlaams Liberalen en Democraten (VLD) scored very well in the general election of June 1999, as did its Francophone counterpart the Parti Réformateur Libéral (PRL), and, as the author notes, the liberals came back into government for the first time since 1988. It could also be noted that, at 46, Verhofstadt became the first Liberal in 50 years to head a Belgian cabinet that included the respective Socialist groupings as well as the newer green parties (i.e., ECOLO—Francophone Ecologists—and AGALEV—the Flemish Ecologists—which, in 2004, changed its name to Groen!).
Verhofstadt’s ‘Rainbow’ (blue-green-red) coalition (not ‘liberal-socialist coalition’ as Van Goethem states) negotiated "the so-called Lambermont agreement’ whereby the regions were to be given a number of new—and, above all, symbolic—powers, such as limited rights to levy some taxes. The agreement also regionalised agriculture and a certain amount of foreign trade. Most importantly, it authorised ‘the transfer of additional financial resources from the national treasury to the regions and communities."
Missing from this account, however, are crucial facts that help put what happened afterwards in context, such as the fact that the government had a hard time getting the two-thirds’ majority needed in the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate to adopt the constitutional reform on 29 June 2001. Due to disunity in the Volksunie, the government needed the abstention of the opposition Parti Social Chrétien (PSC), which was obtained in large part by promises of more financial support for Catholic schools, more money for the Brussels Region, and Belgian ratification of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Minority Rights. The author also does not mention the fact that the Volksunie split up with the right-leaning New Flemish Alliance, Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA), emerging as the most powerful faction.
Van Goethem does stress the significance of the electoral alliance formed by the CD&V (Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams, as the Christelijke Volkspartij came to be known after 2002) and the N-VA (now led by Bart De Wever) in February 2004 and the fact that it "won a staggering 26.1% of votes during the regional elections of [June] 2004" and went on to garner 29.6% in the parliamentary elections of June 2007. King Albert II was clearly not happy with the stridency of the debate over institutional reform, and in his official speeches he went out of his way to warn against separatism.
The general election of June 2007 gave the CD&V-N-VA coalition a clear victory. But, as Van Goethem notes, "the 2007 election result was a triumph for radicalism tout court." Neither Yves Leterme (CD&V), who finally put together a government, nor his coalition, which ultimately broke up in 2008, was able to deliver what they promised largely due to "a united French-speaking front which refused point-blank to consider any meaningful reform proposals."
In his conclusion, the author summarizes his main points. On the monarchy, he writes: "While it cannot be disputed that the monarchy has had some degree of political impact throughout the years and on occasion has even been able to influence the decision-making process (as in 1932 and 1988), the experience of Albert I with regard to the central administration tends to be the rule rather than the exception. The balance of power in a modern constitutional monarchy is such that it is always the king who has to give way."
It is hard to disagree with our author here; however, we’ll have to wait for his next study to know his assessment of the performance of Albert II during the record-breaking political crisis that ended in late 2011, 541 days after the June 2010 parliamentary election, when Elio Di Rupo (PS) was able to announce the formation of a new government on 6 December 2011. Not only had Belgium set the all-time record for the time between an election and the nomination of a new cabinet, but Di Rupo also became the first French-speaking prime minister in Belgium since 1974.
In his "diagnosis," Van Goethem stresses that Flemings increasingly see Wallonia as "a foreign country." Hence, "it is indisputable that “Belgian-ness” belongs to a national past which is unlikely to ever return." He cites a number of examples to make his point, including the fact that Flemings and Walloons almost never read newspapers or look at TV stations from the other community. Another feature that undermines Belgian national unity is the absence of national political parties.
In terms of what keeps Belgium together, Van Goethem lists public opinion itself, the monarchy, key government departments that have kept their “national” status, such as Social Insurance, trade unions, and lastly, Brussels. On the problem of Brussels, he admits that, "Flanders without Brussels would find it very hard to 'go it alone.'" Still, Brussels and its peripheral communes, where French-speakers refuse to use Dutch even when they understand it, are destined, in our author’s opinion, to remain sources of dissension and division.
As for the future, Van Goethem states that, "Given the institutional and historical weaknesses inherent in the Belgian system, the maintenance of the status quo is not a viable option." He sees some kind of ‘new confederal model à la belge,’ as the most likely scenario. He closes with a look at the situation in 2010 and concludes: "the nationality question is indeed still the gravest problem in Belgium."
Clearly, Van Goethem’s main focus in this book is on the divisive forces in Belgian society rather than the integrative ones. While he cites many works by social scientists that explain the creation of ‘imaginary communities’ and the dynamics of modern nationalism, he makes little mention of aspects of Belgium’s political and social history that have reinforced democratic stability, such as the evolution of what political scientists call 'consociational' or 'pacificatory' democracy, that is, the idea of ‘pillarization’ or verzuiling in Dutch, which means that the state enables all the main social, confessional, linguistic, and political groups to organize their daily lives so that they have their own schools, youth associations, clubs, labour unions, social insurance associations, theatres, newspapers, etc.
This reviewer is cautiously optimistic that Belgium will be around as a nation-state for the foreseeable future. Of course, we may yet witness the implosion of Belgium into its component parts. But there is reason for optimism that if that does happen, it will be done peacefully, as when Czechoslovakia broke up in the early 1990’s, and not violently as happened in Yugoslavia. Today, in the wake of the difficulties facing the European Union, one may question whether or not the tide has been turned and the forces of nationalism have again gotten the upper hand. Nevertheless, the EU as a whole can learn some lessons from Belgian history as to the necessity for democratically agreed compromise, when the only alternatives are continued crisis or outright conflict.
Overall, this book is a worthwhile read for anyone seeking a lively and clear introduction in English to the history of the language question and the Belgian monarchy’s relationship to it. However, if one is looking for more depth and details about the wider context, additional works will have to be consulted.
Dr. Michael F. Palo specializes in Belgian diplomatic history and has taught history in Brussels since 1990. Currently, he teaches at both Vesalius College and the Brussels School of International Studies of the University of Kent.