Usually in E&M's Dear Neighbour article series, two neighbouring countries exchange letters about their common history and their current conflicts or difficulties. But in this issue the letters are posted within the borders of one country: the Kingdom of Belgium. It is a founding member of the EU and it is at the heart of Europe, not only because it hosts the institutions but also because it is the country of origin of many of Europe’s finest artists, such as the Brueghel family, Paul Rubens, Hieronymus Bosch, René Magritte, and Jacques Brel. It was a major imperial coloniser in Africa and the centre of the industrial revolution, alongside England. For years now, however, the country has seemed to be on the verge of breaking apart. The elections held by the kingdom in June made the Flemish seperatists the largest fraction of the parliament. While the coalition negotiations will take months, Belgium is set to take over the rotating Presidency of the European Council on July 1st.

French-speaking Community Letter

Photo: Isi Fischer (CC-NC-ND)
Belgium: the French-speaking and the Dutch-speaking part are like a couple.

Dear Nena,

In our Belgium, I am so sad about the lazy inability of French speakers to really understand the Flemish point of view. I am revolted by the prejudices that we hold against the Flemish: “they want to separate”, “they don’t have any desire for solidarity”, “they are racist”.

Our country is like a couple. Dutch-speaking Flanders plays the role of the 40-year-old wife who wants to take one weekend off every month to go out with her friends on a city trip. However, her husband, the French community in Wallonia, has been saying no for years. But we French speakers do not try to understand the reasoning and deep desires of our wife. Following that scenario in a couple, after a while, the wife leaves the husband, when it was not at all her intention to do so at the beginning.


Quentin Martens

studied sociology, philosophy, European studies and conflict resolution in Belgium (UCL), Sweden (Uppsala), Poland (College of Europe), Toronto and Paris. He loves poetry, history and movies on social questions. He worked at the Cabinet of the European Commissioner Michel on development and humanitarian aid, and is now working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Belgian Presidency. He is editor of the social sciences journal Emulations (www.revue-emulations.net).

We are blind, egocentric and lazy husbands. Most French speakers don't care about Flanders individually, and the politicians don’t care collectively. That must change.

Honestly. French-speaking politicians don’t have a project for Wallonia, except unity. But unity does not mean anything if the voice of the other half is not listened to. We ought to want each of us to find our place in the relationship, rather than forcing the other to give in by imposing our views and refusing theirs.

The results of the election were predictable. I was not surprised by the N-VA score (the Flemish separatist party, which gained 27 of 150 seats in parliament). I was surprised by the inability of the French speakers to consider what is really meant by this choice, made by one quarter of the Flemish. It does not mean separatism, it means shooting harder to understand each other. Because of laziness on our part, the wife starts to get nervous and to wonder if she has her place in the couple.

A couple needs a common project. Flanders has a project. Wallonia does not. You have hope of becoming a more efficient country. We don’t. We have fear. Fear of your fears, fear of your project. Fear of being alone, faced with nothing but ourselves.

Photo: Ssolbergj (CC-SA)
There are three language communities in Belgium: the Dutch-speaking Flemish (orange), the French-speaking Wallonia (red), and the German-speaking community (green).

How is it possible that some important politicians never talk to each other? Isn’t it the first thing we learn at university when we do groupwork together: to respect one another, to listen to one another, to offer confidence, to polish the individual’s relations, to exchange phone numbers?

It is now our responsibility, for us, the new Belgian generation, to bring back ideals in politics. How? By engaging in politics without playing particratic and community games. We have to go further, we have to be more exigent, we have to bring people who are engaged in politics together despite their different political views. This is essential because Belgium is a symbol of being able to live together, opening our minds, and refusing to be lazy. Being Belgian is not about staring at each other. It is about picturing each other.

And Belgium, as a symbol of Europe, must not become the symbol of a Europe which gave up on itself.

Best wishes,

Flanders, Dutch-Speaking Community Answer

Dear Quentin,

I also realise that a lot of things need to change drastically in our small but restless country. The parties in the previous election kept on messing everything up. Month after month, year after year. The quicker Belgium reached a turning point, the better. Now we have reached one with the elections in June. I’m just not sure if NV-A is the right answer to our problems.

fritjes fries
Photo: Fotos van Robin (CC-SA)
One of the things that unites Belgium: Chips! Fried twice at two different temperatures.

The victory of NV-A was indeed very predictable. The Flemish people were getting tired of the dragging negotiations that always led nowhere. NV-A seemed to be the only party that promised efficient solutions, so the choice was quickly made for the many irritated Flemings. But I'm not quite sure that NV-A is going to solve Belgium's many problems.

However, NV-A will get rid of one of the most important problems: it will give Flanders more authority and therefore enlarge its individuality. Less social security money will flow towards Wallonia, so it will have to learn to stand on its own feet and become more responsible for itself. Many Flemish people consider the Walloons as lazy little children who spend their pocket money, received from mum and dad (Flanders), on the wrong stuff.

We also have to remember that things used to be totally different. Sixty years ago, the flourishing economy of Wallonia lured a big part of the Flemish working class. In a certain way, Wallonia also supported Flanders.

The relationship between Mrs. Flanders and Mr. Wallonia is based on many years of contradiction. In many ways, they are even each other's opposite. Not only on the political field where Flanders is rather right-orientated and Wallonia rather left-orientated, but also in terms of culture and, of course, language.

nenakNena De Keersmaecker

is 19 years old. She is in her second year studying languages and literature at the free university in Brussels (VUB).
Nena spends most of her time acting, reading, writing and playing music. She wants to become a scenarist.

Ever since the birth of Belgium in 1839, and even before this point, Dutch-speaking people have always been repressed. The French language was considered as the main language, Dutch was the language for the common, somewhat ordinary people. It's not a big surprise that not only the French-, but also the Dutch-speaking Belgians wanted to preserve as much as possible of their self-esteem.

Wallonia indeed acted like a stubborn husband who knows only one answer: "No". But now NV-A will not ask for your "yes", they will just enforce it. In my opinion, this isn't the best way to solve a problem. I don't think NV-A's tactic will bring Flanders and Wallonia closer together; on the contrary, our already very fragile bond will keep on getting thinner and thinner until we become complete strangers.

In my opinion, the Walloons have the right to be anxious, especially after almost thirty percent of the Flemish have voted NV-A to the top. The NV-A doesn't shout the word separatism from the rooftops anymore, but an independent Flanders in Europe is still their ultimate goal.

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They will indeed solve many problems, but not the most important. They will fix Flanders, but keep on damaging Belgium.

So yes, it is time to work together as grown-ups instead of as selfish little children who only want what they can’t get. We will only achieve what we want, if we start listening to each other and if each of us sets a bit of his Walloon or Flemish self-esteem aside.

Nena De Keersmaecker

IN -1131 DAYS