In the area where the multilingual state of Belgium is located, the main political mark today is the general openness for the expression of different attitudes and policies. Therefore, there are almost unlimited options in drawing political boundaries. That is unlike, for example, as well as with multilingual Switzerland, where the mountains create natural areas for the four different language districts and many political-administrative cantons. The physical openness of the area also causes Belgium to be more open for influences from outside and therefore sensitive to changes in the European policies.
One way to look at the situation in Belgium is to see the distinguishing feature of the country the blending of the Latin and the Germanic influences in peaceful coexistence. However, historically, this peaceful coexistence has been challenged several times and causes Belgium its biggest problems even nowadays. For the matter of very fact, taking the linguistic background of the Belgium multiculturalism and political coexistence, the majority of Belgians speak a form (dialect) of the Dutch language, often referred to as the Flemish (dialect or language), and another big language is French. Nevertheless, the German is one of the official languages of Belgium as well: there is a German-speaking area near the German border where the 3rd language community of the country lives in (they are less than 1% of the population of Belgium).
The Rivers Maas and Waal form a rough border between the Roman Catholic south and the Protestant north of the area of the Netherlands and Belgium. They also divide the Dutch language to its southern and northern variants (dialects). The Dutch variants spoken in Belgium and in the Netherlands (or, as often called, in Holland) are, basically, the same language, but the dialects spoken are very different. In practice, the dialects which are spoken in South Netherlands (Brabant, Limburg) are very similar to the so-called Flemish dialects in North Belgium. The language is thus called Dutch, but the name Flemish is often used of the variant spoken in Belgium and to avoid confusion, it has to be called the Dutch spoken in Belgium and the Dutch-speaking culture in Belgium Flanders.
In the Dutch language, there is a word for describing the language spoken in both countries of the Netherlands and Flanders – Nederlands. Sometimes the word Netherlandic is used in the English as a counterpart to this concept. The word Flemish describes the dialects spoken in Belgium and thus refers and is strongly connected to the linguistic situation in Belgium. In the Dutch, the Flemish is (unofficially) called Vlaams and the variant of the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands is often called Hollands.
Modern Belgium is a product of a major religious-cultural cleavage between northern and southern Netherlands, which has been too difficult to overcome. Although the area of both Belgium and the Netherlands is relatively small, this cleavage can be seen even within the countries. The northern parts of the Netherlands are quite different from the south in both linguistic and religious terms. The cleavage is nevertheless not as huge as in Belgium, where it was historically threatening to split the country into two parts even today. The Belgians fight to create a unifying feeling of belonging together, while the old sores are still trying to heal.
Linguistic reality and its historical background
Belgium became independent in 1830 and its neutrality was guaranteed by the UK in 1839 in order to prevent possible annexations either by France or the Netherlands. Belgium became in the 19th century the first industrialized country in the continental part of Europe for two reasons: 1) close distance from the UK, and 2) rich coal mines in the south (Wallonia).
The history of the Belgian state is quite complex from the very beginning. The Burgundian period from 1383 to 1477 brought gradual political expansion to the towns of Flanders area, which had already experienced some economic and cultural development. During this period, most of the provinces of modern Belgium and the modern Netherlands were under a single ruler (the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation and later the Spanish Kingdom of the Habsburgs). This unity of the northern and southern Netherlands was shattered by the revolt of the Northern Provinces and the restoration of the Spanish rule in the south in the 1580s.
These Southern Provinces were ruled by Spain and Austria until the late 18th century. They were also annexed to France for 20 years. However, this period of the French occupation was experienced in a very different way by the two language groups of the country: 1) for Francophone Belgium, it was a period of liberation and prosperity, but 2) for Flemish Belgium it was a period of religious and linguistic limitations. The Southern Provinces were reunited with Holland as the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon. This union lasted only 15 years until the Belgian Revolution in 1830. The story of the independent state of Belgium started, therefore, from 1830 and it has been interrupted by eight years of the German occupation during two world wars in the 20th century.
The linguistic diversity of the country has been characteristic of Belgium from the earliest history. The most essential feature of this diversity is the linguistic frontier dividing Belgium between the north-west and the south-east portions. To the north of this line various Flemish dialects are spoken, which are all thus different spoken forms of the standard Dutch language. To the south of this line, the language of the people is (the Walloon) French with some of its dialects. The frontier is not only linguistic and territorial, but it is historically used to be also a social class cleavage as the Flemish masses inhabited the north and the French elites the south of Belgium. Nevertheless, nowadays, the situation in this matter has changed and it is Flanders, which is economically flourishing more in comparison to Wallonia.
Historically, this linguistic frontier has had nothing to do with any important political frontier, and only in the last decades the political boundaries of the provinces and administrative districts have been adjusted to correspond to the actual linguistic frontier. This linguistic frontier originated already in ancient Roman times and has varied only a bit since the 11th century. It has remained a zone of trade and inter-linguistic contacts. In the 12th and the 13th century, the French became the language of the upper class, culture, letters, and administration. The suspicious attitude and antipathy of the Flemish-speaking people towards such linguistic-social development were already expressed in the works of the Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant ca. 1235‒1300, and these attitudes are echoed in the Flemish thought even centuries later.
The language of the Dutch-speaking people in Belgium was in isolation from the dynamic, protestant Northern Provinces of the present-day Netherlands and was impoverished by middle-class emigration and poor educational facilities. The Flemish as a language, therefore, underwent a long period of stagnation in the 17th and 18th centuries while the Dutch in Holland continued to develop. During the same period, the French became the dominant language of educated society in almost the whole of Europe, which made the position of the Dutch in Belgium even worse in comparison to the French in Wallonia. The practical knowledge and use of French in the Flemish region became a matter of social class and urbanization and by 1814 the Flemish was almost totally excluded from the public life.
The king of Holland became the king of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 when Holland and Belgium became united. He wanted to abolish all official support for the French and to make the Dutch as the only official language in his kingdom. Nevertheless, such sociolinguistic policy was not successful as the people were used to using French almost exclusively in the public life, and additionally the French was the mother tongue of half of the population of the southern part of the kingdom. In 1829 and 1830 the language laws were modified by allowing the French as an optional language. In general, the Belgian provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands failed to achieve an equal partnership with the north.
During the years of the Belgian union with Holland (1815‒1830), there were even attempts to prove that the Dutch spoken in Belgium was a different language from the Dutch in Holland based on different spelling systems. During this period, existed a general antipathy to everything that was a Dutch and it still influences the language question of an independent Kingdom of Belgium.
Since 1830, the term Flemish Movement describes a wide range of cultural, educational, social, economic and political activities, and organizations. The only thing they have in common is the aim to improve the position of the Flemish-speaking population and the Flemish language in Belgium.
The Belgian economic weight buttressed the domination of the Francophone Wallonia over the Flemish-speaking Flanders, whose economic wealth was coming primarily from agriculture and commerce. For the reason to ensure Belgium’s continued industrial expansion, King Leopold II acquired the Congo territory (the Belgian Congo) between the years of 1881 and 1885.
Shortly after the Belgian independence in 1830 was proclaimed, the Flemish part of the country experienced an improvement of its material and national position in Belgium. However, despite this change towards gradual equality, the Flemish Movement continued the national struggle of the Flemish-speaking population and over time became a strong political force in Belgian politics especially today. The Flemish Movement has had different phases consisting of, for example, petitioning in the Parliament and submitting official reports of the Flemish claims to the Belgian authorities. In general, the emphasis was always on the language and literary tradition. The laws for the use of Dutch (Flemish) were slowly made better, and the 1898 Vriendt-Coremans Law gave to the Belgian form of Dutch the position of an official language in the Kingdom of Belgium alongside the French one. Nevertheless, on the other hand, the French-speaking Walloon population reacted to the linguistic-nationalistic requirements by the Flemish-speaking population with the feelings of defensiveness and group insecurity.
In response to increasing political protests from the Flemish speakers in the north, between two world wars, in 1922, a new law regulated internal language use in the administration for the first time and recognized the principle of the separate linguistic regions for Wallonia and Flanders. The Brussels area was given the bilingual status as it is still a situation today. It means that the Flemish became accepted as an equal official language to French in 1922. However, the French-speaking Walloon population was not very satisfied with such bilingual developments as the French language lost its previous superior status. The second round of language laws, concerning educational matters, was passed between 1930 and 1938. The Walloons abandoned the cause for Francophone minority in Flanders out of fear for demands for full language equality and symmetry or the better position of the economically weaker Flemish population in Wallonia.
However, WWI changed the linguistic situation in Belgium as the German occupation military authorities understood political advantages in promoting the position of the Flemish. The open anti-German activism was not a key feature of the Flemish Movement at that time and many of its political leaders remained loyal to the pre-war Belgian regime throughout the war – although the Council of Flanders (a group of intellectuals, teachers, and officials controlled by the German occupation authorities) declared the political independence of Flanders in 1917. The declaration was useless, but for the first time, the possible state independence of North Belgium was put on the political agenda in Europe.
WWII again interrupted the development of the Flemish Movement and the situation during the war was not as clear as during WWI. After the end of the German occupation in 1944, the political manifestations of the Flemish Movement were forced underground for several years and the doctrines of the movement were kept alive only by the major Flemish cultural foundations. In the years after WWII, occurred a major constitutional crisis around the personality of King Leopold III, who became accused of collaborating with the Nazi Germans during the war and the German occupation of Belgium. In general, in the 1950s it was a wider debate in Belgium about collaboration with the Nazi Germans which left deep wounds in the Belgian society, as the Francophone Walloons accused the Flemish-speaking Belgians of collaborating with the Germans.
The language census organized in 1947 evoked big protests on the Flemish side of Belgium as the Flemish nationalist movement was not sure about the subjectivity of the census. The nationalist movement organized a big mass campaign in order to stop the language census scheduled for 1960. The third round of the language laws was passed in 1962 and 1963 after huge demonstrations and parliamentary struggles. During that time, also the reforming of the structure of the state itself was started with the object of finding some satisfactory form of “cultural autonomy” of the two parts of the country that was, in fact, an original goal of the Flemish Movement since the 1930s). Such a situation ultimately led to a focal constitutional change, sketched by 1970.
Belgium decided in 1960 that it no longer was able to keep the colonial order in Congo and to continue to exploit it in the face of growing resistance by the local population. Soon, the structural difficulties of heavy industry, which was during the last century and a half a backbone of the economic prosperity and superiority of Wallonia, shifted the economic advantage to Flanders and the Flemish-speaking north. Therefore, Flanders continued to economically prosper via trade and commerce and was a favored location for new industries owing to its ready access to the sea.
The nationalism and stereotypes
The Flemish-Dutch nationalism is strongly associated with the Catholic Right and the regionalism of Wallonia advocated by the Socialists. The Roman Catholic values and tradition are still very much more adhered to in Flanders than in Wallonia and the Catholic party of Flanders is strictly conservative. Concerning the language issue, the policy of bilingualism is supported more in the Flemish than in the Walloon provinces. Nonetheless, the Flemish minority in Wallonia is almost invisible in contrary to the Walloon minority in Flanders.
The traditional stereotype of the Francophone Walloons among the Flemish speakers is that they are more playful, witty, active, talkative, bold, and militaristic. On the contrary, the Flemish-speaking people are portrayed by the Walloons as mere serious, tenacious, and heavy and the Flemish society as rural, agrarian regarding its value system. The Walloons are urban and industrial and their temperament originates from the French Revolution (1789‒1794), while the Flemish temperament dates back from the Baroque time. These were the stereotypes at least still 20 years ago and against this background, it is easier to understand the cleavages of today.
The standardization of the Dutch language
The history of the standardization of Dutch and of the political partition of the Netherlands (the Low Countries) gives significant insights into the role of language in the modern Netherlands (called as well as Holland) and Belgium. The fact that the standardization process finally resulted in the inclusion of both northern and southern linguistic features in the standard language of North Netherlands made the eventual adoption of the northern Dutch standard in Belgium more feasible. Historically, the political partition of the Netherlands at the same time secured the future of the Dutch language in the Netherlands (today composed by twelve provinces of whom Holland gives two) while on other hand gravely endangered the linguistic position of the Flemish dialect and its speakers in the south.
The renaissance era of and the interest in the national language is the background of the future linguistic nationalism and, therefore, the development of standardized Dutch language has to be understood. The purification of the Dutch language of, for example, French influences, was important – German loan words were in general preferred to French ones. The influence of French was not only due to the bilingual situation in what nowadays is Belgium but as well as due to the position of the French in Europe as the lingua franca especially during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century when the Dutch-speaking people were active and powerful in international trade and other businesses. That was for that reason in addition to the direct linguistic contacts via different channels how the French linguistic influences found their way to the Dutch language. However, at the same time, rejecting these influences was a way to prove that the Dutch are also an important, independent state and nation. The Dutch people, culture, and language intended to be more related to the Germanic than the French tradition of Europe. Today, the Dutch of Belgium is less tolerant of French influences on the language than the Dutch spoken in Holland. This can be seen in spelling and in some terms, which in the area of the Netherlands are rather borrowed from the English while the Belgians are keen on developing their own “indigenous” terms.
In the late 19th century, there was a big discussion over the standardization of literal Flemish based either on the Dutch of Holland or the Flemish tradition. The differences between the dialects are quite big, most of all in pronunciation. In 1914, it was finally decided that the literal Netherlandic of Flanders is going to be based on the cultivated Netherlandic of Holland. This standard language is known as algemeen beschaafd Nederlands (common “higher” Dutch, abbreviation the ABN). Therefore, only at the beginning of the 20th century, it was acknowledged that the languages in Belgian Flanders and the neighboring Holland are, basically, the same or very similar from the linguistic viewpoint (from the sociolinguistic viewpoint they can be separate languages).
The earliest leaders of the Flemish Movement spoke their dialects, but slowly it became more and more popular in the nationalist Flemish Movement to start speaking the ABN. That was promoted, for example, through some Flemish cultural foundations. A linguistic practice of diglossia, the use of two languages or dialects of the same, is common in Flanders: the use of local dialect and, at least to some extent, the use of the ABN.
The population and, therefore, the language distribution between the regions have been changing lately in Belgium. The population of Flanders has increased more than three times faster than the Francophone population of Wallonia or Brussels. Brussels and Wallonia, in contrast to Flanders, have negative birth-rate and, therefore, the ethnic-regional demographic situations in Belgium are very different. This has also led Wallonia to be more interested in immigration policies compared to Flanders. The Walloon public has developed persistent feelings of defensiveness, insecurity, and pessimism about the future that has increased its sensitivity in other aspects of language policy. These negative feelings were reinforced, for example, by the economic recession in the 1970s and 1980s. In Flanders, there have been no concerns over the falling birth-rate: one of the central motifs of the Flemish Movement in the 20th century was the idea of volkskracht – the collective strength of the Flemish people. One of the major components of such national policy is demographic vitality (the same policy, for instance, was adopted by Kosovo’s Albanians after WWII or the Palestinians in their struggle against the Zionist Israel). Consequently, the population in Flanders is relatively younger in comparison to Wallonia (the same as Kosovo’s Albanian or Palestinian cases).
The Belgian system was premised for a long time on greater prestige for the French language and its adoption by the middle classes, especially in the Brussels area. This led to Wallonia to maintain its leading position despite the demographic advantages of Flanders followed by the further development of the nationalist Flemish Movement.
The language model in Belgium is dating back to 1830 and up to the beginning of independence, it was not sustainable in the changing conditions of the country. According to the old model from 1830, the three dialects (or separate languages) – the Flemish, the Walloon, and the German – should be used equally for the regional purposes, but the French would be the only language used in wider public communication (as the lingua franca of Belgium). The attempt to raise the status of the Flemish was seen as “unprogressive” or “backward-looking”. With the advance of the democratization process, this model was not of any use anymore and the new model gave the ABN the same position that the standard French had.
Feelings of group superiority and inferiority exist between the Walloon and the Flemish people: for instance, the French-speaking people (at least used to) consider the Flemish just as a set of dialects and not as a real language. Still is the existing refusal of the French-speaking people to learn Dutch what can be understood as a refusal to accept its speakers on equal terms. A French-speaking politician could hold a press conference for the combined media of Belgium solely in French, which would be unthinkable in the Flemish.
The “natural” cultural orientation of the Flemish-speaking people towards Holland was blocked by historical circumstances. Because of such development, for several decades, the model for educated Belgians was the French-speaking population. However, the Flemish Movement challenged this view and, for example, the general strike organized in 1960−1961 distilled the feelings of helplessness and minority status of Walloons: it took place only in Wallonia and resulted in the formation of the first Walloon regional political party (Mouvement Populaire Wallon).
The Flemish and Francophone areas had a very different approach to the language legislation question. The Walloons and the Francophones in Brussels have shown a voluntarist or even laisser faire attitude towards language, while the Flemings have been strong partisans of regulation through public policy, seeing the need to protect one’s territory against linguistic infiltration. There are some dialects in Wallonia, but they are not as distinctive as in the Flanders area. In Wallonia, the dialects are endangered and in Flanders very alive, although disapproved by the elite. The rights of the Flemish minority in Wallonia have been neglected and as a response to that, the Flemings have been working towards a unilingual Flanders. They have tried to decrease the need for a high level of cross-linguistic contact by seeking greater cultural and administrative autonomy.
The factor of bilingual Brussels
Brussels has a special position and status as the only bilingual area in Belgium. It is seen as a mixture, a combination of the less desirable characteristics of both the Flemish and the Walloons. The impact of Dutch among the French-speaking population of Brussels attracted the special attention of the researchers as a very peculiar phenomenon. The influences on the vocabulary occur most likely in the private and social sectors, in lower classes, and pejorative language use. These influences are usually called belgicismes, which also include wallonismes, thus not only the influence of the Flemish language on French but also the special features of the French spoken in Belgium have been researched.
The Brussels area is having the highest economic level of development within Belgium – a situation that is much criticized by both linguistic groups from Flanders and Wallonia. The regional crisis and problems can be seen as well as a reaction of the neglected periphery against a privileged center. Nevertheless, despite the traditional cleavages in Belgium, the Brussels area has always its strong impact on the general situation.
Belgium’s cleavages and politics
Almost all political questions in Belgium have been affected by linguistic and regional questions. In general, there is a consensus on political values and the rules of the political game but in some cases, these differences can also be seen in foreign policy. There is also a tendency that some issues which originally are nonlinguistic get an additional interregional and linguistic dimension. That means in reality an additional dose of hostility and suspicion towards the opposite side when solving the issue.
There are three major cleavages, which tend to split Belgium as a country:
- The first cleavage is the Belgian state structure. It is highly centralized, unlike, for example, in Switzerland with its different cantons for different linguistic areas. This centralization of the power in Brussels means a heavy load on the shoulders of the central Government. There is more at stake in the parliamentary arena, which means that the political game is more intense and generous.
- The second cleavage is the religious one taking into account the division between the Roman Catholics (54%) and the Protestants (3%) with the rising Islamic population (5%). It was an important political issue before the linguistic question became political.
- The linguistic division is the third cleavage dividing Belgium as a country. A phenomenon called the verzuiling in Dutch also tends to divide the country politically. The Verzuiling means cultural segmentation on ideological lines. It is quite institutionalized and formalized in Belgium, and most likely served as a model for the nationalist Flemish Movement. But if something is mixing these separating lines, it is the linguistic issue. For example, the three major Flemish cultural foundations (Willemsfonds, Davidsfonds, and Vermeylenfonds), that all had an important part to play in the development of the Flemish Movement, hung together with both the liberal Roman Catholic line and the socialist subcultures of the French-speaking area. They just concentrated on the mobilization of the Flemish masses from both sides.
Traditionally, there have been three great parties in three ideological families: the Roman Catholic, liberal, and socialist. They are well established and have the support of the organizations on the same ideological tendency. Other parties in Belgium are the socialist party and regional parties. In Flemish regions, these regional parties have had support since 1919, but in other areas only from the 1960s onward. Some parties are offshoots of the major parties or other kinds of secessionist lists and short-lived tendencies on both the Flemish and the Walloon side.
A homogenous one-party Government has been in power only once in 1950−1954. The more usual case has been the coalition of two or three traditional parties and the general consensus is typical of the Belgian political culture. Since 1945, all a bit more severe conflicts in Belgian politics have put strains on the political system on one or more of the fundamental cleavages dividing the country (religion, class, language). The Belgian party-system was built more around religious and class divisions than the linguistic factor. The load for the existing system has, therefore, been extremely heavy and has led to changes in the party-system.
The emphasized importance of linguistic and regional issues has led to the emergence of one bigger regional party from several smaller ones in all Belgium’s regions. As a consequence, such practice changed the organization and activities of the traditional parties and the functioning of the party-system in general.
The Volksunie was founded in 1954 as a union of the smaller Flemish parties. It grew out of the Flemish Roman Catholic right-wing and was first seen as quite radical, but later the Volksunie broke all the relations it had with the more militant groups and developed itself into a moderate party. The Volksunie stresses all the important themes of the Flemish Movement (fixation of the linguistic frontier, territorial limitation, the status of Brussels, bipartite federalism, etc.), but developed center-left economic and social program. The Walloon regional parties have been less stable, continuous, and visible in elections. The regional parties on both sides have profited from the networks of linguistic/cultural and regional organizations, whose goals were the same. All parties have also experienced the emergence of Flemish/Walloon “wing”.
The importance of linguistic issues in Belgium became diminished slightly in the 1970s, but in the 21st century, there have been big problems with the nationalist movement in Flanders.
Populist politics have been gaining popularity in North Belgium and the Vlaams Blok, the extreme right-wing Flemish party, for instance, got 24% support in the municipal elections in 2004 and, therefore, became one of the major parties in Flanders. The party believes that Flanders should be an independent state with Brussels as its capital. The breakthrough of the party was already in 1991 and it argues that other Flemish parties have betrayed Flanders by making too many concessions to Wallonia. The Volksunie shares many of the values of the Vlaams Blok but seeks just the autonomy and not independence for Flanders. The Vlaams Blok is also known as racist, anti-immigrant party and has successfully linked the Flemish cause to anti-immigrant sentiments.
Nevertheless, the question arose is the Vlaams Blok or any of the other smaller pro-Flemish parties in Flanders a part of the original nationalistic Flemish Movement or they already went beyond it? On one hand, they definitively have their roots in the movement, but on another, they have gone beyond the original political goals like language equality. Another question can be, should the racist ideology be interpreted as a result of the late development of the Flemish self-esteem, as maybe the immigrants coming to Flanders are seen as a threat to the Flemish people, who have just found their identity and status as Belgians? Nonetheless, as a matter of fact, the Flemish have only just gained their part of the Belgian well-being and have started to flourish after repression for hundreds of years followed by the complicated historical relationships between the two “Dutches”.
© Vladislav B. Sotirović 2020
Originally written for and published on Oriental Review in July & August 2020.
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