Battle is joined to save Flemish: Belgians are still fighting an old fight

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The Independent Online
IN Armistice week, the ghost of battles past has come to haunt Belgium. When the Flemish-speaking Defence Minister with a French name, Leo Delcroix, threatened not to pay his country's contribution to the newly inaugurated European corps unless Flemish was recognised as one of its official languages, alongside French and German, he was immediately denounced in the Francophone press for trivialising the nation's security concerns.

His demands echo an earlier time, in the First World War, when the mainly Wallooon Belgian officers would bark out their orders in French to the mainly Flemish soldiers, adding (in French) as an afterthought: 'Oh, and that goes for Flemings too'.

The Eurocorps row has sparked renewed debate on the role of Flemish. Has the battle waged for more than a century to see Flemish given the same status as French in bilingual Belgium been won only for the language to wither and die, choked as English takes hold as the lingua franca across Europe?

Flemish is a misnomer - it is a dialect but not a language - for in 1980 the governments of Belgium and the Netherlands signed a unique treaty establishing a Dutch language union.

Under Belgium's new federal constitution, regional parliaments have responsibility for cultural affairs. Flanders will celebrate its powers next March with an international colloquium devoted to the role of Dutch in the world.

The organiser points out that there are some 21 million Dutch speakers worldwide. Though this figure compares unfavourably with, say, the 60 million Italian speakers, the geographical spread is impressive: Dutch is spoken in Surinam, the Dutch Antilles and French Flanders. Afrikaans is derived from Dutch and Indonesia's colonial past ensures that all the historical documents and source materials are in Dutch.

But despite a language union, the experience of Belgium and the Netherlands is very different. Dutch authors are suddenly international flavour of the month. Dutch literature was chosen as the focus for this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, the leading showcase for contemporary literature, while in France they are also the subjects of a special promotion in bookshops, libraries and public readings.

Belgium writers remain in their shadow, thanks in part to the fact that the principal publishing houses for Belgian writers are in the Netherlands or France. There is also a problem in that language in Belgium, as distinct from the Netherlands, is all too often hijacked for political purposes. Flemish politicians, anxious to promote their message beyond the immediate electorate, often resort to English. Such a move tends to be viewed as a betrayal by Flemish nationalists, while for the Dutch it is seen only as practical.

As the European Union seeks to streamline its language policy, trying as in the newly established trademark office to introduce a system of five 'main' languages (English, French, German, Italian and Spanish), Flemings and Dutch alike join in fighting to preserve the status of Dutch. But the debate is as much about the perception that the European Union discriminates against small countries as about the preservation of language.