Belgium moves to federal state

BRUSSELS - Belgium yesterday took the first step towards constitutional change in an effort to stop the country tearing itself apart, but hardline Flemish nationalists hope the reform will be but a stage on the road to independence, writes Sarah Lambert.

Under the new plans, introduced in parliament yesterday, greater powers will devolve to the regions, which will now be in charge of their own policy in areas such as trade and agriculture. Financing has been changed to ensure a region keeps most of what it earns. By the time two-thirds of both houses of parliament have approved the 33 constitutional articles some time in June, Belgium will be a federal state.

The reform makes explicit the split between French-speaking Wallonia and Flemish-speaking Flanders which has underpinned growing political unrest.

The Wallonia-Flanders border cuts the country roughly in half. Traditionally, the southern cities of Wallonia, Charleroi and Liege were the home of Belgian coal- mining and heavy industry and hence the economic powerhouse of the nation. But in recent decades the balance has shifted in favour of Flanders' commercial know-how. The Flemish believe this change has not been properly reflected in the country's political make-up and have demanded a greater say in their own affairs.

Tensions run highest in the Belgian capital, Brussels, which straddles the border and is officially bilingual. Unofficially it is the Francophone culture that dominates. The most desirable residential areas are in Flanders, their native inhabitants Flemish-speaking and ready to do anything to prevent what they see as the colonisation and ultimate conquest of their culture.

These fears found expression in the strong support shown for the neo-fascist Vlaams Blok in the 1991 general election. This forced the other Flemish parties to adopt a more strident approach to the issue - so that commentators now discuss the scenario that no one dare contemplate: the separation of Belgium into two states. For many Flemings this is still the long-term goal, and the reform is for them a first step in that direction. It is now up to Wallonia to help make a federal system work so well that their Flemish neighbours decide to bury the hatchet.