Out of Belgium: Small-screen airing of national drama

BRUSSELS - Viewers in the suburb of Wemmel-Drogenbos were told that, from today, they would not be able to watch their favourite French-language television programmes. The Flemish government, which has a constitutional duty to safeguard Flemish culture, was going to block the signal to prevent 'cultural contamination' of the airways.

Wemmel-Drogenbos, though only a short drive from central Brussels, is in Flanders. A line cuts the country in half: the north is Flanders and speaks Flemish; the south, Wallonia, speaks French; a pocket to the east speaks German; the capital is bilingual. All have regional governments, education systems and, to some extent, budgets.

In the outcry that followed the Wemmel-Drogenbos decision (and forced the government to reconsider), one Francophone commentator said: 'Flanders is evolving more and more as a state, intolerant, anti-democratic, nationalist and anti-European.'

Wemmel and the other communities around Brussels that straddle the linguistic divide are on the front line of a war that has stymied the Belgian political class for years. The population - at 10 million close to the size of greater Paris - has long learnt to live with the hostilities. But there is a growing sense of alarm. The effort of trying to institute constitutional reform, against the background of a weakening economy, now threatens to pull the country apart.

The Flemish-speaking Christian- Democratic Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, took command of the 36th government in 46 years in November 1991. He has made it his mission to push through the final stages of a constitutional reform begun in 1988 that would devolve greater autonomy to the regions.

No sooner had parliament grudgingly (by two votes) conceded that 'Belgium is a federal state' than it ran up against the problem of how to contain a public debt running at 6.9 per cent of national product - the highest in the European Community.

On Tuesday of last week, after three days' bitter debate, Mr Dehaene tendered the resignation of his centre-left coalition government to the King, who has considerable political powers to arbitrate on national problems. On Monday, the King took the very unusual step of asking Mr Dehaene to mediate between the deadlocked parties. This solution gives the coalition a second chance to resolve its difficulties and avoids calling a new election, as demanded by the Liberal opposition.

At the beginning of the 19th century Belgium was the world's second greatest industrial power after Britain. The legacy of that wealth is the Palace of Justice in Brussels - a domed building bigger than St Peter's in Rome - its source the Belgian Congo and Wallonia's heavy industry - coal mines and steel mills.

Now Zaire - the former Congo - is independent, and Hainault, once the nation's economic powerhouse, is officially one of Europe's poorest regions. Flanders, for so long the economic underdog regarded by Wallonia as a community of small-time traders, has nearly double the population of Wallonia and produces nearly 60 per cent of the country's wealth.

Flanders is tired of paying for Wallonia: the fall of the last government was in part occasioned by a decision to use the receipts from Flemish television licences to alleviate the financial crisis in French-speaking schools. The Flemish government increasingly believes it could go it alone.

While the transition to fully fledged federalism, which should be complete by July, was supposed to put paid to demands for total autonomy, the head of the Flemish government has gone on record, suggesting it is but a first step to independence.

This may be muscle-flexing, for the political debate has been pushed to extremes by the strong showing of the fascist right in the last elections, who campaigned on a separatist platform. Politicians of all colours have taken on some of the nationalist language in an attempt to win back voters despite opinion polls showing that a big majority of ordinary Belgians would hate to see the country fall apart.

However, predictions suggest the right has gained support in Flanders and Brussels, which are now beginning to suffer the effects of the recession that hit Wallonia first. A new order may yet evolve from the chaos. Belgium, because it is small, is perhaps merely confronting first the problems many bigger countries with powerful regional interests also face.

One of Europe's most ardent supporters, Belgium is ironically the first to confront the difficulties of meeting the economic criteria for monetary union as laid down by the Maastricht treaty. This is the essence of the budget row and is a problem that will confront several other EC members.

For those who dream of a Europe of the regions, Belgium could be blazing the trail.