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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention