They may be cuddly, cute and seemingly innocuous, but two panda bears are the latest culprits pitting Belgium’s French-speakers in the south against its Dutch-speakers in the north.
Sparkling Star and his partner Sweet are, of course, oblivious to the ruckus, which began when Belgium’s Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo travelled to China this week. As part of the visit, Beijing offered the four-year-old pair on a loan, a gift frequently bestowed by the Chinese authorities in what is now termed “panda diplomacy”. What was not so diplomatic, however, was Mr Di Rupo’s announcement that the pandas would be be housed in an animal park in Wallonia, the French-speaking south, and not far from Mr Di Rupo’s home town of Mons. “The arrival of the pandas will show the bond of trust between our two nations,” the Prime Minister said.
That simply highlighted the lack of a bond between Wallonia and Flanders. The 170-year-old Antwerp Zoo in Flanders immediately said it would ask for an explanation, hoping that they would be able to host the pandas and the extra visitors they bring.
The Flemish Premier, Kris Peeters, said he had “no need of a panda row”, but he did say he would raise the issue with Mr Di Rupo.
The Flemish separatist N-VA party gained record support at general elections in 2010, and they are riding high in the polls ahead of elections next year, leading to concerns that the country could be plunged into political turmoil.