Strife eats at the core of Belgian state

Scandals fuel separatist fire

The wave of scandals in Belgium has triggered fresh moves towards separation between the country's feuding French- and Dutch-speaking communities. It has evoked new support among some French-speakers for closer ties between Wallonia and France, but also put a question-mark over the future of Brussels, the capital of the European Union.

A mass protest on Sunday over child abductions and murders may have shown new solidarity between the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemings. But equally, the strife could hasten political moves towards greater separation. Sparked by their fury over the failure of Belgian state institutions to respond to the crisis, the Walloons and the Flemings have intensified their debate about how the country should pursue its federal agenda.

Over the last few years, it has been the Flemish who have taken the lead in proposing greater federalisation, with extremists demanding all-out separation and an independent Flanders. Flemish extremists have exploited the fact that the latest scandals broke in Wallonia to promote their argument for a separate Flanders. The fact that the chief suspect in the child murders was claiming large social security cheques has been used to spread the Flemish separatist message that taxes are being wasted on the social security scroungers of impoverished Wallonia. And investigations in other cases have shown the degree of corruption in Walloon politics.

Outraged by the Flemish tactics, Francophone intellectuals who have taken a back seat in the federalist debate have now chosen to step forward. Francophones must "mobilise", a group of eminences grises proclaimed in a declaration published in Le Soir newspaper, entitled "Choices for the future". To prevent Flanders dominating the march towards greater federalism, the Walloons must rise up and construct a future on their terms, it said.

The call for a show of strength has been taken up by prominent Francophone politicians, including Robert Collignon, the socialist minister president of the Walloon regional government. In a speech earlier this month he advocated a study of "all institutional scenarios" for the future of Wallonia. "We will intensify our relations with France, a country with which we share a language and culture," he said. "Are not Walloons closer to Paris than most French people?"

The idea of melding Wallonia with France has frequently surfaced in the 150-odd years since Belgium was founded in 1839. It was raised again with the first meeting five years ago of the Wallonian Movement for a Return to France (MWRF) and the first appearance in elections last year of a group called "France".

For their part, the French have tended to regard the Belgians as the butt of nationally reassuring jokes. In the last month or so, though, the joking has stopped. The Belgian crisis has revived a strand of French thinking that hankers after bringing Wallonia back into France, something which Napoleon tried (and failed) to do 200 years ago.

There are other historical echoes. This weekend, Le Point magazine said that a 1943 study commissioned by then US President Franklin Roosevelt envisaged the creation of a "greater Wallonia" governed by France, that would have incorporated not just French-speaking Belgium, but also Luxembourg, Alsace-Lorraine and the two northernmost departments of France. And according to Le Monde, President Charles De Gaulle was reported as saying in 1968: "If a political authority representative of Wallonia were to approach France officially ... we would respond favourably to a request that appeared legitimate." This month Le Monde suggested that some French diplomats held regular meetings with MWRF members, including the consul-general in Liege.

But a break-up of Belgium would entail complications. For a start, not all Walloons would be happy about being united with France; and the future of Flanders is also unclear. There is little love lost between the (mainly Catholic) Dutch speakers and the (mainly Protestant) inhabitants of the Netherlands. And Belgium's German speakers have displayed little inclination to join a greater Germany over the last century.

A break-up of Belgium could also mean the break-up of Brussels, capital not only of the Belgian state but headquarters of the EU organisations. Brussels (inconveniently) is a largely French-speaking city geographically located in Flanders.

The Walloon declaration makes clear that greatest fear for the Francophones - and the greatest threat to Wallonia - is the Flemish claim to the city. The declarations says that Wallonia could be severed from Flanders, as long as the Flemish give up the national capital. The same group says that if Brussels is not to be the capital of Wallonia, it could become an "international city".

The suggestion for a "Wallo-Bruxellois" alliance has outraged Flemish leaders, who argue that Brussels is on Flemish territory and the capital of Flanders. It proves just how serious the separatist debate in Belgium is now becoming. "It may seem unrealistic for now but the break up of Belgium could really happen. And Brussels would be our Jerusalem," said Francois Perrin, a prominent Francophone socialist.

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