Tourists become pawns in Belgium's separatist war

Industrial decay is no match for Flemish splendours, reports Sarah Helm in Brussels

"I am not asking for a Flemish army," said Luc van den Brande as he cast a glance through the window of his pristine presidential seat and out across the Place des Martyrs in central Brussels.

Perhaps armed forces are not yet on the agenda of the president of the regional government of Flanders. But nobody in Belgium is any doubt that he is seeking virtually all the national trappings of power as he tries to transform his patch of northern Belgium into a Flemish statelet.

His grandiose ambitions are evident from the proud facade of his "seat of government", once a Belgian public building, which the Flemish regional government has recently restored.

Already Flanders, the Flemish-speaking region of northern Belgium, and French-speaking Wallonia in the south, have a large degree of autonomy from the Belgian national government. The language divide itself made some form of federalist structure inevitable, but Mr van den Brande is demanding more and more autonomy.

So far this year he has called for more powers for Flanders to run its own social security system, and to control its own tourism programme - promoting Flanders as an entity separate from Belgium. Now he made his most controversial proposal yet: his Flemish government should have powers to raise taxes and run its own fiscal policy.

The question is: where is this renewed surge of Flemish separatism leading?

In the short term it has produced renewed slapstick bickering between extremists on both sides, while the majority of Belgians, who favour keeping a united kingdom, nervously look on. Mr van den Brande outraged the Walloons at the Eurovision song contest when he wished Belgium's entrant the best of luck, but only on behalf of Flanders.

After a parade to mark the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, when Flemish communes routed the French nobility, francophones warned that Wallonia might like a divorce too, and could seek to become a part of France.

The dispute over separatist Flemish tourism has outraged the Walloons, as the Flemings have appeared to claim that the image of their tourist jewels - Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, for example - have been tainted by association with the grey image of Belgium.

Previously, Flemish and Walloon tourist attractions have been promoted abroad under a single Belgian banner. Now, however, the northern attractions are being sold as Flemish, with no mention of Belgium.

"Adieu la promotion touristique de la Belgique," said Le Soir, the francophone newspaper, also accusing the Flemish of a plot to take over divided Brussels as well.

"Brussels, the Flemish town, the capital of Flanders, is the message they want to sell," scoffed the paper.

A new row has since erupted about celebrations of a Belgian win in the Atlanta Olympics. Filip Dewinter, leader of the far-right communal party, the Vlaams Blok, bitterly protested in the Flemish parliament that the Belgian red, yellow and black tricolor was flown to mark the success of a Flemish athlete. Those responsible among the Belgian authorities, said Mr Dewinter, were trying to exploit the success of the Flemish "to undermine Flemish aspirations for independence".

In this particular nationalist struggle, there is little doubt that the Walloons are the underdogs, with most to lose from separation. Wallonia's once-thriving heavy industries are now just scars on the landscape, while Flanders - once largely agrarian - has increasingly thrived, and now resents having constantly to subsidise its poorer cousins.

Mr van den Brande's regional government believes there is no reason why the Flemish people should have to pay for the high level of social security in the south. He wants to be able to raise taxes and set his own economic agenda, partly because he believes Belgium's massive public debt is largely due to the problems of Wallonia. It is this that threatens to prevent Belgium from qualifying for European Monetary Union.

Mr van den Brande won't admit it, but he obviously believes that if Flanders had been able to go its own way earlier it would easily have been among the EMU qualifiers. Taking his cue from other powerful regions in Europe - the German Lander, for example, and the Spanish Catalans - Mr van den Brande wants Flanders to have more direct say in EU affairs, with Flemish ministers represented at European councils.

In their new separatist drive, however, the Flemish risk accusations of opportunism. Not so long ago it was they who complained of unfair domination by the francophones. Now they want to cast off the less glamorous sites of Wallonia, such as the working-class caravan parks of Dinant.

There are many who are sceptical about the facade of Flemish statehood that is being constructed by men such as Mr van den Brande, seeking to revive the Flemish glory of yesteryear. Behind the elegant 18th-century entrance of his government building is a modern iron-and-steel interior, where 20th-century Flanders is being mapped out. Unlike the "martyrs" remembered in the square, who died in the rebellion against the Netherlands which led to the creation of Belgium, Mr van den Brande claims he is not seeking full-blown independence. But few believe him.

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