A Separatist Revolution Percolates in Belgium

A truck passes road signs that have been vandalized to mark out the French names in Rhode-Saint-Genese, in Belgium's Flemish region.
A truck passes road signs that have been vandalized to mark out the French names in Rhode-Saint-Genese, in Belgium's Flemish region. (By Yves Logghe -- Associated Press)

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By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 21, 2007

BRUSSELS -- In the back room of an exclusive social club across the street from the U.S. Embassy here, Flemish separatists are plotting the breakup of Belgium.

In their tailored suits and silk ties, they appear unlikely rebels. Their 67-year-old leader, Remi Vermeiren, is the retired president of one of Belgium's biggest banks. Today, along with nearly half of his Flemish compatriots, he advocates slicing the country in half, creating two independent nations: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

"We are an expensive, inefficient country," Vermeiren said, settling into a moss green leather chair in one of the Flemish De Warande club's tranquil sitting rooms. "For a while, 'separatist' was a dirty word. Now there are almost daily discussions about it."

As the 27-member European Union strives to become a unified political and economic counterweight to the United States, the bloc's own seat of government -- the Kingdom of Belgium -- is in the midst of a cultural and governmental crisis that is pushing the country ever closer to a breakup.

The campaign here is a modern-day separatist movement for a globalized world. This is not a war of guns and guerrillas in jungle hideouts or suicide bombings on city streets. It is a conflict debated daily in the news media, parliaments, cafes, bars and establishment clubs of a country confronting the schisms now facing nearly every European nation: the struggle over national identity following mass immigration from Asia and Africa, the preservation of native culture and language, and economic competition in an era of global markets.

Belgium has been without a national government for more than three months now. King Albert II has staged a rare royal intervention -- unsuccessful so far -- to bring about negotiations between the Flemings, who live in the economically prosperous north, and the Walloons, of the financially floundering south. But the two regions, which have separate governments, can't agree on how to govern together.

The Flemish parliament was summoned from vacation into emergency session last week to debate calls for Flemish independence. Most Walloons vehemently oppose independence because their economy relies so heavily on government subsidies. And both Flemish and Walloon newspapers have devoted pages of copy to the mechanics of a split. The division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia is widely cited as a model, with a special district, something along the lines of Washington, D.C., envisioned for the capital, Brussels.

This week, a former Flemish journalist attempting to raise international awareness of his dysfunctional country's plight, listed "Belgium, a kingdom in three parts," for sale on the auction Web site eBay. He noted, however, that the purchase included "300 billion euros in national debt." EBay officials pulled the listing after receiving a bid of $13 million.

"We are two democracies with different parties and totally different needs," said Geert Bourgeois, the urbane cabinet minister in charge of foreign affairs, media and tourism for the Flemish government. "We speak different languages. We don't watch the same television. We don't read what is written in the south, and the Walloons don't read what our opinion-makers write."

This summer, the small town of Merchtem, in the Flemish territory just outside Brussels, banned the use of all languages but Dutch. In the local school, French children are not allowed to speak in their native tongue, and all parents are required to talk with teachers in Dutch -- or bring an interpreter.

Some Belgians warn that talk of secession coming from the E.U.'s power center sends a dangerous message to the rest of the world.

"We live in the 21st century, with globalization and international migrations," said Jo┬┐lle Milquet, president of the French-speaking Humanist Democratic Center party and one of the most influential opponents of greater autonomy or independence for Flanders. "If at the heart of Europe, with 10 million inhabitants, we are not able to have common views, how can we manage other countries?"


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