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?"
Is 177-year-old Belgium -- renowned for its chocolate, waffles and beer -- really in danger of being erased from the map of Europe?
"What we considered unthinkable and fictional has now become thinkable," said B¿atrice Delvaux, editor of the Walloon newspaper Le Soir. "The Walloons are like a wife who's scared that her husband may leave her."
In a recent poll for the newspaper La Libre Belgique, about 40 percent of all Flemings and Walloons said they believe Belgium will not exist in another decade.
When the French-language RTBF television network aired a spoof news bulletin last year announcing that Flanders had declared independence, Belgium had been dissolved and the king had fled, thousands of panic-stricken Walloons flooded the station with calls. Yves Thiran, the head of news programming, said at the time, "Our intention was to show Belgian viewers the intensity of the issue and the real possibility of Belgium no longer being a country."
Flemish separatist parties have made significant gains in local, regional and national parliamentary elections in recent years. The most radical of them -- the Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest, party -- now holds 25 percent of the seats in the Flemish parliament.
"What has happened in the last few months is an enormous trigger," Frank Vanhecke, one of the right-wing, pro-independence party's top leaders, said of the lack of a national government. "Independence has become a reasonable and realistic possibility. This revolution can't be stopped."
Vanhecke's party has been ostracized by other Flemish parties, who consider it too radical as well as racist and anti-Islamic, and Vanhecke was arrested at an anti-Islam rally in Brussels last week. But even moderate Flemish politicians are embracing the issue of Flemish independence, or autonomy to the point of near-independence.
After general elections on June 10, the king turned to Yves Leterme -- leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats, who won the highest number of Dutch electoral college votes in the national Senate races -- in hopes of finding a unifying political voice for the government.
But Leterme proved anything but a unifying figure. He created a political uproar when he told the French newspaper Liberation that Belgium was "an accident of history." And he criticized the king for not speaking Dutch well enough.
Leterme further enraged many Belgians when a television reporter asked him to sing a verse from the Belgian national anthem and he instead sang lines from the French national anthem.
Vermeiren, the former bank president, is the lead author of the 252-page "Manifesto for an Independent Flanders Within Europe," and he and his fellow revolutionaries have been meeting for several years in a De Warande club back room. Vermeiren believes the breakup of Belgium, though not imminent, is inevitable and discusses it as matter-of-factly as he might the sale of an unprofitable corporation.
"We have seven parliaments and six governments for a country of 10 million inhabitants," he said, as a waiter in a black suit and starched white shirt set a glass of cold water on a table.
The Flemings and the Walloons have never gotten along well. A formal linguistic border has separated the two regions for half a century, and there are no national political parties to bridge the gulf.
Each side has its own autonomous parliament, political parties, schools, newspapers, television stations, celebrities, Boy Scouts and pigeon-racing clubs.
"Now there's a new generation on each side, and they don't know each other," said Pierre Vercauteren, a political scientist at Catholic University in Mons. "It has complicated negotiations because they don't have a common knowledge and can't reach a compromise."
The French-speakers of Wallonia, a name some translate as land of valleys, dominated both politics and the economy in Belgium for decades. The south's coal reserves and steel industries fueled national prosperity while the Flemish region in the north remained largely agricultural.
In recent years, the regions' fortunes have been reversed. The Flemish are in the majority with about 58 percent of the population, and their economy has exploded with high-tech companies and international trade, while the south is languishing with obsolete factories, high unemployment and an expensive welfare state.
Vermeiren, like many Flemings, said he is tired of having his taxes and his region's revenue going to support economically backward Wallonia. By just about every economic measure he has studied, from income taxes to traffic fines, Flanders generates more revenue than Wallonia. The Walloons, he said, siphon off far more than their fair share of national funds.
The Flemings are demanding more autonomy over their budget and governance. The Walloons, anxious about being on the losing end, refuse to give in.
And what if Belgium does cease to exist as a country?
Vanhecke, the Flemish Interest party leader, shrugged and said he doesn't believe the world will miss it.
"Who cares?" he said.
Anderson and researcher Corinne Gavard reported from Paris.