Belgian waffle

Mrs. Pushing the boundary and I spent last week holidaying in Belgium, which contrary to popular belief is quite an interesting country – not least because it’s more like two or three countries, despite its small size.

The day after we arrived was Belgium Day, and some of the broader UK news outlets saw this as a handy hook on which to hang a bit of coverage of the current constitutional crisis that’s been building recently: could this be the last Belgium day before the country splits in two, that sort of thing. More4 News* brought us one report, and Radio 4’s PM programme* another, each along the same lines as the other.

Map of the regions of Belgium

Basically, for those not familiar with the country, it has a north-south divide that makes that in England look more like the divide between the appearance of identical twins. Until now I’d only really been to Brussels, where you’ll find most signs presented in two languages (French and Flemish), and a general acceptance of either language in most places.

This time we headed to the north of Belgium, Flanders (hi-diddly-ho, good neighbour), and here it is far easier to get on by speaking English than French – it’s Flemish all the way. Fortunately pretty much everyone does speak excellent English, or we’d’ve been doing an awful lot of stereotypical gesturing and shouting in the face of their initially bewildering language. It’s particularly bewildering to those of us who only learnt French (and Latin – don’t tell Boris) at school, as it has far more in common with German than anything Mediterranean.

What surprised me was the revelation that actually Flemish is essentially the same language as Dutch (which in turn apparently takes its English name from a corruption of "Deutsche" by mistaken sailors who thought the language they were encountering in the Netherlands was German). This revelation did at least mean we could use online translation tools from Dutch to English to get a pretty good idea of what was going on on local web sites.

Anyway, the lack of French-speaking made the Flanders region feel like a completely separate country from our more familiar Brussels. (You’ll note as the time passes that all our holiday destinations are at or near the end of a Eurostar line: it’s the only way to travel for meat-eating, computer-loving environmentalists, so we haven’t flown in years.) So perhaps it’s no surprise that that’s exactly what many in the region are clamouring for it to become: an independent nation.

Flag-based representation of the Dutch- and French-speaking parts of Belgium splitting apartThe south, more properly called the cartoonish-sounding Wallonia, is characterised in media coverage of the Belgium split story as something akin to the media’s equally broadbrush descriptions of Glasgow East – apparently it’s a poverty-stricken, run-down area of deprivation. I haven’t ventured outside Brussels into Wallonia so I don’t know how true this is, but the fact that it doesn’t seem to house any major tourist areas as the north does suggests it’s probably about right – tourist resorts do tend to try to build walls between themselves and social deprivation, after all (though not always successfully).

The upshot is that many in Flanders feel that the Walloons (would Wallonia and the Walloons make a good band name? Only for a Comic Relief single, I suspect) are taking money away from the northern region and squandering it in the southern region on benefits and other state aid.

There seems something ironic about the country at the heart of the European Union considering a split in order not to have to spread money from a wealthy region to a poorer region, when that’s half the point of the EU (and would no doubt continue via EU convergence grants if the two countries were to separate). And it’s hard to see, on the face of it, any other decent arguments for making the split, when the north and south are already so completely different anyway.

Apparently Belgium is one of the most federal countries in Europe as things stand, presumably explaining the non-Welsh-like way of handling the dual languages outside of Brussels – no pan-country requirements for bilingual signs here.

If they can already coexist in one country while maintaining separate languages, cultures etc., what’s to gain from splitting?

Or looking at it another way, there’s also a lot to lose for one side or the other, in the form of Brussels. This city is important both symbolically, as the home of the EU (and perhaps the sprout), and as a major tourist destination, with that handy Eurostar terminal sitting in its southern station.

So do you split the city down the middle, as Barack Obama definitely maybe probably doesn’t want to happen to Jerusalem, or as did happen to Berlin? Does the slightly more geographically appropriate north get it? Could its low proportion (11%) of Flemish inhabitants mean the south could lay claim to it? It seems the question of how to handle Brussels, which in some ways is like a third different region in itself, may be the biggest obstacle to splitting up the country.

* Yes, I watched and listened to these in my hotel room in Belgium. I think there might be another blog post to be written about some of my more unusual uses of hotel wi-fi when abroad…


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