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Monday, June 20, 2011

The Flemish and Walloons: Worlds Apart?

 I contend that the cultural differences between the Flemish and Walloons within Belgium have been exaggerated to such an extent that the state government of Belgium has been paralyzed and solutions have eluded the Belgians. Reducing the fear-induced swelling of the admittedly real differences within Belgium may therefore facilitate relief from the paralysis. In other words, the added perspective from viewing the cultural differences as less traumatic can help the Flemish and Walloons to either live together or, ironically, be able to separate. That’s right—a more realistic assessment of the differences can actually facilitate the separation of Belgium into two (or three) E.U. states (or Flanders joining the Netherlands and Wallonia joining France—and the German-speaking area joining Germany). Exaggerating differences can snuff out consideration of such alternatives and enable continued paralysis.

To be sure, distinctions can indeed be made between the Flemish and Walloons; we can’t simply assume that the overall Belgian (or European) identity relegates the regional distinctions. "I am Flemish first, Belgian second," says Pascal Francois of Aalst.  Another Flemish man says, “it’s a toss-up when I’m in Belgium.” Even though I am a citizen of the U.S. rather than the E.U., I can relate.

I regard myself as a Midwesterner first, Illinoisan second. Being a Midwesterner essentially means to me having imbued the intrinsic down-to-earth culture of my native region of Illinois, which, as mostly rural with only a medium-sized city as its de facto capital, is distinct from Chicagoland (which is less Midwestern than the other regions). To be sure, “the Midwest” is a broad area in mid North America that transcends political categories. The label goes far beyond geographic connotation, for “the Midwest” stands for a certain “home-grown” (rather than foreign) culture wherein honesty (and bluntness), prudence, populism, and humility (and stubbornism) are particularly valued. The Midwest is known as “the heartland” because of these ethical virtues. In Illinois at least, being a Midwesterner can be readily identified with one's specific region because the cultural values are more immediate than the political identification associated with being an Illinoisan. So being a Midwesterner is to being Flemish as being an Illinoisan is to being Belgian. So too, being an American is as being a European, even if the emphasis differs. Ideally, a federal system proffers political expression to each of these respective identities. Unfortunately, fear and the related intransigence (or stubbornness) can block full expression of one or more of the levels of cultural identification.

In the case of giving political expression to regional identification in Illinois, fear of change has gotten in the way. For example, the Illinois Senate could represent the regions (i.e., clusters of four or five counties), hence facilitating their expression. Given how much the regions differ, the result has been a deficit in political identification within Illinois. Because the republic is quite heterogeneous (including linguistically, which, by the way, by no means exhausts the ways in which cultures can differ), I did not grow up identifying myself as an Illinoisan. In fact, the regions in Southern Illinois have more than once attempted to secede from Illinois due to economic, political and cultural differences—mainly from Chicago (whose culture is foreign even from the vantage-point of the two other regions in Northern Illinois). In my late twenties, I visited Southern Illinois once from the North. Even though I am not from the Chicago region, I felt at the time how strange it was that the place was “Illinois.” You’re not Illinois, I thought to myself, this place is different and far away. The people talk differently. Unfortunately, I did not have a regional political identity on which to rest this intuitive reaction of semi-foreignness. Perhaps the Walloons feel a semi-foreignness when they are visiting Flanders (and so too, the Flemish, when visiting Wallonia), though in their case, unlike mine, regional political identification can fortify the regional cultural bases of “home.”

In short, I can understand why a Belgian might identify as Flemish or a Walloon first and want to give political expression to it, given the cultural diversity within Belgium. Such identification is not a bad thing in itself. Of course, whereas there are regional dialects (and some unique vocabularies) in Illinois, Flanders and Wallonia enjoy different languages—indeed it can even be said that these regions enjoy standing for Dutch and French, respectively. Even as language is a major point of difference between the two regions, this basis can indeed be exaggerated, playing on the generalized fear by emphasizing the standing for over simple enjoyment. Il est facile de craindre.

For example, The Telegraph reported in 2010 that “Pascal Smet, the schools minister for Flanders, has horrified [the Walloons] by suggesting that Flemish children, who are Dutch speakers, should learn English as their second language, rather than the French spoken by two fifths of their countrymen in Wallonia.” While being horrified constitutes an over-reaction, Pascal Smet must have known in 2010 that he had “picked a broader fight” under the reasonable rationale that English should be learned because it is becoming the common language of the E.U. "I note that the engine of European integration is sputtering. One reason is that we do not speak the same tongue, hence my plea for a common European language," he said according to The Telegraph.

Of course, Smet could have satisfied his purpose by proposing that English and French be taught to the Flemish kids. His needless insensitivity alone can be seen to have inexorably fomented an exaggerated response. According to The Telegraph, “Smets proposal that children in Flanders can dispense with French [has] deeply angered Belgian Walloons already fearful over their fate and Belgium's future after Flemish separatists won the largest share of the vote in elections.” In other words, even sensible proposals involving the languages can escalate, fueled by the more generalized fear in the context of mistrust.

In short, already-stark differences existing between the Flemish and Walloons are easily exaggerated, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy of separateness wherein people have a knee-jerk tendency to over-react. This can be seen as well where the Flemish and Walloons come into close contact. At least in the short run, integration can provoke flash-points.

According to the BBC, “Flemish defensiveness is at its sharpest near Brussels. The capital, which used to have a Dutch-speaking majority until the early 20th Century, is now overwhelmingly francophone. Its population is spreading outward in search of greenery and cheaper homes - a move that many in the Flemish suburbs find threatening. Liederkerke, a traditionally working-class town 15 miles (25km) west of Brussels, is one of many suburbs that have seen an influx of both rich expatriates and African immigrants.” It is strange that Walloons from the south of the state would be compared to expats and African immigrants.

The cultural differences within Belgium should not be construed as though they were a microcosm of cultural differences within the E.U. or even internationally. For example, the BBC avers that the “cultural divide between Europe's Germanic north and Latin south has run through the middle of Belgium since the Roman Empire.” However, Flanders is not exactly Bavaria, nor is Wallonia populated by Spaniards and Sicilians. That is to say, perspective ought to be maintained in assessing the extent of the cultural differences within a small E.U. state. Let’s not get carried away.


Of course, as I suggest above, cultural differences do indeed exist between the Flemish and Walloons. Among the relevant factors, economic differences have fueled the continued salience of the regional identities—indeed, in exaggerating them as well. Luc De Bruyckere, chairman of the Ghent-based food group Ter Beke and vice-president of FEB, Belgium's main employers' federation, for example, “points out that Flanders has a very tight labour market, while Wallonia is suffering from 17% unemployment.” Remi Vermeiren, a former chairman of the banking giant KBC, contends that Flemish people "believe more in a market economy" than Walloons. However, I have met Flemish who have stressed the European socio-political virtue of solidarity (which is virtually absent from the American political lexicon).

Therefore, I suspect that the economic ideological differences between the Flemish and Walloons are overstated. It is not as though the Flemish have adopted Sarah Palin’s view of capitalism while the Walloons have adopted a command-and-control economy akin to that of the defunct Soviet Union.

Furthermore, economic disparities have fomented prejudice, which has the effect of exaggerating cultural differences and inhibiting viable solutions. According to the BBC, “Flanders indeed has wealth, a hard-working population, and beautiful, world-famous cities - like Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. Many there are asking why their taxes should prop up what they regard as a lagging, mismanaged region.” Are the Walloons really not “hard-working” and not able to manage themselves? Such assumptions do not necessarily follow from economic differences. More likely, regions differ economically because their dominant industries are different and perform differently. Even so, Roger Vandervoorde, 65, a retired sales director, for example, told the BBC, “Walloons should be responsible for what they do.” Prejudice drips off this statement, reflecting more on his state of mind than any lack of responsibility among the Walloons. Besides exaggerating cultural differences, such prejudice can impact political recommendations and reactions, which have in turn have exaggerated the differences.

According to the BBC, “resurgent Flemish pride is based on much deeper forces than just material wealth.” Specifically, “The sense of Flemish identity is all the more acute as it was suppressed by the French-speaking elites that ran Belgium after the 1830 revolution. The constitution was written in French. A Dutch version, written a century later, was not given equal legal force until 1967. As the Dutch-speaking majority demanded recognition, it was mainly pressing claims against the Belgian state.” Accordingly, “a wide majority in Flanders reject Flemish separatism. Most people just want more autonomy within the Belgian state.” This autonomy can be read as a reaction from having felt oppressed (or a fear of potential oppression in the future).

The generalized fear interlarding the Flemish is evident in the following observation from the BBC: “Wallonia may be poorer, but it is part of the 200m-strong francophone community. The Flemish are not standing on the shoulders of a friendly giant next door - and can be irked by Walloon cultural self-assurance.” Lest such fear be given too much leeway, the Flemish might recognize that Flemish conservatives have been dominating the Belgian state government of late and that both Belgium and France are states in the European Union. The ECJ, for example, is fully capable of restraining an imperialistic France intervening in Belgium on behalf of the Walloons.

Similarly, a generalized fear has interlarded the Walloons too. This can be seen in the Walloons’ reaction to Vandervoorde’s claim (perhaps made on the basis of his prejudice), “The best would be a confederation, with each part responsible for itself and only a few small matters handled federally.” Perhaps reacting subconsciously to the prejudice in addition to the proposal itself, “the Walloons are digging in their heels. They regard confederation as secession in all but name, and insist on keeping tax and welfare policies at federal level." The Walloons’ political reaction, in other words, may not simply be a desire for continued redistribution. At root, the fear might be that of being rejected. Such emotional/political fear need not exaggerate the perception of cultural differences or natural reactions to them.

Federalism, and even separation, can be natural reactions to real cultural differences. De Bruykere has a point in urging, “We have to organise ourselves in such a way that the different problems can be answered. One size fits all is not a solution.” While this dictum pertains especially to empire-scale unions such as the E.U. and U.S., it can also apply to heterogeneous states such as Belgium and Illinois. Just as the Chicago region ought not dominate the other regions of Illinois, Flanders ought not dominate Wallonia. That the two republics are themselves states in empire-level federal systems can be expected to relegate the “shock” thought to ensue from the partitioning of either Belgium or Illinois.

Even as prejudice can exaggerate the salience of extant cultural differences, being in an overarching federal system can be an asset in dealing with them. Belgium being a state in the E.U. can take some of the pressure off the Belgian government by having a more activist E.U. presence in the state (e.g., dealing directly with Flanders and Wallonia). Alternatively, the E.U. can facilitate Belgium in reconfiguring into two states or in splitting off into the Netherlands and France. Accordingly, Belgians, whether Flemish or Walloon, can afford to take a breath and gain sufficient perspective to stop clutching in fear to what has been at the very least a rather uncomfortable status quo.


BBC News, “Rich Flanders Seeks More Autonomy,” September 30, 2008.

Bruno Waterfield, “Flemish-Speaking Belgian Minister Wants English To Be Europe’s ‘Common Language’,” The Telegraph, September 27, 2010.