Belgium – A divided nation?

Quick overview of belgian history

Of all the tribes in Gaul, they were described as the bravest of them all, and this belief was supported by the fact that they were the hardest to conquer. Caesar faced a strong resistance and it took him four years until he finally conquered the Belgae tribes in 53 BC. Moreover, during Roman times, Belgians could not accept the fact that their lands were part of the Empire and revolted.

 

In 1815, following Napoleon’s defeat in Waterloo, the victorious powers of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia met in Vienna. During the Vienna Congress, the creation of a Belgian state was suggested, but this option did not get enough support. Instead, it was decided that territories which were once part of France should now be attached to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

This decision caused problems which would eventually lead to the Belgian Revolution 15 years later.

 

Dutch King Willem I. favored the Protestants and thus he became unpopular in the south. Moreover, the people in the south of the kingdom believed to be less represented. Willem even tried to make Dutch the universal language, but he faced serious opposition from the French-speaking communities. The order which was established by the Dutch dominance was clearly unacceptable for the southern communities and this led to the beginning of the Belgian revolution.

 

The great powers from the Vienna Congress gathered once again in London on 20 December 1830. This time they had no choice but to recognize the success of the Belgian revolution and to guarantee its independence. However, the powers insisted that the future king should come from the Saxe-Coburg dynasty.

The reason for that is simple. They wanted to avoid any French influence in the future Belgian territories. That is why Leopold I. of Saxe-Coburg was invited to become the first King of Belgium and his inauguration was on 21 July 1831. The date of his inauguration became the national day of Belgium. Since then the Dutch and French speaking communities formed a country together and were united by one king. Hence, the year 1831 can be considered the true beginning for modern day Belgium.

Distribution of Power

Belgium became independent in 1830 and evolved into a more structured federal state in the late 1900s.

 

The power of decision is divided into three groups of authorities: the federal state (federal government and federal parliament), the communities and the regions.

 

The power was redistributed along two lines, the first being the communities. The communities are language-based, since the three official languages are Dutch, French and German. This is why as of today, Belgium has three communities: the Flemish Community, the French Community and the German-speaking Community. They have jurisdiction over language, culture, education and more.

 

The regions are the second line of state and have jurisdiction over the economy, employment and environment as well as international affairs. They are made up of the Flemish Region, the Brussels Capital Region and the Walloon Region.

Although the Federal State does no longer exclusively make all decisions, it still retains important powers such as defense, national health care, internal and foreign affairs, justice and finance.

The Flemisch-Walloon divide (Flanders and Wallonia)

The social tension between Belgium’s northern part, Flanders, and its southern part, Wallonia seem to have been going on forever. With separate histories, separate educations, separate languages and even separate governments, it truly seems to be a divided nation.


Belgium’s division rests mostly upon the fact that its Walloon inhabitants mostly speak dialects of French and Flemish inhabitants mostly speak Dutch.

The language gap can actually be traced back all the way to Roman times, when a battle for influence raged between the Franks (Germans) and the Romans over Gaul (the area today’s Belgium was originally part of). For a long time in the 4th and 5th centuries the two groups pushed up against each other at a line formed naturally by connected forests, a line that roughly corresponds to the modern border between Flanders and Wallonia.


When the Franks finally pushed through to take over most of Gaul, the area now described as Wallonia was already steeped in the Roman language that would later evolve into French.


Skipping ahead a century or twelve to 1830, the year the tiny country of Belgium would claim its independence after being occupied by about every large empire under the sun, a Flemish movement was already well on its way in trying to reverse the ‘enfrenchement’ of the upper classes of Belgian society which had taken hold during the French rule in the 18th and 19th centuries.

King Willem I of The Netherlands had tried to turn this around during his short 15-year rule after that, but to no avail. The Belgian bourgeoisie and clergy, all French-speaking, were quite happy to get rid of him by the time 1830 swung around.


Lacking representation in government for a long time, Flanders put its money on innovation and the building of new businesses after World War II. With its economic growth rapidly moving past that of Wallonia, whose mining industries where faltering, the Walloons now agreed on the creation of a language barrier over fear of being overpowered and turning Flemish. The official border, created in the early 1960s, divided the country into four parts: Flanders, Wallonia, the legally bilingual capital of Brussels, and the small region of East Cantons where German is spoken. Separate governments were created that granted more independence to all regions, with a federal government to keep Belgium united as a country.


The unity is not always felt today, however, as social tensions tend to flare up every once in a while, during political crises. The effects are usually felt the hardest in the cities and villages on the edge of the language barrier where street signs in the undesired language sometimes get painted over with graffiti by activists. Another source of resentment and conflict is the language reality in supposedly bilingual Brussels, which is in fact French by an overwhelming majority.

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