EurActiv - Letters to the Editor

Sir,

Regarding your article of Wednesday 3 December 2008 entitled ‘Council of Europe slams Belgium over linguistic feud‘:

Where the article mentions “persistent linguistic disputes between Flemish and French-speaking communities in the Brussels area,” it mixes up two kinds of qualifications. The communities in the – admittedly complicated – Belgian structure are officially qualified as Dutch, French and German. “Flemish” refers to one of the three Belgian regions; the others being the Walloon and the Brussels-capital region respectively. As a consequence, the language that should have been used in the electoral convocations mentioned is Dutch, not Flemish. And Dutch being one of the more significant languages of the European Community in terms of its number of speakers, this does shed a different light on the whole situation.

Kraainem, Linkebeek and Wezembeek-Oppem are not districts, as falsely stated, but towns in their own right. These towns are part of the Flemish region and as such legally Dutch-speaking. This entails that it was indeed illegal for the mayors-elect to send the electoral convocations in French, and not just claimed to be illegal by the Flemish government, as your article states. By the same token the assertion by Mr. Thiéry – as quoted in your article – that “there is no legally binding document obliges mayors in communes in Brussels periphery to send electoral convocations in Flemish” (sic) is utterly flawed (leaving apart the fact that Flemish should be substituted by Dutch); there are piles of “legally-binding documents” to this effect.

Moreover, stating that the three towns in question “have French-speaking majorities” disregards the fact that these majorities could only develop because French-speaking immigrants have consistently disregarded the Flemish nature of their new habitat, abusing the ‘facilities’ legislation that was intended to offer them time to accommodate themselves in a new linguistic environment.

Where you quote French Congress member Jean-Louis Testud as saying that “behind this masquerade hides a wish of separation of a region that wants to keep its wealth,” the truth is that certain francophone elements have been making territorial claims on the Flemish towns that inconveniently separate the Walloon region from Brussels.

It is sad enough that the foreign press has always presented a lopsided image of the intricate Belgian linguistic situation. Although Walloons have no reputation for multilingualism, the fact that their mother tongue happens to be French has always made their media readily accessible for the rest of the world, so that their biased accounts of the Belgian situation spread without ever being counterbalanced by reports – in Dutch – in the Flemish media.

Far worse is that members of the Council of Europe apparently feel no inhibitions at all about passing judgment in a situation they do not even begin to understand. They even saw fit to completely disregard the commonsense request by the Flemish representative Fons Borginon to at least wait for the advice of the Belgian Constitutional Court in the matter. And as for the Council’s ‘rapporteurs’, during their stay in Belgium they couldn’t even be bothered to inform themselves properly on the intricacies of the country’s linguistic legislation, but simply took sides with the self-proclaimed victims of the situation that had arisen.

I have always been a firm advocate of European unification, but at this moment I find it extremely hard to muster any respect at all for a European institution that fails to properly inform itself on a matter before proclaiming resolutions and recommendations with such a potentially far-reaching impact on the functioning of one of the European Union’s oldest and most committed member states.

Wim Verjans

Glabbeek, Belgium (Flanders)

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Comments

  1. First, the reason that people take pity on the French speakers in this debate is because of logic – does it sound right to you that a French speaker in a commune that is majority French speaking can’t go to the city hall for administration issues or can’t receive a convocation to vote in French? It’s a matter of service. It’s patently unfair and discriminatory even if the law may permit it, which is what the local officials understood even if the Flemish region did not.

    Second, the language line in Belgium was pretty bogus in the first place – populations aren’t static and it could certainly have been predicted that Brussels would get larger therefore more French speakers would move into Flanders around Brussels – it doesn’t seem fair to penalise a Belgian French speaker pushed out of Brussels due to the high house prices caused by the expat population for moving into the sea of Flanders surrounding the island of Brussels.

    Third, of course Dutch is a substantial European language, but you miss the point, this isn’t about minimising Dutch or maligning Flemish culture. And frankly your response smacks of racism which doesn’t help your case. What the heck is a comment that “Wallonia is not known for its multilingualism” mean…most of the Walloons I know speak at least two languages…

    Further, a true proponent of European unification would understand that language facility is key to the European exercise and multilingual societies like Belgium should be setting an example.

    Finally, with birth rates as they are, immigration as it is, Belgium is going to have to start framing its future beyond a Flemish/French split.

  2. I object to the use of “Flemish” as a term for the language spoken in Flanders. “Flemish” is a collective designation of a group of Dutch dialects, as much as “Walloon” denotes a number of French dialects spoken in Belgium’s southern provinces [A small number of Walloons speak Picard which they share with a sizable population in Northern France, unlike Walloon which is almost exclusively limited to Belgium].
    Until well into the seventies Belgium’s Walloon- and French-speaking minority have been dominant in politics, business and the diplomatic service which led to the erroneous belief in a number of other countries that the Flemish speak “Flämisch”, “Flemish”, “flamengo”, “flamländska” in stead of Niederländisch, Dutch, neerlandês, nederländska etc.
    The ongoing use of the term “Flemish”, which is not borne out by any official nor legal or constitutional usage, is exemplary of the extent to which a substantial part of the foreign press draw their information from French-speaking Belgian media, thus of necessity offering a biased view to the international community.
    Walloons have for a long time consistently and deliberately refused to use the term “néerlandais”. By calling the same language “le flamand” when spoken by Belgians and “le hollandais” when referring to Dutch citizens they have obscured the Dutch-speaking identity of the Flemish, suggesting that their language was just a lowly local patois and giving themselves an thin excuse for not learning what is by far the majority language of the country. Up to the Second World War, they even managed to impose their own variety of French upon the Flemish as the dominating language of government, education and jurisdiction.
    A prime example of this attitude was the late Cardinal Mercier who is reported to have said to one of his parish priests: “I belong to a race destined to dominate and you belong to a race destined to serve”. This pitiful attitude, which has by no means disappeared, shows to what extent racialism is ingrained in Walloon culture. The arrogant demand to be served in French when moving to Flanders, while at the same time requiring any Dutchman or Fleming to speak French in Wallonia is just another manifestation of this racialism.
    When one moves to another country good manners and courtesy imply that one acquire at least a working knowledge of the language. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. What the heck is the difference between a Fleming moving to France and a Walloon moving to Flanders?
    In my opinion, history and Walloon racialism explain much of the Flemish susceptibility and resentment in and around Brussels.

  3. This greg person must be a total idiot to make comments about the brussel VH situation.And then to say about that the language border is not static.He almost started a civil war with his comments.What he needs to do is to go back where he comes from ( probebly some arrogant french speaking part in the world) no, if in the 50s the commen market had voted for a commen language for use between people (english ) the EU would function a lot better,but because of the arrogant de gaul europe is doomed now ,but at least the french language is slipping down the slippery sloop in the gutter where it belongs

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