I've made a lot of trips to Brussels this past year, to deliver training courses for the European Commission. Its been an interesting time to be visiting Belgium:
the country hasn't had a Government for four months.
There is widespread talk that the country may split, with the Dutch speaking Flemish Region (Flanders) in the north of Belgium seperating from French speaking Wallonia in the South.
The Belgium general election took place in June 2007, but the Dutch speaking and French speaking parties haven't been able to come to any agreement so a government has not been formed. The Dutch speaking parties want more powers for Flanders, the French speaking parties want more rights for French speakers in Flanders.
The guy who sat next to me on the Eurostar on Wednesday said he thought that Belgium would have split already if it wasn't for the fact that people don't know what to do with Brussels.
Brussels is a region in its own right, situated as a little enclave inside Flanders. Officialy it is a dual language city. All the signs and services are in both languages. But 80% of its inhabitants are French speaking, and as you walk round it you rarely hear Dutch spoken. The litmus test is the shops: a Dutch speaker said that most of the shop staff in Brussels don't understand or speak Dutch, so you have to use French.
A Flemish man told me that Flemish people resent the fact that Brussels has become a French speaking City. Historically most of the inhabitants spoke a dialect of Dutch until the Napoleonic occupation of Belgium in 1793 to 1815. My friend Will tells me that most natives of Brussels have Flemish sounding surnames but are French speakers.
All the small towns and villages around Brussels are Dutch speaking, but are attracting Franch speakers wanting to commute into Brussels. There have been complaints that some of the shops in Flemish villages around Brussels now have shop assistants who only speak French. Once a year the Flemish community holds the Gordel, a cycle ride around the periphery of the city of Brussels to symbolise the encirclement of Brussels by Dutch speaking towns and villages. (Gordel is a Dutch word for belt).
Here are some snippets that people have told me over the past weeks:
A Dutch speaker living in Antwerp (the biggest town in the Flemish Region): people in Antwerp are saying that we have gone 100 days without a Federal government and managed perfectly well, so maybe we don't need one at all. The Belgian royal family don't speak Dutch very often or very well, yet the Flemish have to pay for them'
A French speaker living in Brussels: When they put the piles of free papers out at the Metro stations they make equal piles of Dutch and French language newspapers. The French language newspapers get taken but loads of the Dutch language ones are left, I don't know why they bother'
A Dutch speaker brought up in Brussels: I felt more kinship with French speaking people in Brussels than with Dutch speaking people in Holland. I speak French as well, and we have a common religion (Catholicism) whereas Holland is Protestant.
A French speaker from Louvain-la-neuve in Wallonia told me the history of his town: The Catholic University of Leuven/Louvain is the oldest university in Belgium, dating back to 1425. It was a French speaking university, but located in Leuven inside Flanders. In 1968 the Flemish people decided that they didn't want the main university in Flanders to be French speaking, so they turned it into a Dutch speaking University. It was a very emotive issue, with demonstrations and protests. The French speaking staff went to a green field site 30 km to the south, in Wallonia. On it they founded the French Catholic University of Louvain, and built the town of Louvain-la-Neuve around it. The town has been a success, with the University and all the students in the centre, and residents and lots of new industry and commerce around the periphery. The centre is entirely pedestrian with the roads tunneling underneath it: you ought to come and see it.