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Impossible union: the societal disputes that have shaped current-day Belgium

Nov 21, 2017
Ideology, economics and language: an introduction to the social factors that have created the Belgium we know today

No taxation without representation: we all recognise this statement as the battle cry of the American Revolution. Few people know it was also one of the main reasons behind the Belgian Revolution of 1830. Barely 15 years before the Belgian Revolution, the European powers at the Congress of Vienna had created a new country: the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, roughly today’s Benelux. The newly crowned William of Orange would rule as King William I.

A very clear divide ran through the middle of this new kingdom: the wealthy Catholic south, today Belgium, had no government debt and had been strongly influenced by the French revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The north, however, formerly known as the Dutch Republic, was in debt and a lot less liberally inspired. And the new king was a Protestant. The south was hardly represented in government and its citizens resented the despotic rule of William I. When the Revolution broke out in 1830, liberals and Catholics in Belgium looked past their usual disagreements to form the ‘Impossible Union’ and fathered one of Europe’s most innovative constitutions.

Fixed as we are in the 21st century on the language divide in Belgium, many people have forgotten the basic fact that Flanders and Wallonia didn’t exist in 1830, let alone that the different linguistic communities were forced to live together in this newly created Kingdom of Belgium. Language was a non-issue in political matters in the ancien régime and people identified mostly with the province they lived in. ‘Ethnicity’ on the basis of language is a late 19th-century invention in Belgium.

For the first few decades after 1830, Belgian politics was a unionist comprise between Liberals – often freemason and anticlerical – and Catholics, who were increasingly fixed on papal policies. The creation of the Liberal party in 1846 ended unionism in Belgium. The rift between the two ideologies had become too wide. Education was the main breaking point. It was only in 1885 that a third political party was founded: the Belgian Labour Party. These three political families, Catholics, liberals and socialists, dominated the political landscape until the 1990s.

For much of Belgian history, the defining feature of its citizens was not language, but their adherence to one of these political families or pillars. This division, known as pillarisation, directed society, from schooling to social security to the newspapers people read.

According to the sociologist Luc Huyse, Belgian society is characterised by three main fracture lines. The first is the religious-ideological rift between Catholicism and secular humanism, or in other words, between Catholics and anticlerical liberals/socialists. The second is the socio-economic rift, or the tension between free market capitalism (or liberalism) on the one hand and state interventionism (or socialism) on the other. The third is the linguistic rift between French-speakers and Dutch-speakers.

The two first fracture lines have caused continuous tension between the three political families, which marked society for a long time. As universal suffrage was gradually introduced, social laws came into place and state funding for education was regulated, these rifts were eventually pacified.

The third rift in society, language, was slower to cause dissension, but has proved to be much more difficult to pacify, mainly because language and culture were interwoven with economic and socio-religious affairs. It shaped the stereotype of the industrious socialist Walloons, who were unwilling to acknowledge their economically backward Catholic Flemish neighbours.

As difficult as it may be to understand for expats, the past 50 years of state reform in Belgium are actually a way of coming to terms with these three fracture lines. Wallonia has lost its prosperity and not all of it is socialist, but economy remains at the heart of Walloon affairs.

Flanders became the prosperous part of the country, and although it’s a lot less Catholic than it used to be, Dutch culture and language are still at the heart of Flemish politics. While the overlap between economically oriented regions and culturally defined communities in Belgian federalism might be challenging to accept, it has proved to be the best way to pacify these three very deep rifts in Belgian society.

Mirella Marini, Belgian Academy of Culture and History. Photo: Philippe Clément/Belpress/Belga

This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn 2017. Browse the magazine here, pick up a copy in newsagents or subscribe today..

Tim_Finnerty_12... Nov 30, 2017 09:32

Thanks for the nice article on Belgian political history with my morning coffee. Extremely interesting.

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