Belgium: Flemings, Walloons and Germans

Location: Flemings: Flanders, northern Belgium; Walloons: Wallonia, southern Belgium; Germans: close to borders of Germany and Luxembourg
Population: Flemings: 5.5 million (pop. of Flanders); Walloons (French speakers): 4 million; Germans: 100,000
% of population: Flemings: 57%; Walloons (French speakers): 42%; Germans: 1%
Religion: Flemings: Catholic; Walloons: Catholic
Language: Flemings: Dutch, Flemish dialects; Walloons: French dialects; Germans: German dialects

Belgium is one of Western Europe’s newest states founded only in 1830 and is a multilingual plural state. Its history has been shaped by the conflicts, consensus and compromises reached between its two principal peoples, the Flemings and the Walloons. The Flemings are the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of the region known as Flanders in northern Belgium. They are of Teutonic stock, but their history has been inextricably bound up with that of their southern neighbours, the latin Walloons who are French-speaking. Today the Flemings are the majority population but the Walloons are still a large minority, whose previous dominance and language cannot be ignored. There is also a much smaller minority group of indigenous German speakers.


The territory of the modern kingdom of Belgium has been subject to many different political regimes. The language frontier between Germanic north-west Europe and Gallic north-west Europe was established by the fifth century and by the tenth century present-day Belgium was part of the “middle kingdom” of Lotharingia. Part of this kingdom was the region later known as Flanders and by the eleventh century the Counts of Flanders held most of present-day Belgium, the Netherlands and north-west France. Bruges, Ghent and Ypres were three of the largest towns in northern Europe and there was an influx of people from the countryside into the towns, leading to the abolition of serfdom in Flanders during the thirteenth century, much earlier than in the rest of Europe. In the fifteenth century Burgundy was united with Flanders in what became known as the “Low Countries” or the “Burgundian Circle” and there followed a period of flourishing Flemish trade and culture. Antwerp emerged as a major port, and became an

important centre of trade in glass, tapestries, diamonds and lace. This period also produced the great exponents of the Flemish school of painting, Jan van Eyck and, later, Rubens.

The “Burgundian circle” gradually declined from the mid-sixteenth century when it came under the rule of the Spanish-born Philip II who had little understanding of the people of the region. The “revolt of the Netherlands” which began in 1580 lasted until the recognition of the northern part of the Low Countries as the Dutch Republic in 1648. Flanders and Brabant remained subject to Spain. In the second half of the seventeenth century what is sometimes referred to as the Flemish region of France — a region including Dunkirk, Douai and Lille — was taken by Louis XIV. The people of Flanders and Brabant were now divided from the Dutch who spoke almost the same language: by the nineteenth century Dutch had developed into a sophisticated language with uniform grammar and syntax whereas Flemish had become fragmented into a number of dialects. The changes were also crippling economically for Flanders, and Antwerp was unable to survive the huge taxes levied by the Dutch on goods passing in and out of the Flemish city. In 1713 the Spanish provinces were transferred to Austria as the Austrian Netherlands. French was now becoming a common language of the elite and when the country was captured by France in 1794 French was increasingly used. In 1815 Flanders was united with Holland, but differences of language, culture and historic feeling between the Dutch and Flemish led to a “Belgian” rebellion. The European Powers intervened and in 1830 Belgium was recognized as an independent kingdom under Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. It was later guaranteed neutrality in perpetuity by the five great powers.

The constitution of 1831 endorsed freedom of religion, of expression and of association, and limited the powers of the monarchy; however it failed to achieve a sense of national unity among Belgians. While no specific commitment to the French language was made in the constitution, in practice French became the sole language of law, politics, the administration and the army. During World War I the neutrality of Belgium was violated by Germany which invaded in 1914 and occupied the territory until 1918. There was a second invasion in 1940 but after the liberation of 1945 Belgium made a remarkable economic recovery and formed with the Netherlands and Luxembourg the economic union known as the Benelux.

Flanders and the Flemish movement

Present-day Flanders has a strong sense of national identity. Leaders of the early Flemish movement were literary figures whose dual objective was to promote the use of the Flemish language and maintain interest in Flemish culture. It was not until the predominantly Flemish Catholic Party came to power at the end of the nineteenth century however that Flemish grievances were clearly voiced. The vast majority of Belgium’s senior civil servants were French-speaking Walloons; French was used exclusively in public life and Dutch was not generally taught in primary schools despite the laws passed to encourage teaching in Dutch. Although Flemings did not want French to become the language of Flanders it was difficult for them to choose which of the three or four different Flemish dialects to promote and Dutch was at first not favoured. In 1896 it was decided that Dutch would be the language of Flanders and Flemish became standardized as Dutch.

Many of the Fleming’s grievances were rapidly redressed once they had been voiced, but by the 1930s 75% of army officers and over 80% of diplomats were still French-speakers. In World War II, as in World War I, Germany exploited Flemish nationalism by treating Flemish language and culture with respect and creating Dutch-speaking faculties at universities in occupied Brussels. Their tactics were successful in many cases and thousands of Belgians were later found guilty of collaboration at postwar trials. In 1954 a number of small groups amalgamated to form the Volksunie party which had much influence in the 1960s, but by far the dominant party in Flanders was the Social Christian Party (CVP).

The Walloons

The word “walloon” or “wallonia” was used by early Germanic tribes of central Europe to refer to Celtic peoples. It was also used in the fifteenth century to describe soldiers from the Low Countries. The word was first used to refer specifically to French-speaking southern Belgium in the mid-nineteenth century when it became clear to Francophones that the growth of the Flemish movement was becoming a threat to French ascendancy. Early Walloon societies such as the Walloon Union were formed in Flanders. Their members stressed that French should remain the principal language of Belgium although they accepted the use of both French and Flemish in the two communities. At the

1This area, known as Westhoek, contains the city of Dunkirk and areas to the west of the Belgian border. Dunkirk and other urban areas are now mainly French-speaking but residents of country areas continue to use Flemish. Probably about 100,000 of the 350,000 residents of the area are Flemish-speakers. Flemish in France has no official status although a limited amount of education is conducted in Flemish.

turn of the century Walloon nationalism became increasingly associated with Socialism, a situation which was to be repeated during the economic crisis of the 1950s and 1960s. Walloons were divided into those who advocated fusion with France and the federalists. At the end of World War II many were hostile towards the Flemings, many of whom had collaborated with Germany. At the Walloon national congress of 1945, 486 of the 1,048 Walloon delegates voted for union with France and 391 for federalism. After a second debate the majority voted for Walloon “autonomy” within a federal Belgium.

Wallonia, which had been one of the first European regions to be industrialized, suffered an economic decline after the war, due mainly to the collapse of the coal and iron-ore mining industries. A decision by the Swedish to build a huge steel strip mill in Flanders rather than Wallonia caused considerable protest on the part of the Mouvement Populaire Wallon. Between 1956 and 1976, 66% of foreign investment went to Flanders, 27% to Wallonia and 7% to the Brussels region, and by 1974 the per capita income of Flemings had exceeded that of Walloons whose birthrate was now declining. By 1957 Walloons made up an estimated 28% of the Belgian population.

Initially the two major Walloon parties were the Walloon regionalist party, now known as the Front Wallon, and the Rassemblement Wallon (RW). After the 1968 elections the two parties merged to form a joint parliamentary group. A split within the RW party in 1976 resulted in RW parliamentary representation being cut by two-thirds. The Front Démocratique des Francophones (FDF) has now emerged as the most influential party in the city of Brussels.

The tri-regional solution

Although by the 1960s Flanders was growing in prosperity, Flemings resented the increasing “gal-licization” of Brussels, largely as a result of the growing number of European Communities officials residing there. As a direct result of Flemish pressure the language laws of 1962-63 were passed. The language frontier between Flanders and Wallonia was fixed by law, with the region of Mous-cron-Comines or Walloon Flanders being transferred to the Walloon province of Hainaut and the Fourons region becoming part of Flemish Lim-burg. The city of Brussels was restricted to 19 communes and so the surrounding countryside was protected from further expansion by the largely French-speaking city.

Constitutional changes enacted between 1967 and 1971 introduced profound changes in Belgium’s governmental structure. Article 32 bis of the constitution provided for the division into Dutch-and French-speaking groups of all members of the national parliament and for them to exercise as members of two cultural councils legislative authority in cultural matters over citizens in their respective cultural communities. Belgium was divided into four linguistic territories: the unilin-gual Dutch, French and German territories and the bilingual territory of Brussels-Capital (new Article 3 bis). According to Article 107 quater Belgium comprised three regions: the Walloon region, the Flemish region and the Brussels region. Regional institutions were set up to deal with regional matters but the precise nature of such matters remained unresolved.

This proved to be a great problem in efforts to achieve a lasting consensus and stable government. An effort was made in 1974 to set up Regional Councils but this did not obtain the necessary two-thirds majority in Parliament. After an unsuccessful attempt to develop a Pacte Communautaire — an elaborate five-tier government structure which would satisfy the aspirations of both Dutch and Flemish speakers — the Social Christian (Front Démocratique des Francophones — FDF) Socialist alliance collapsed in 1980. An interim government and elections followed and after a short-lived Social Christian-Socialist-FDF coalition, a Social Christian-Liberal-Socialist alliance was formed led by Wilfred Martens and the government continued to implement plans for the devolution of Flanders and Wallonia.

The constitutional reform of the 1980s

The attempt to create a workable consensus lead to further changes of the Constitution in 1980. Henceforth at the federal level there were three communities (Flemish, French and German-speaking) and three regions (Flemish, Brussels and Walloon). The subjects of the communities are dependent upon linguistic affiliation while those of the regions on geographic area. Thus Flanders consists of both the Flemish community and the Flemish region; Wallonia consists only of the Walloon region, although this greatly overlaps the French-speaking community. As yet there is no definite solution for Brussels-Capital and the Brussels region continues to function within the national government. The structures are detailed and elaborate but they are seriously flawed by a lack of clarity in the law, the incomplete character of the reform and the lack of financial independence by the new community and regional bodies. A series of central government powers were due to be transferred to the three regions on January 1st, 1989 but because of disputes — largely over financing — the transfer was delayed.

The elections of 1981 and 1985 resulted in a continuous decline of the linguistic parties. After the elections of 1985 the RW disappeared, the FDF was considerably weakened and the Volksunie lost seats. Linguistic parties always had only a minority following although they played a disproportionate role in policy-making; today there appears to be a swing back to mainstream parties. In 1986 a linguistic crisis developed over the status of the tiny rural district of Fourons/Voeren close to the Dutch border, a majority French-speaking area in a Dutch-speaking district. A maverick French-speaking mayor refused to take a competency test in Dutch and as a result was dismissed as mayor. The issue was a factor in toppling two coalitions but was finally settled by early 1989 when the mayor agreed to step down in return for political concessions.

The German-speaking minority

There are about 100,000 German speakers in Belgium, living in a discontinuous area along the frontier with Germany and Luxembourg. Some have been part of Belgium from the early nineteenth century, others since German areas were annexed to Belgium in 1920. Various varieties of German are spoken and there is no linguistic unity as such. Only in “Neu-Belgien”, the cantons of Eupen-Sankt-Vith, are German-speakers a majority. German is one of the recognized linguistic regions and three cultural communities of Belgium and theoretically has equal linguistic and cultural rights with Dutch and French speakers; in practice, given the relatively small size of the community, inevitably there are inequalities; although the proximity of neighbouring Germany means that there is much linguistic and cultural stimulation via German publications and media. There is a German-Belgian radio station and a newspaper. In Neu-Belgien it is necessary to know German in order to work in local administration and the use of German has long been allowed in local courts.

The future

There have been many predictions that Belgium, founded as a largely artificial state, would collapse with its constituent peoples going different ways. There have been frequent political and constitutional crises and a constant reworking of the relationships between the centre and the regions, the Flemings and the Walloons, Brussels and the rest of the country. Yet the state has survived each crisis and will most probably continue to do so. The two major communities are relatively balanced in numbers — certainly one cannot completely block the aspirations of the other — and proportional representation is used in all elections. Neither major community has expressed a wish to join with another country, either the Netherlands or France, and neither of these states has intervened on behalf of linguistic rights in Belgium. There has been an attempt always to resolve problems within a Belgium state — albeit a devolved one. Explicitly linguistic parties have only ever claimed the following of a minority of either community. Apart from an occasional fracas, communal violence is unknown. Intermarriage between members of the two communities has been common. Belgium’s economic position as a trading nation and the headquarters of the European Communities has encouraged the development of multilingualism within the country.