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Why Belgian struggle for identity could tear country apart

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By Kevin ConnollyBBC News, BrusselsPublishedduration4 hours agoimage copyrightReutersimage captionAfter 15 months, Belgium has a new government with as many women as men – but the top two parties are not includedIt took nearly 500 days of political horse-trading for Belgium to welcome in a new coalition government, led by Alexander De Croo. And it’s the…

By Kevin Connolly

BBC News, Brussels

Published

image copyrightReuters

image captionAfter 15 months, Belgium has a new government with as many women as men – but the top two parties are not included

It took nearly 500 days of political horse-trading for Belgium to welcome in a new coalition government, led by Alexander De Croo. And it’s the second time in 10 years that Belgians have seen that happen.

The deal was done only by excluding the two main Flemish separatist movements N-VA and Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) – the top two parties in the May 2019 election.

Their exclusion could increase pressure for the break-up of Belgium’s Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south. And yet the seeds of doubt were sewn from the moment Belgium was born in 1830.

Revolution that started during Brussels opera

When advisers to William I, king of the Union of the Netherlands, were asked to choose an opera to be performed in his honour in the city of Brussels in 1830, they chose badly.

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionThe opera dealt with an uprising in 17th Century Naples but stirred a revolution in Belgium

Brussels was then part of the Netherlands, and seething resentfully under a monarch who alienated Dutch-speaking Catholics with his vigorous Protestantism and French-speaking Walloons with his Dutchness.

The opera the courtiers selected was a popular work of the period – La Muette de Portici (Mute girl of Portici) – which tells the story of an uprising in Naples against the rule of the king of Spain.

Rather odd subject matter to celebrate the rule of an unpopular king over a smouldering population.

At a pre-arranged signal during an aria called Sacred Love of Country, the revolutionaries stopped the show, poured into the streets and began a revolution – and with it a long saga of confused identities that persists to this day.

What future now?

That issue of identity threatens to raise questions over the continued existence of the Kingdom of Belgium, now 10 years short of its 200th birthday.

When I asked Peter de Roover, parliamentary leader of the moderate Flemish nationalists of the N-VA, about the story of revolution he wasn’t impressed.

image captionPeter de Roover complains that the Flemish majority in Belgium is not represented in the new government

“Bad opera,” he told me, “and bad country”.

Mr de Roover’s serious point was that the language groups in the joint uprising didn’t have much in common and that has created a strained political relationship which persists to this day.

The immediate focus for his party’s anger now is the fallout from the 2019 parliamentary elections, in which his party came first and the far-right Vlaams Belang movement second, but do not feature in the new government.

“Sixty per cent of Belgians are Flemish, two thirds of the national wealth is created in Flanders and their majority is not reflected in this government,” he complains. For him it is an anti-democratic outrage.

Is there a future for Belgium?

The new government to which Mr de Roover objects is a seven-party coalition which includes Greens, Socialists and Liberals in a marriage of convenience with Flemish Christian Democrats.

image captionThe far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) came second in Belgium’s 2019 vote

To the protesters I met at a Vlaams Belang rally on the outskirts of Brussels the months of negotiations provided evidence that the Belgian state has simply run its course.

Kelly, a middle-aged man who’d travelled a long way to be there, put it like this: “It’s better for Flanders to be independent, because in Flanders the right is winning and in the (French-speaking) south it’s the left.”

When I asked him how long he thought Belgium would exist he said simply: “As long as the politicians don’t listen to the people.”

More stories from Belgium

This doesn’t necessarily mean the idea of Belgian-ness is dead, though.

Peter de Roover, for example, could imagine a future in which it remained as a kind of umbrella identity over two essentially independent states of Flanders and Wallonia. There could be a federal army, he suggested, but not a federal police force.

Bridges between Belgium’s communities

There’s certainly a degree of pride in Belgium’s national football team, the Red Devils, although several Dutch-speakers we met said they were drawn to supporting the Netherlands team instead.

There are some bridges between the two biggest communities. There’s a national broadcasting system, although it offers entirely separate services to all three language groups, Dutch, French and German.

Joyce Azar – a committed Belgian – has the task of appearing on both Flemish VRT and French RTBF, and tells her French-speaking audience what’s making the news in Flanders.

image captionJoyce Azar believes there is a real chance of Flemish parties demanding independence in the coming years

The general news agendas of Flanders and Wallonia are also entirely different. When the great French-speaking singer Annie Cordry died recently it was headline news for French-speakers and barely a footnote in Flanders.

Joyce Azar points to unifying factors like the national football team and the king, but you do get the feeling she’s operating a kind of one-woman air bridge across a widening gap.

‘The question is real’

She can see the political dangers that lie ahead.

“There’ll be new elections in 2024,” she told the BBC. “There could be a bad outcome for Belgium if parties calling for Flemish independence win a majority – they could demand the independence of Flanders. More and more the question is real.”

image copyrightReuters

image captionAlexander De Croo was sworn in by King Philippe last Thursday and immediately rushed off to an EU summit

It might seem extraordinary that in stable, prosperous Western Europe, a real question mark hangs over the future existence of a democratic state.

But consider the fate of the opera La Muette de Portici, which fell victim to changing tastes and times and has more or less ended up in the dustbin of history.

Who is to say that the country whose revolution it once inspired will not itself one day follow suit?

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