A walk at the front line

9 09 2008

I once heard someone who works in the tourism industry say that some tourists are afraid to come to Belgium, because they think a civil war is about to break out here. Last Sunday I went to the battlefield, to see how bad things actually are. This is my dispatch from the place in Belgium where political tensions run at their highest: the Flemish towns around Brussels.

The 3 Belgian regions

The 3 Belgian regions

Brussels is a bilingual isle, surrounded by monolingual Flemish towns. At least, that’s the theory. (the concept of “facilities” makes it slightly more complicated. I’ll write about that later) As Brussels grew bigger, more and more French-speaking Belgians decided to move to the Flemish towns, resulting in rising house prices. Consequently, many young Flemish families could no longer afford living in the town they grew up in. This further strengthened the effects of what Flemings call the frenchification. Some Flemish towns around Brussels now have more French-speaking inhabitants than Dutch-speaking ones.

That would all be fine if Francophones who move to Flanders learned Dutch to speak with their neighbours and in their contacts with the local government. But many of them don’t. Instead, some of them complain about discrimination and demand to be served in French. Some even demand the transfer of Flemish towns to the Brussels region.

Once a year, on the first Sunday of September, tens of thousands of Flemings gather in these border towns for an event called the “Gordel”. It is the largest annual sports event in Flanders. The participants explore the beautiful Flemish countryside around Brussels by bike or on foot. The Gordel organisers call it “the funnest day of the year” and try to fulfill this promise with all kinds of activities for children along the hiking routes and with concerts in the 5 towns where the routes end.There are no political speeches at the Gordel and you won’t find political symbols on their website. It is first and foremost a family sports event, but one with a clear political message. The goal of the event is to strengthen the ties between the towns around Brussels and the rest of Flanders. Many participants carry Flemish flags or wear stickers and every year groups of politicians (including ministers and mayors) participate wearing T-shirts with slogans demanding the electoral district of BHV to be split up.

The political message makes this event slightly more adventurous than the average cycling or hiking tour. Sabotage by political opponents has become part of the Gordel tradition. The organisers run a call center where incidents can be reported and have special anti-sabotage teams who are ready to replace vandalized signposts or to clean up nails that have been scattered along the cycling routes.

But this years Gordel promised to be even more adventurous. The French-speaking acting mayors of 3 Flemish towns, said they would not give the Gordel permission to pass trough their territory, unless the organisers would clearly state that political symbols were not welcome. They claimed they could not guarantee public safety if participants in the Gordel would carry political messages.

the funnest Sunday

The Gordel: the funnest Sunday

The organisers of the Gordel refused to comply and the governor of the province of Flemish Brabant said that if the acting mayors failed to do so, he would take all necessary measures to allow the Gordel to proceed as planed. Eventually, the acting mayors backed down a little. Participants who simply walked by would be left alone, but anyone who would stop to stage a political demo, would be arrested.

It was a cold and rainy day last Sunday. Not a very good day to walk around in the countryside, but an excellent day to spend in jail. So some small groups of protesters gathered with their Flemish flags in front of the town hall of Linkebeek: the town of one of the acting mayors who announced demonstrators would be arrested. They were accompanied by hordes of press, even some foreign journalists where eagerly awaiting the battle between the police and the demonstrators. But they were disappointed. Acting mayor Damien Thiéry came out to greet the demonstrators. They shook hands and had a little chat. Then, the demonstrators continued their hike through the rain. The police didn’t intervene.

This is how wars are fought today in Belgium: with strong words and some nails. Despite the rain, the sabotage and the political tensions, 58 049 Flemings enjoyed a day in the towns, woods and fields around Brussels. So if you are planning a trip to Europe, there is no reason to miss out on our beautiful historical cities. You won’t need a bullet proof jacket. But don’t forget your raincoat.

And in case you wonder why there are so many acting mayors in the towns around Brussels: stay tuned. That’s a story for another post.

Hoisting the flag

4 09 2008

Belgian flag at Lennik town hall” was the title of a small article in my newspaper last August the 18th. Similar articles appeared the 17th and 27th of August. Why would a newspaper care to mention that a Belgian town displays a Belgian flag at it’s town hall? Because at the Flemish national holiday on July the 11th, Willy De Waele, the mayor of Lennik, decided no longer to fly the Belgian flag.

Willy De Waele during a political meeting in June 2007

Willy De Waele during a political meeting in June 2007

Mr. De Waele no longer believes in Belgium. Belgium is in total chaos he says. More than a year has passed since last elections. During those elections, all Flemish political parties promised that they would reform the Belgian state and transfer more power to the regions. But the Francophone political parties don’t want reform. The negotiations are still going on, but all hope for a positive outcome seems to have been lost, and more and more politicians call for new elections.

There is one tiny little problem with those new elections: they would be unconstitutional. In 2003, the Belgian constitutional court declared that the voting district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) is in violation with the constitution. Politicians were given some time to resolve this, but the deadline expired and no solution has been found that both Flemings en Francophones could agree upon.

There is only one way out of this mess, according to Mr. De Waele: transferring almost all power to the regions and transform Belgium into a confederation. Until that happens, he refuses to fly the Belgian flag.

Flemish Flag

A Flemish Flag at the castle of the count in Ghent

It took the press until the 13th of August to find out that the Belgian flag was gone in Lennik. But since then, the controversy never stopped. It started quite innocently, with people trying to replace the Flemish flag with a Belgian one at night. Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they got caught. But then it became more and more aggressive. Swastikas were painted on street signs and Mr. De Waele received hate mail and death threads. One of his colleagues: Jean-Jacques Flahaux, mayor of the Walloon town of Braine-le-Comte, wrote “after the war, this kind of behaviour was rightfully punished with a bulled between the eyes“.

But while that might have been the case during the repression after the second worldwar, it seems that Mr. De Waele isn’t breaking any laws today. Apparently, flying a Belgian flag on a town hall, is only required by law on national holidays. All the other days of the year, Mr. De Waele can continue with his protest against the current political stalemate.