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Swiss efforts in Belgium fall on deaf ears

Members of the German-speaking community in Belgium can use the "DG" sticker Keystone

Belgium’s German-speaking community has been voted “European Region of the Year 2004”, by an international jury.

This content was published on November 1, 2003 - 14:00

The Swiss jurists were firmly behind the award, but past efforts by Swiss to help Belgium bridge its language divide have been rather less successful.

The international jury consisted of politicians from Switzerland, the European Union and Russia, among them Henri V Roten, chancellor of canton Valais.

About 70,000 people live in the German-speaking community in Belgium, which is considered the best-protected minority in Europe.

Like Switzerland, Belgium is a federal state and consists of three linguistic communities - Flemish, French and German - as well as three regions – Flanders (Dutch-speaking), Walloon (French-speaking) and the capital, Brussels (bilingual).

Federalism

The leader of Belgium’s German-speaking community, Karl Heinz Lambertz, visited Switzerland last month to find out more about the cantons of Jura and Schaffhausen, which have similarities to the Belgian community.

“The history of canton Jura, the youngest canton in Switzerland, is very fascinating,” Lambertz told swissinfo.

“It’s also interesting for us to see how the northern canton of Schaffhausen works as it also borders on Germany, like our community.”

Lambertz was also impressed by Switzerland’s system of direct democracy – where issues of government policy - are put to nationwide votes. But he doesn’t believe Belgium could ever adopt a similar system.

“Referendums are rejected from all sides – they are an absolute taboo in Belgium,” he said.

Opposition

The extent of opposition to referendums in Belgium was made clear in 1998, when a former Swiss parliamentarian and member of the Council of Europe, Dumeni Columberg, suggested calling one to settle an issue concerning linguistic minorities in Brussels.

The response was outrage from all sides, with the politicians, the public and the media condemning the suggestion as a “dictatorship of the majority”, which would cause more problems than it would solve.

Four years later, Lili Nabholz, another Swiss parliamentarian and member of the Council of Europe, compiled a report on the language problem in Belgium, which also came under fire from all sides.

Nabholz proposed that all three language communities – Flemish, Walloon and German - be recognised as minorities to guarantee their rights.

The Belgians were outraged that the Council of Europe, would dare to presume to impose a model, such as that of Switzerland, on them.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Nabholz told swissinfo. “I was more famous in Belgium than I was in Switzerland.”

Flash in the pan

“The storm died down long ago and the Nabholz report was only a flash in the pan,” Lambertz told swissinfo.

“But ratifying the 2001 convention of the Council of Europe for the protection of national minorities is still out of the question.”

He said the convention would remain on ice in Belgium until the Flemish and Walloons could resolve their differences.

“And to solve that conflict, the Flemish have to officially recognise the French-speaking minority in their region as a minority.”

Lambertz is not optimistic because, he says, the Flemish fear that the French language would become more widely used in their region.

Nabholz is of the same opinion. She told swissinfo that during her last visit to Belgium she felt very keenly the Flemish concerns about French encroaching on their turf, particularly in the areas around Brussels.

“Not even the Swiss federalist system could solve this problem,” Nabholz said, adding that relations between Belgium’s French and Flemish language regions are so complicated that attempts to impose a ready-made solution would likely make the problem worse.

For German-speakers, the animosity between their French and Flemish compatriots has left them in the enviable position of being “neutrals”.

“The German-speaking community has profited from the conflict between Flemish and Walloon, and achieved the best of both worlds,” says Nabholz. “I’m not surprised that the region has become the “European Region of the Year 2004”.

swissinfo, Jean-Michel Berthoud (translation: Billi Bierling)

Key facts

Belgium has a population of 10 million.
58 per cent live in Flanders, 31 per cent in Wallonia and ten per cent in Brussels.
More than 70,000 people live in the German-speaking community in Belgium.

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In brief

Belgium achieved independence from the Netherlands in 1830 and was occupied by Germany during the First and Second World Wars.

Tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish of the north and the French-speaking Walloons of the south have led to constitutional amendments granting these regions formal recognition and autonomy.

The European region of the Year is an initiative that aims to increase knowledge and recognition of European regional affairs, and to contribution to regional development.

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