Belgium Explained To Slovenes (And Whoever Else ) In Ten Easy Lessons

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LESSON II : THE FLEMING vs. WALLOON THING

Part Two : The Walloons

walloons.jpg
Walloon flag. I’d say the cock is a dead giveaway 😀

SO WHAT WAS HAPPENING WITH THE WALLOONS?

In last week’s post, I talked about the steady rise of the Flemish region as the main political and economical power in Belgium. The tale of the Walloons is the opposite : a steady decline from the top to the bottom. But at the end of the tale, there’s hope…

HOW DID IT START?

While Flemish emancipation did rise steadily over the course of the 20th century, the Walloons and their francophone allies in Flanders didn’t just roll over and die, of course. For a long while, they were still an economical and hence political force to be reckoned with, as most of the coal and steel industry was situated in the South. Unfortunately for them, coal mining became highly unprofitable with the rise of newer and cleaner means of warming homes and providing electricity from the 1950’s onward. It’s safe to say the decline of coal mining went hand in hand with the post WW II economic boom.
At the same time, steel was manufactured cheaper elsewhere on the globe and thus the stage was set for an economical backlash the size of the former Soviet Union. Workers were laid off, strikes popped up like fires in a dry forest and blazed through the entire Wallonian region. It hit the Flemish as well, because a portion of the work force and some subsidiary industries hailed from there and shared the hard knocks. Remember, this happened when Belgium wasn’t a federal state yet, so all state owned industries (coal and steel, well, whaddayaknow!) suffered likewise. But while Flanders could boast newer economies and a larger work force, Wallonia largely depended on these industries for income. And now it was largely gone – there are still a few steel factories open to this day – so a new source of income had to be found…

FLEMISH ?SOLIDARITY’

Since Belgium was still united, it was easy for the Wallonian politicians to slush Flemish money across the language border in order to keep the dwindling economy from, erm, dwindling even further. You wouldn’t believe the constructions that were dreamed up. Take this example, for instance :
The Flemish part of what was then still the Brabant province – now it’s divided into Vlaams- Brabant and Brabant Wallon – derives its water from several rivers. Of course, you need to get this water treated in order to make it potable. The water purifying station is in Wallonia. So what does the Wallonian intercommunal (the political organ in charge of water) do? They charge their Flemish counterparts for water rights and at the same time charged them again for having the water treated at their stations. Double whammy.
One more? Some time ago, when we had national elections, there was a vacant Flemish position in the Brussels government. This was settled in agreements long ago, so it was legal. But the francophones in the Brussels government out right refused to let a Fleming have that post. It took a month of talking and arguments before they relinquished – for the small sum of two billion Belgian Francs (roughly 500 million euro’s) in aid for Wallonia.

It is, as you can imagine after reading just these two examples, no wonder the Flemish look to their Wallonian counterparts as lazy. In the fifty- odd years of their economical decline, they rather relied on Flemish ?solidarity’ (that’s what their government calls it) to let most of Wallonia retain their social security benefits (which are higher than in Flanders and less prone to sanctions) than to take that money and rebuild and invest in new economies for their region. Only now, when it becomes more and more evident that Flanders is not going to allow these money streams to cross over as plentifully as they once were and the need for further federalization of some national departments like eg. health care (and hence even less money for the Wallonian divisions, since there are less of them and more of us) which was a hot item on the agenda of the winning Flemish parties in last June’s national election has our Wallonian brethren scared faecesless.

WALLONIAN POLIT(R)IC(K)S

I’ll limit myself to the short facts here and perhaps post later about the largest political scandals this country has seen on both sides of the language border.
While the Flemish political parties have had their day in court about the same time as the 70+ year reign of the christian democrats – and thus the clientelism and favoritism that went hand in hand with being in power for such a long time – came to an end in the 90’s in a wash of scandals (one Flemish socialist minister was even smart enough to burn the bribe money his party was given), their Wallonian colleagues sat back and laughed. The socialists laughed the hardest. Wallonia always was a bastion of socialist power, due to the aforementioned factories and heavy industry there. The reign of the Wallonian Parti Socialiste was largely absolute up until recent years. One of their ministers even managed to have one of his in- party adversaries assassinated by Italian mafia supplied hired killers from Algeria. I kid you not. It took more than fifteen years to solve this crime and when it became apparent Mr. Alain Vanderbiest (notice the Flemish surname) was fingered as the brain of the operation, he hanged himself. But the party was – and still is – so hierarchic that the top would have known about this. They all got away. Most of the scandals coming to the surface over the years involved the PS. Again, clientelism and favoritism running rampant, hand in hand with dubious connections with certain Italian, erm, ?families’ and an almost absolute reign of power in the whole region which allowed them to ?network’, made them untouchable. Until now.

The last two years it has become so apparent how much the PS abuses its long standing power, that even the whole Wallonian city of Charleroi (known by frequent Ryanair passengers as ?Brussels South’, when it is, in fact, nowhere near Brussels) is without council today, because everyone has been fired and a lot of dignitaries are in jail on corruption charges. I won’t even attempt to chart all the webs of corruption in the PS ?capital’ of Liège, for they are legion.

And this is the good news : now that these scandals are surfacing and everyone is getting tired of the stranglehold the PS has on Wallonian and Belgian political affairs, our Southern francophone brethren and sisters can start wiping the slate clean (to a certain extent. It IS polit(r)i(c(k)s, after all). And becoming more and more deprived of Flemish ?solidarity’ money has finally lit a fire under the Wallonian government’s… bottom and helped them to realize they have to revamp their economy before they truly become a third world region within the EU. I certainly hope there will be money put into the poorest area of them all : Le Borinage. I seldom come there, but every time I do, it is depressing. A desolate landscape where you can literally see and feel the unemployment and despair. I suppose Goths would call it Paradise. 😈 The countryside is beautiful, but the air of desperation looming from the run down houses and abandoned factories scattered across the landscape makes you intensely sad. When on route to Paris from Brussels, wear a blindfold until after you’ve crossed the French border…

FLEMISH ACCORDING THE THE WALLOONS

Instead of summing up some commonplace clichés, I would like to illustrate how the Walloons perceive us and and how far removed we are from each other right now by telling this true story:

One Wednesday night – 2007 was still young – the Wallionian national broadcasting company RTBF interrupted regular broadcasting for a breaking news flash. The report said that Flanders had seceded from Wallonia and Belgium had ceased to exist. King Albert II had left the country, public transport stopped at the language border and they even showed a Wallonian police patrol racing away from their post to guard the language border. Reports about Flemings celebrating in the streets, Flemish nationalist politicians who were filmed while having a copious dinner and smilingly debating separation… You name it, they showed it.

But is was a farce. It was a mockumentary, made by a journalist who said he wanted to show how removed both regions were from each other. Little did he know what kind of consternation his little exercise generated. RTBF’s phone switch board overloaded, people took to the streets in panic and disbelief, were seen crying and only after half an hour of chaos RTBF found it necessary to show a ticker saying that the news report was fiction. And all the while, Flemings sat in their living rooms and watched Champions League Football, unaware of the whole thing.
The next day, heated debates ensued. Between Flemish and Wallonian politicians, between Flemish politicians and RTBF, the journalist was threatened with legal action, journalistic integrity was questioned. In one word : more chaos. One thing became apparent : as a people, the Wallonians have become as oblivious about their Flemish countrymen- and women as the latter about them. They think we are all separatists. And they all think that the Vlaams Belang party has something to do with it. While a portion of that is true, it is also the Wallonians’ continuous refusal to become bilingual and show at least an interest in Flanders as a culture that led to this. The belief that they don’t need to speak Flemish while in this region because we used to accommodate them by doing so is so etched in their collective consciousness that it accounts for a lot of sour grapes. And now the Flemings are starting to do the same.

Conclusion : there is hope for Wallonia, as I said a couple of paragraphs up. But Belgium is only a hair away from becoming past history. And I’m not really sure if that would be to the benefit of either region…
Next week, Dr. ARF will tackle the Belgian Monarchy. One needs a laugh after this serious subject… 😛

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pengovsky

Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

2 thoughts on “Belgium Explained To Slovenes (And Whoever Else ) In Ten Easy Lessons”

  1. Re. conclusion: hey, we’re all in the EU, right?

    Sorry to be off-topic, but as a nextdoor neighbour, how do you feel about Lux? Have a to make a decision by tomorrow… anyways… tough.

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