Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Dan tossed me an easy pitch (and he knows it). His last post begs me to discuss Belgium as an extraordinary example of how language issues manifest in identity politics.

As a Spark Notes-style background, Belgium is federally divided into three geographic regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital) and three linguistic communities (the Flemish, the Francophones and a small German-speaking population). However, there is significant overlap between the regions and communities. Most Francophones live in Wallonia; and the Flemish populations and the region of Flanders have gone so far as to officially unite the region with the linguistic community. As such, all political issues become linked to language; any issue addressed at the regional level can be further interpreted as ethno-linguistic.

After linguistic communities were established, the three primary political parties (the Christian Democrats, the Liberals, and the Socialists) were forced to separate into six political parties, each party being represented as both Flemish and Francophone. Each of the six political parties acts independent of its counterpart, offering separate policies, candidates and campaigns.

This creates obvious political problems. In Belgium’s parliamentary democracy, political candidates are accountable to one linguistic community. Because they are elected by the Dutch-speaking population, Flemish candidates can cater their campaign positions exclusively to the Flemings at the cost of making promises disagreeable to Walloons.

The best example of this problem is in Brussels-Hal-Vilvoorde. BHV is the largest parliamentary constituency in Belgium and the country’s only bilingual constituency. In regional election campaigns, candidates from Flemish parties have promised to divide BHV such that Hal and Vilvoorde will become part of Flanders. However, this presents a problem for Francophones in those areas who would not be allowed to vote for Francophone candidates in Brussels. Because of this disagreement, the federal government finds itself in a stalemate with the potential for the government to disband.

Ultimately, as Flemings and Walloons demonstrate, both language and political affiliation can be used as barometers for group identification. Such factors give information about members and unite communities. However, high barriers to entry make language an almost impenetrable divide. Thus, linguistic separation can effectively block the communal discourse necessary to establishment of national identity.

And you thought your relationship was complicated.



~ by Lindsay Bembenek on January 11, 2010.

3 Responses to “Relationship Status: It’s Complicated”

  1. Very complicated, but very interesting.

  2. Just think how many more Americans would be apathetic if this was going on here. Geeze … 🙂

  3. Well as an (highly imperfect) analogy, imagine that the US decided to make Spanish a second constitutional language. There would be English speaking Democrats, English speaking Republicans, Spanish speaking Democrats and (maybe) Spanish speaking Republicans. The campaigns of all of these would be different and would focus on different issues and platforms. And political communities would form. You can imagine what each of these may look like and how ugly American politics might get.


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