Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The term Flemish described several Dutch-related dialects until it was standardized in 1896. Today, Flemish is spoken by over 6 million Flemings in the north and east of Belgium. Approximately 20 per cent of the Brussels-Capital population speaks Flemish as a native language, a proportion that has been decreasing over time
The Flemish and Dutch authorities standardize Dutch through the Dutch Language Union, which was established in 1980. This standard language is used in public administration, business and banking, and in education. However, in practice, there are differences in the use of Flemish in Flanders and Dutch in the Netherlands.
Flanders was one of the most prosperous trading and cultural areas of Europe until the mid-seventeenth century and the conclusion of the 80-year rebellion of the Low Countries against Hapsburg rule. In 1648, the provinces north of the River Scheldt gained independence, while the rebellion failed in the south, in Flanders and Wallonia. In 1648 France annexed southern Flanders, including the city of Lille. The new Republic of the Netherlands took part of north-west and north-east Flanders. Rich Flemish merchants moved north from the key Flemish cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges to Amsterdam and other Flemish cities, and Flanders went into decline. French revolutionary forces annexed Belgium in 1794 and Flanders was subjected to further repression of its language and culture. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 Belgium was given to the Netherlands. By 1830 it gained its independence, but many Flemish wanted to remain under Flemish rule.
The 1831 Constitution gave freedom of expression in Flemish (Flemish), French and German to the different language communities. However, in practice after 1839 French dominated in public life and education. Educated and aristocratic Flemish spoke French, thus isolating Flemish-speakers from representation and public administration. An 1898 law recognized standardized Flemish as a Belgian language. The Flemish movement then campaigned for Flemish-language education, the administration of justice in Flemish and the introduction of language frameworks for public service.
The Frontbeweging, an organization of Flemish soldiers, complained about the lack of consideration for their language in the army and Belgium in general during the First World War. These grievances were exploited by the Germans during their First World War occupation of Belgium. They made Flemish the language of administration and education in Flanders. In the 1919 the Flemish nationalist party Frontpartij had its first electoral success. In 1928 a prominent Flemish leader on death row for working in the German Flemish government was elected. The Flemish movement gathered strength, demanding autonomy in the 1930s when the Vlaams National Verbond became the main nationalist party. Flemish was recognized as the sole language of Flanders in the 1932 language laws. In the Second World War the German occupiers again made Flemish the language of administration and education. They encouraged antagonism between Flemish and French-speakers. Members of the Vlaams National Verbond collaborated with the Germans and sought to justify this on account of the long-standing discrimination against the Flemish by French-speakers. Collaboration divided the Flemish people, the majority of whom were against the invaders but who also wanted more a equitable situation for their community. Collaboration caused bitter recriminations from French-speakers, enduring decades after the end of the war.
Flemish nationalism made a new start with a new party Volksunie in 1954. The Flemish pressure group and think tank Vlaamse Volksbeweging was set up in 1956. Both campaigned for regional autonomy within a Belgian federation. The Volksunie was successful in radicalizing Flemish politics, drawing one quarter of the Flemish vote away from the traditional Christian Democrat, Liberal and Socialist parties.
The Belgian industrial revolution began in the Flemish textiles industry, which was mechanized in Ghent in 1801. Textiles and food processing were the main industries, but they declined in the 1840s leading to famine in 1846–50. Trade unions were established from this time and formed a strong element in the Flemish national movement. The trade unions were mostly Christian in outlook and politics. The development of the Flemish ports of Antwerp and Ghent, and the canal and railway networks which rapidly spread across Belgium, were important to the country’s prosperity, but the majority of Flemings remained dependent on agriculture and poor.
The economy changed after the Second World War. Petrochemicals and oil industries developed rapidly around Antwerp and manufacturing industry followed across Flanders, funded by massive injections of foreign investment as part of the reconstruction of Europe. Thus, the manufacturing, service and export base was set up for the dynamic Flemish modern economy.
In 1962 the cultural and linguistic border was drawn for the first time between the Flemish– and French-speaking areas. In 1963 language laws established Flemish, French and German as the official languages for their geographical areas. When the Constitution was amended in 1970 it set up cultural communities and regions, including the Flemish-language community and the Flemish region. The new Constitution provided guarantees for the French-speaking minority, in particular the national parliament was divided into language groups and a special majority of the two main groups, French and Flemish, was needed to alter laws affecting the constitutional rights of the people. In addition, the national government should be composed of equal numbers of Walloon and Flemish ministers, excluding the prime minister.
In 1980 the powers of the communities and regions were more closely defined, and extended, and they were endowed with governments and parliaments. The Flemish region and community combined their structures and adopted Antwerp as the regional capital. This further strengthened Flanders. Bitter wrangling continued over the structures for the Brussels region, which both Flemish and French-speakers claimed as their capital. Historically Brussels was a Flemish-speaking city, surrounded by Flemish territory. But because French had been the language of ascendancy since 1830, the majority of Brussels inhabitants now spoke French. In 1989 the details of the Brussels region were agreed. The French-language community subsequently set up its parliament and government in Brussels. The parliament and government of the Flemish community and region moved from Antwerp to Brussels. The Flemish Parliament has 124 seats, 118 for Flanders and six for Brussels.
The Vlaams Blok was set up in 1976 by disaffected members of Volksunie, who wanted Flemish independence. The Vlaams Blok was also overtly anti-immigrant. It won strong support in the 1991 and 1994 elections, especially in Antwerp. It continued to be successful, taking votes from the Volksunie. The Volksunie disintegrated in 2001, splitting into a left-liberal party Spirit, and a more traditional Flemish nationalist party Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (NV-A). In 2002 a number of prominent Spirit politicians joined the Flemish Liberal party, VLD. In 2004 the Vlaams Blok was convicted of racism. It disbanded and its members formed a new Flemish nationalist party, Vlaams Belang (VB) which immediately polled over 24 per cent of the Flemish vote.
In summer 2006 the Belgian Parliament agreed to a request from VB for a debate on independence for Flanders and Wallonia. The party became one of the largest in Belgium, with more support for its stance on independence and its tough line on crime than for its policies on immigration or against Muslims. VB opposed Flemish tax money going to national funds that are transferred to Wallonia to support the economy there. It opposed a European Union (EU) report criticizing restrictions on the spread of Brussels into Flemish territory. But it also pledged to stop the spread of Islam in Europe and wants strict limits on immigration and the number of mosques.
During the 2006 local elections in Flanders, letters were sent to voters in both French and Flemish, a procedure that by law should have taken place solely in Flemish. Consequentially, the Minister of Interior of the Flemish regional government refused to appoint the three majors. This sparked controversy and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (CoE) sent a fact–finding mission to Belgium in 2008. The CoE disapproved of the Flemish regional government’s decision and stated that its actions ‘may be interpreted as a violation of the Preamble to the European Charter of Local Self-Government’.
Although they were overtaken by the NV-A in the 2010 general election, support for the VB has remained strong. This remained the case in Belgium’s local elections in 2018. It garnered 26 per cent of the vote in Denderleeuw, near Brussels, and was set to get 40 per cent of the vote (under its registered local name of Forza Ninove) in Ninove in East Flanders. It should be noted, however, that the Greens also made significant gains, becoming Antwerp’s second biggest party with 18 per cent of the vote.
Although Flemings are in the majority numerically (with almost 58 per cent of the Belgian population residing in Flanders), the Constitution gives parity to French-speakers in the number of ministerial posts. There is a special majority needed to change any constitutional laws, thus safeguarding the interests of both communities. However, guaranteed representation is not provided for Flemish-speakers in the Brussels-Capital Region where they make up around 20 per cent of the population and scattered throughout the 19 districts. The administrations of these districts are dominated by French-speakers. Businesses and French-speakers continue to move from Brussels to the surrounding area of Flanders.
Flemish nationalist parties have had an influence over the mainstream parties. Members of Spirit joined the Flemish Liberal party, while the Christian Democrats formed a coalition with the other successor to the Volksunie, NV-A. The mainstream parties have formed coalitions to block the Vlaams Belang from power at the regional and municipal levels.
As Flanders continues to increase in prosperity in comparison to Wallonia, Flemish leaders hope that Flemish will become the main language of Belgium. The Flemish government and the authorities of the North French region of Nord-Pas de Calais (the area of Southern Flanders annexed by France in 1649) have established Flemish-language teaching and other services for the increasing numbers of French people who commute every day to work in Flanders, where several industries are short of skilled workers.
The Overlegcentrum van Vlaamse Bewegingen (OVV) (Consultation Centre for Flemish Movements), which campaigns for ‘Flanders, a state in Europe’, groups around 50 cultural, social and business organizations.