Being Belgian has many perks: the lively cities and beautiful countryside, the easy access to rest of Europe and the food! There are also downsides: the average temperature and the traffic, but the worst downside is probably that nobody seems to understand how Belgium works. I always have to explain where I am from, what language I speak and what that means. In this post, I am going to try to explain. I apologize to all Belgians in advance, because obviously the situation is much more complex than a single blog post can capture.
Let’s start with a map, you’re going to need it.
image source: reflexions.ulg.ac.be
A bit of history
The Kingdom of Belgium declared its independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830. Only 15 years before, the territory had been under French rule. However, this is not the reason both French and Dutch are spoken in Belgium. The language border between Germanic and Romance languages has always been roughly where it is now. Around our capital, parts of the forest that was once the natural border between Germanic tribes and groups that spoke Vulgar Latin. Despite the language border’s detrimental importance in Belgian politics, suggesting that logically Wallonia should be a part of France and Flanders a part of the Netherlands will get you yelled at. The various kingdoms, duchies and empires that preceded the Kingdom of Belgium as we know it now didn’t stick to the language border either.
We have king, Filip I or Philippe I, but his function is largely ceremonial. For the actual ruling we have 6 governments.
- The Federal Government
- The Flemish Government (government of both the community and the region)
- The French Community Government
- The Walloon Regional Government
- The Brussels-Capital Regional Government
- The German Community Government
How that happened? Well, when Belgium became independent, its official language was French. This is no surprise as they had just fought for independence from the Dutch. Additionally, and probably more importantly, at the time French was considered to be the culturally superior language in much of Europe. However this meant that law enforcement, (higher) education and administration was exclusively in French even in Flanders. This didn’t pose a problem for the elite, but excluded many ordinary people from actively taking part in public life. Inevitably this led to protests. A new Flemish intelligentsia also called for the recognition of Dutch as a language of high culture. As a result, a couple of language laws allowed Dutch to be used in Flanders.
Belgium did not become a bilingual country because, quite frankly, there was no need. Whilst a lot of the elite in Flanders spoke French, the reverse was not the case. Some municipalities along the border do provide services in both languages, as does Brussels. Instead of a bilingual country, we have a federal system with communities and regions. Communities are the regulating bodies for anything related to language and culture (for example education). Therefore, we have three:
- the Dutch community
- the French community
- the German (curveball!) community.
Regions govern more territorial matters such as roads. Again, we have three:
- Brussels-Capital (a region of the capital and 19 bilingual municipalities).
So, if a French speaking school takes it pupils on a school trip to a theater performance in Dutch (which they would, because we have excellent language education, thank you very much) by public transport in Brussels, that’s a three regional government job. The division of competences is unclear to pretty much everybody except for maybe those who studied politics, because our politicians keep arguing about it.
Note: I understand that my use of “Dutch” and “Flemish” may be confusing. In Flanders, the official language is Dutch. However, there are small differences between the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands and in Flanders. Flemish is Dutch spoken in Flanders. The difference is comparable to the difference between American and British English.