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City profile

1. Uniqueness of the City

Often acknowledged in its unifying capacity as the capital of Europe, the governance of Brussels is more acquainted with the principle of diversity. This traditionally Flemish speaking city now comprises an estimated 80% French speaking population, 15-20% Dutch-speaking and a ‘migrant’ population of 50.2%. Unlike struggles based on primary identities such as race or ethnicity, the Brussels conflict is predominantly founded on linguistic differences, which have been formalised, institutionalised and incorporated into everyday governance. Unlike contested cities such as Jerusalem, where identity is exclusive, linguistic divisions and boundaries are more permeable and fluid. While conflicts based on linguistic differences are not unique in and of themselves, the ability of Brussels to manage these competing aspirations for space is most certainly worthy of study.

Belgium is divided into three regions – Flanders, a predominantly Dutch speaking north; Walloon, a predominantly French speaking south incorporating a population of about seventy thousand German speakers to the east; and Brussels, centrally located, but completely encircled by Flanders. This is important to note as any expansion of the Brussels region beyond its current 19 communes would firstly incorporate more Dutch speakers into the predominantly French speaking city of Brussels and would secondly give the French speaking majority more control over territory currently governed by of the Flanders regional government.

In 2001, 31.7% of Brussel’s one million inhabitants were born outside of the country, while 8.4% were migrants from Flanders and 10.1% from Wallonia.

2. Origins as an ethno/nationally/religious divided city in its imperialist/nationalist contexts

Brussels was not settled until between the eighth and tenth centuries where the Franks developed it as a port town, exporting the valuable minerals lying in its vicinity. By the sixteenth century, a considerable intellectual and spiritual freedom existed in Brussels. However, with the Reformation and Counter Reformation, and the subsequent Spanish Inquisition led by Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain, the Spanish Netherlands (Flanders) separated from what is today The Netherlands (Protestant) in 1581. Catholic Flanders remained loyal to Philip II, thereby dividing the two Dutch-speaking territories. Given the intellectual suppression in Brussels under Philip, Brussels was emptied of most intellectuals, entrepreneurs and skilled artisans, most ‘emigrating’ to the North.

Following the Spanish war of succession and Peace of Utrecht (1713/14), Britain and The Netherlands supported Austria in regaining control of Belgium as both feared French conquest. Between 1746 and 1748, Brussels was temporarily occupied by the French, contributing significantly to the Frenchification of the city. As a consequence of the French King Louis XV’s suppression of enlightenment thinkers, many Parisians were to find refuge in Brussels. Although still outnumbered by the Flemish, the skilled classes of Brussels were now largely French. Returning to Austrian control in 1748, Maria Theresia ensured Brussels continued to prosper both intellectually and economically as evidenced by the increase in lace manufacture and the opening of the Imperial and Royal Academy of Science and Literature. Although the language of the elite was now almost exclusively French, Dutch was still the language of the majority lower classes. It is also worthwhile to note that Dutch also remained the language of the administration. The process of Frenchification was reignited with the annexation of the territory again in 1792, followed by twenty-five years during which French was consolidated as the dominant language of the Bruxellois. Proceedings in government, the higher courts, the army and higher education were now all conducted in French; while the rapid growth of a French speaking middle class, which established the pattern for social advancement for the following 150 years.

Following the defeat of Napoleon (1814), Brussels was once again part of the prize, this time to the benefit of Dutch King William I, reuniting the Netherland kingdoms and Walloonia. William attempted to impress Dutch on the French speakers of Brussels, by appointing Dutch candidates to official positions; yet these moves were resisted by the resident French intellectuals, Wallonians and the traditionally Catholic Flemish population hostile to his Protestant Dutch leanings. After some minor skirmishes, Belgian Catholics (largely in Flanders) and Liberals (largely in Walloon) temporarily put their differences aside and proclaimed Belgian independence on the 4th of October 1830, being internationally recognised in 1839. Independence further institutionalised the preponderance of French in this once Dutch-speaking city.

Post Independence (1830 – 1960)
Under King Leopold I, a liberal constitution enticed further large numbers of French exiles and other political refugees from across Europe. As only tax payers had a vote, and these were predominantly French, this new Belgian state functioned largely in French. Although all official decrees were in both Dutch and French, only the French versions had validity. Army officers were French speaking and Flemish/Dutch could not be used in higher Courts, as it was neither standardised or codified in Flanders but rather was comprised of a variety of local dialects. French, therefore was seen as a unifying force and the official language of government (national, regional and commune), paving the way for Walloonian economic migration.

During this period Brussels also emerged as a financial centre, working closely with the more industrialised Walloon region. This paved the way for the better educated French speakers to move to Brussels and cement French as the language of the middle classes. The late 1800s saw economic difficulties in Flanders and caused an influx into Brussels. As a means of improving ones social and employment prospects French became the language of choice for these new arrivals. The prestige of French continued to increase as it remained under the influence of Paris. The Parisian influence somewhat decreased following the defeat of the French to the Prussians. French domination eased further with the beginnings of recognition of the Dutch language. In 1840 Flemish intellectuals petitioned for the use of Flemish in courts and administration, however this suffered from a lack of popular support. In 1857 a government commission suggested similar proposals but again no action was taken. 1873 saw the first reform of the Belgian constitution allowing the use of Dutch in Dutch speaking areas – however not in Brussels. In 1878 Flemish Dutch became an official language; however the French retained the right to use their language in public administration and law in Flemish areas. Flemish dialects however continued to have very little prestige and the Nouveaux Riches looked down on their previous language.

Despite these increased language rights secured by the Flemish Movement in 1878-1910 the language continued to decline. Democratisation, stimulated by the workers movement was supported by French speaking progressive liberals. Learning French was seen by the Dutch working class as a means of overcoming the gap between the classes. Institutional structures not only allowed this Frenchification but actively encouraged it. For example, the Church, which until 1880 had supported the Dutch language community, now only used Dutch for early morning servant masses.

During WWI the Germans played the Flemish and French against each other allowing the sole use of Flemish in Flanders. During the 1930s the offspring of immigrants from Flanders to Brussels were no longer bilingual but French speakers. Between the Wars, Flanders was emptied of most of its French intellectual elite, largely to the benefit of Brussels. Economic depression in traditionally more industrial Wallonia also provided for an influx of middle-class French speakers. Both factors contributing to the Frenchification of the city post WWI.

3. Internal structuring of the City

Bilingual Brussels and political discord (1960 – 1989)
With the coming together of the Flemish socialists and liberals, the Flemish People’s Movement (Vlaamse Volksbeweging) first secured a moratorium on language census and throughout 1961-2 organised a series of anti-French demonstrations. In 1963 it was agreed that ‘language facilities’ be provided in 6 neighbouring communes – but the French price for this was that the boundaries of Brussels be permanently fixed at 19. The Dutch language received greater representation within the administration where all civil servants were now to have at least an elementary knowledge of the other language, those having contact with the public were expected to have a greater understanding. Jobs were to be equally allocated to each language group. All communications with the public were to be in both languages. Dutch and French speakers were to be represented in the civil service at a 40:40 ratio with the remainder comprising of ‘bilinguals’.

In 1964 the Front Democratique des Francophone (FDF) political group emerged, as a result of a merger of French pressure groups encouraged by the Flemish marches. The FDF feared a bi-regional solution which would leave Brussels subsumed by Flanders. Thwarting this, they developed a strong Brussels identity, advocating a third region in Belgium – Brussels. Following the example of the Flemish socialists, monolingual parties became the norm in Brussels post 1970. In 1974 15% of the population had voted for Dutch-speaking parties, rising to 20% in 1979. In 1970, modifications to the constitution provided for the development of two cultural councils – and the devolvement of economic power to Flanders and Walloon regions. These reforms saw the Brussels Agglomeration established in 1971, as advocated by the French, with cultural matters remaining community competencies. The agglomeration council dealt with service provision – fire, refuse etc however it did not have the full status of a region until 1989. The FDF (francophone, now affiliated with Mouvement Reformeur MR) were the dominant party during this period. Although federalisation continued to develop in the rest of Belgium, it was not until 1989 that agreement was reached in Brussels. This agreement saw the introduction of formalised power-sharing with the Flemish minority gaining access to government ministries and also introducing a community based blocking minority in parliament.

The Brussels Capital Region (1989-2009)
The numerous multifaceted political and administrative systems have somehow managed to not only survive but develop as a norm of non-violent coexistence. With a complex mesh of four local parliaments, six police districts, numerous administrations with variant responsibility and authority for policy implementation and 19 communes, Brussels enjoys one of the greatest degrees of federal autonomy in the world. In addition, Brussels is also the seat of Parliament for the Walloon and Flanders region, national parliament, national senate and national government along with the supranational EU institutions and NATO. The responsibilities of governing Brussels are not only vertical – from municipal, regional and federal level, but also horizontal. At each level there exists both a community (linguistic) government with responsibility for health, education and culture and a civic administration with responsibility for services such as the police, fire protection, employment and the economy.

4.  Recent/contemporary nature and stage of the ethno-national conflict.

Since the establishment of the Brussels Capital Region in 1989, the primary threat to the stability of the consociation system has been the growth of the Vlaams Belang (right wing Flemish Nationalist party). The survival of the political system rests on a willingness of both communities to cooperate. Given the refusal of all mainstream parties to govern with Vlaams Belang, their realisation of nine of the allocated seventeen Flemish seats would deadlock the governance system. Their attainment of six seats in the 2004 regional elections, gave cause for concern, however such fears of a deadlock were abated in 2009 as the far right party lost three of its seats.

Another factor facing Brussels is one similar to that faced by many other cities across the developed and under-developed world – immigration. Immigration from Flanders and Wallonia has played a significant role in the development of Brussels throughout the centuries but since the 1960s the numbers of non-Belgians has steadily increased. In 2000 EU immigrants were given a vote in local and regional elections, while in 2006 all immigrants who had been resident for five years and fulfilled the criteria to vote were entitled to do so. With the continued urban sprawl of the middle classes, the proportion of immigrants to Belgians in the capital will further alter the linguistic balance. The voting patterns of this newly empowered community have the potential to alter political landscape in the capital.

5.  Prospects/expectations/scenarios for the future

The 1989 accords establishing the Brussels Capital Region cannot continue to function indefinitely. Formalised recruitment to the public sector and formalized quotas on political ‘representation’ will not be perceived by the nouveaux Bruxellois as either representative or accountable. The structures that have brought twenty years of functional stability to the city may inadvertently instigate greater unrest within the city and it environs. It would be a mistake to view the current Brussels political and administrative compromises as fait accompli. These fixed quota systems, designed to safeguard minority interests cannot last indefinitely. As numerous studies within divided societies have shown – if a particular element of society feels discriminated against, excluded, marginalised or consider themselves insecure, they will not partake in the objective of national development. Any solution in Brussels will need to take account of its wider environs, its modern, cosmopolitan, ethnically and culturally diverse constituents. Although the current structures provide a template for stability, they should be understood as a platform for progress rather than as an end in themselves. A final, increasingly pressing urban concern lies in the communes surrounding Brussels. Although enlargement of the city boundaries is now off the table, the French significant minorities (and in some case majorities) in the Flanders communes face numerous linguistic difficulties. It is in these regions where social and political contestation has still to be resolved. Some of these ‘rim’ communes do have language facilities, however others do not. Continued urban sprawl of French speakers into the environs of the nineteen communes has the potential to further change the dynamic of the conflict in years to come.


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