The kingdom of Belgium is a parliamentary democracy that lies at the very heart of the pan-European dream. Home to the European Union’s headquarters and among the continent’s wealthiest countries, it is, on the face of it, a success story. Yet things aren’t quite as rosy as they first appear. Differences between the Flemish and French-speaking regions of the nation are slowly becoming more entrenched, and many Belgians fear that their country could ultimately disintegrate.


The roots of the problem go back more than 2,000 years, emerging out of prehistoric migrations, Roman imperial foreign policy, revolutions in the 16th and 19th centuries, the two world wars and evolving economic differences within Belgium itself.

At the core of the issue is the fact that western Europe’s Germanic/Romance linguistic fault line runs east/west across the entire country. The northern half of Belgium speaks Flemish (a Germanic language more commonly known as Dutch) while the southern half speaks French (a romance language derived from Latin).

Sometime in the first or second century BC, Iron Age Germanic tribes displaced Celtic as the main language in what is now the Netherlands and parts of Belgium. Then, when Julius Caesar conquered Gaul (France) in the midfirst century BC, a long process began whereby Latin gradually replaced Celtic in what is now France and the southern Low Countries. The linguistic divide was then re-enforced in the fourth century AD by a Roman imperial decision to allow Germanic Barbarians (the Franks) to settle in what is now northern Belgium.

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Swamps and depopulation

Because of the swampy nature of the north Belgian coastal areas and the depopulation
caused by frontier warfare, virtually no Roman urban centres developed in what is now northern Belgium. As a result, Roman civilization – and, therefore, Latin – failed to fully establish themselves in that area, and the Iron Age/Frankish Germanic language (which has now evolved into Flemish) thus survived.

The second great divide within the Low Countries was (and in some ways still is) religion. Originally, of course, the whole region was Catholic – but then two developments began to change the picture dramatically. By around 1500, the Low Countries had become the commercial hub of north-west Europe, highly influential in both the North Sea and the Baltic, and controlling the mouth of the Rhine. This commercial primacy generated the growth of large cities (Antwerp, Amsterdam, Leiden and Haarlem) which, by the 1560s, had begun to help generate political and religious radicalism – and moves towards Protestantism.

But at the very time that the area was starting to achieve commercial success, the territory came under the control of the Austrian Habsburgs (from 1477) and then the Spanish Habsburgs (from 1516). What’s more, the mid to late 16th century was an era in which Spainsaw herself as the champion of the Catholic faith. In the collision between Catholic Spain and her increasingly Protestant Dutch possession, the Low Country elite launched an 80-year war of independence. Meanwhile, Spanish anti-Protestant persecutions in the southern part of the Low Countries (what is now Belgium) forced 120,000 Protestants to flee northwards into rebel territory.

The war and the Spanish persecution began to permanently polarise the Low Countries into two opposing religious camps. For 300 years, Spanish (and then Austrian) Habsburgs ruled the Catholic south, while the Protestant Orange dynasty ruled the north. But then, following the French Revolution, the status quo collapsed as the French Republic, in alliance with local radicals, took over both the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and the Dutch Republic.

This Francophone-led reunification of the Low Countries paved the way (in the aftermath of the French defeat at Waterloo) for the creation of a Protestant Dutch-dominated United Kingdom of the Netherlands, covering what is today Belgium and the modern Netherlands.

It was a hybrid and distinctly autocratic state – half Catholic, half Protestant, and totally unworkable. And so it proved in 1830, when the Catholic south, supported by anti-autocratic liberals, staged a revolution which gave birth to a brand new European state: Belgium.

The curse of the Low Countries The problem was that, just as the religiously hybrid United Kingdom of the Netherlandshad been unsustainable on account of its religious division, the new breakaway Catholic southern state was destined to become unsustainable in terms of its linguistic division. The curse of the Low Countries is that its religious and linguistic fault lines are geographically distinct – the linguistic one being some 60 miles south of its religious equivalent.

Within just 20 years of Belgium’s birth, intellectuals in its Dutch-speaking north started campaigning to defend the Dutch (Flemish) language against the overwhelmingly Francophone-dominated government. As Belgium began to democratise in the late 19th century, political parties identifi ed language issues to campaign on. Consequently the Flemish/Francophone divide began to move centre stage. To make matters worse, the coal-rich south had industrialised and become more left-wing and secular while the non-industrialised, more traditional north (the Flemish areas) remained devoutly Catholic and conservative.

When the Germans occupied Belgium in the First World War, they favoured the Dutch speaking and more conservative Flemings above French-speaking southern Belgians. Indeed, it was the Germans who helped set up the country’s first Dutch-language university (in the Dutch speaking Belgian city of Ghent). After the war, the government took its revenge on separatist elements in the northern Flemish population, accusing them of having collaborated with the Germans.

Then, in the 1930s, the prewar Nazis secretly encouraged separatist aspirations – and when Germany occupied Belgium in the Second World War, there was substantial collaboration between the populist Flemish right and the Nazis. After the war, the Belgian government again took action against Flemings who had acquiesced in the German occupation. Tens of thousands of Dutch-speaking Belgians from the Flemish north were arrested, hounded out of their jobs and denied civil rights.

This massive persecution helped generate a widespread Flemish demand for linguistic
autonomy. By 1970, Belgium had begun to split into two selfgoverning states – one Flemish, the other Francophone, which in time developed their own governing institutions, separate political parties and linguistically separate universities.

Meanwhile, in the late 1950s and 1960s, the south’s coal-mining and heavy industry began to collapse, while the north, with its coastline and port facilities, became the epicentre for the new energy lifelines – oil and gas. Just as in central European states like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, animosities aggravated by confl icting Second World War loyalties helped generate divisions in postwar Belgium. What started off as autonomy is slowly evolving into total separation. Fifty years ago, an estimated 60 per cent of Belgium’s population spoke both Flemish and French. Today it’s probably just 20 per cent.

In the 16th to 19th centuries the Low Country region was regarded as the ‘cockpit of
Europe’ – the place where so many Europewide conflicts (the Wars of the Spanish and Austrian Successions and the final phase of the Napoleonic Wars) were in part fought out or had their genesis. Even as late as 1914, it was the German seizure of Belgium that finally drew Britain into the First World War. Only time will tell whether political problems in 21st-century Belgium could trigger wider rivalries and conflicts.


Belgium: a brief history

  • Second to first century BC
    First Germanic tribes arrive in the Low Countries
  • 50s BC
    Roman conquest
  • Fourth century AD
    Franks given land in northern ‘Belgium’
  • 1477
    ‘Belgium’ under Habsburg control
  • 1568–1648
    Dutch war of independence
  • 1795
    France controls Low Countries
  • 1815–30
    United Kingdom of the Netherlands
  • 1830
    Belgian revolution
  • 1840s
    Literary movement defends the Flemish language
  • 1914–18
    Germany occupies most of Belgium
  • 1940–45
    Germany occupies Belgium
  • 1945–50
    Repression of Flemings who had collaborated with Germans
  • 1962
    Official language areas are first established in Belgium
  • 2007/8
    Difficulties in forming a government