A Belgian Divorce?

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Yves Herman / Reuters

Belgians march in support of a united Belgium in November.

For a keen sense of what ails the Kingdom of Belgium, the disarmingly picturesque town of Hoeilaart is the perfect destination. Located just a few miles south of Brussels, it has a multiturreted town hall resembling a fairy-tale château, and a rich history involving Roman armies, Augustinian monks and medieval dukes. Since late last month, it also has a new law that makes proficiency in Dutch, the official language of Belgium's Flemish region, a precondition for buying public land. That puts a hard new edge on the increasing alienation between the country's linguistic communities, but Mayor Tim Vandenput is unrepentant. "I have nothing against other nationalities," he says. "But this is a Flemish region and we want it to remain Flemish."

What concerns him and other elders of Hoeilaart is the influx in recent years of people who commute to jobs in Brussels, the polyglot capital of the European Union and headquarters of nato. Hoeilaart's newcomers are mostly French speakers, but also Brits, Americans and Germans. More than a third of Hoeilaart's 10,000 or so residents do not consider Dutch their mother tongue.

Safeguarding Flemish interests is not just a local issue. It is at the heart of a national political standoff that a few days ago reached a remarkable milestone: six months after Belgium's general election on June 10, the nation still has no government. Yves Leterme, whose Flemish Christian Democrat party was the biggest winner in that election, promised more self-rule for Flanders in areas such as taxation, social security, economic policy and immigration. But French-speaking parties whose support he'd need for a majority balked at his demands. So earlier this month, Leterme abandoned his stop-and-start efforts to forge a coalition government for Belgium. The political limbo has fueled speculation about whether Belgium is heading for the sort of divorce that in 1993 turned Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

In Hoeilaart, at least, there is a sense that Belgium's two principal communities already lead separate lives. "We don't need the French. We could easily live separately," says Jean Paul Goosens, a retired builder. Jean Hennau, a veterinarian, doesn't see them coming together either: "Flanders and Wallonia don't talk to one another."

If a common economy, territory, culture and language are typical features of a nation, it's easy to see where Belgium falls short. For more than a century after the country's birth in 1830, French-speaking Wallonia — the southern part of the country with roughly a third of the population — was in an industrial whirl, thanks to its success in mining and steelmaking. Flanders was considered a backwater; it wasn't until 1930 that Flemish students could study in their own language at a Belgian university. Now, with the decline of heavy industry, Wallonia is in a slump while Flanders is one of Europe's richest and most dynamic regions. And many Flemish resent having to subsidize Wallonia's stagnant economy with an annual handout estimated at around $9 billion, or about $3,000 for each Walloon.

Last month about 35,000 people marched through Brussels to show their commitment to national unity. But others consider Belgium's unity obsolete. Leterme himself has described Belgium as "an accident of history" with "no intrinsic value," and branded the country's French speakers too stupid to learn Dutch. In September, a cheeky schoolteacher put Belgium up for sale on eBay, describing it as "a kingdom in three parts." The offering was pulled by eBay after drawing a bid of $15 million.

King Albert II has asked the country's caretaker Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, to seek a solution to Belgium's existential crisis. Yet that task seems sapped of any great urgency as life goes on without a national government. The trains run on time, the beer flows cold and plentiful, and the Belgian national soccer team still can't score. The drifting apart of Belgium's linguistic communities could augur the end for a country once hailed as a model of compromise and coexistence. Hoeilaart's elders have clearly had enough of that model. But no one knows what can replace it.