In Belgium's struggle to survive, unlikely fans

AP News
Posted: Jul 20, 2011 9:41 AM
In Belgium's struggle to survive, unlikely fans

As Belgium struggles to survive cacophonous infighting between its Francophones and Dutch speakers, some of the country's biggest fans are also its unlikeliest.

On the eastern border, a tiny community of German speakers is preparing to celebrate Belgium's National Day on Thursday with a mixture of pride and trepidation, as the country enters its second rudderless year.

Never before in its 180-year history has the Belgian state been under such pressure to break apart. Since elections last June, when Flemish separatists gained the largest share of the votes, the fractured parliament has been unable to form a government.

A string of mediators has tried, and failed, to shepherd through an overhaul of the federal state that would give Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons the right balance of autonomy and central support to entice both sides to stay within the union.

Caught in the middle are the 75,000 German speakers _ the latest and perhaps most loyal bloc of this hybrid nation.

Their turf _ 854 square kilometers (333 sq. miles) on the eastern border _ was tagged onto Belgium after World War I, a war reparation from the defeated German Reich. The area was invaded by Hitler's forces and annexed in 1940. After the liberation by the Allies in 1945, the region returned to Belgium.

As the Flemish and Walloons tussled over power, money and autonomy, the German-speaking Belgians found themselves passive beneficiaries.

After three radical state reforms, the small community has its own prime minister, a parliament with 25 deputies, and runs its own education system, social services and cultural affairs.

Their strong national pride seems rooted in the luck they've had in being able to retain their ethnic identity.

"The German-speaking Belgians are Belgians by conviction. At least that's what they have become over the course of their history," says Karl-Heinz Lambertz, the prime minister of the German-speaking community.

It's unlikely that such a small community could have gained an equal level of self-determination in any country other than Belgium, itself a product of the reorganization of Europe following the Napoleonic Wars.

"Under the roof of the federal state of Belgium we're set up well, well taken care of. There is a lot of concern that one day it won't work anymore and the country will disintegrate," says Rudi Schroeder, editor in chief of the Belgian Broadcasting Service.

In addition to the federally funded German-language broadcaster, with its three radio channels and daily newscast, there's the German newspaper Grenz-Echo, or "Border-Echo," with a print-run of 12,500, six days a week.

Unemployment is low, with many German-speaking Belgians commuting across the border for work. In school, lessons are taught in German. All official administration is conducted in German. In Eupen, bakeries at every corner sell dense, typically German, sourdough bread.

Yet few German-speaking Belgians see themselves ever again joining Germany. They flinch when referred to as German Belgians, rather than German-speaking. And French expressions like "allez" or "compromis a la Belge" _ Belgian compromise _ fleck their conversations.

"The large majority of people here feels, and thinks, and lives very Belgian," says Schroeder. "There is hardly anyone who can imagine to someday be part of Luxembourg or Germany, or, let's say, part of a Walloon state. If anything, I think it would be ... for many imaginable to be independent."

For many people here, like Karin Breuer, who organizes the cultural program for Eupen's National Day celebrations, Belgium's mishmash identity is something to celebrate.

"Belgium is a convergence of cultures, sometimes that causes trouble, as one sees right now, and sometimes it's spectacularly beautiful," she says.