Belgium is such a quaint country. Everywhere you look you find yourself thinking “What? How? Why?”. Take the Flemish municipality of Voeren, for example, which is located in the far east of the country. Voeren belongs to Flanders. It’s actually part of the Flemish province of Limburg. So far, so good. However, it’s not actually physically connected to the rest of Limburg. It’s floating about 30 kilometres away from it; so geographically it’s completely isolated from the rest of Limburg! It’s actually surrounded by the Netherlands and Wallonia. What? How? …
The municipality consists of six villages: ‘s-Gravenvoeren, Sint-Pieters-Voeren, Sint-Martens-Voeren, Moelingen, Teuven and Remersdal. Total population is a little over 4,000, with ‘s-Gravenvoeren being the largest and most populated of the six. However, the current municipality of Voeren was not established until 1977. Before that, the six villages were involved in a kind of linguistic tug-of-war, which unfortunately brought violence to this sleepy rural area.
A bit of history
It all started in 1932 when new linguistic laws were introduced in Belgium, which based the linguistic alignment of towns and villages on the results of the 1930 census. As over 80% of the population of the six villages that now make up Voeren spoke Dutch, it was declared to be a Flemish area.
However, when the 1947 census was taken, the results threw up a surprise. The situation had reversed, with the majority of inhabitants (57%) now declaring they spoke French. This would have meant a change in the linguistic status of the villages from Dutch-speaking with a French minority into French-speaking with a Dutch minority. Not surprisingly, the results were disputed by the Flemish.
A special parliamentary committee was established and decided to side with the Dutch-speaking minority and ignore the 1947 census results. Instead, it declared that the six villages were to remain Dutch-speaking, but that the French-speaking majority was to be afforded special regulations to practice their language. Throwing oil on the fire, the committee also decided to maintain the government of the six villages under the province of Liège, which of course is French-speaking!
After fierce debate in parliament the proposal was finally approved but with a significant change in the status of the six villages. They were now to become part of the Dutch-speaking province of Limburg. Still with me?
Unrest spills over into violence
Understandably, this switch from Liège to Limburg was poorly received by a large number of the local population because of the region’s proximity and economic dependence on Liège, apart from the fact that there were now more French speakers than Dutch speakers in the municipality. Francophones were quite vociferous in their campaigns to return the region to the province of Liège.
The unrest rumbled fairly quietly on until 1977 when the six small villages were merged into the present-day municipality of Voeren. Virtually overnight, opposing Francophone and Flemish politicians could now organise themselves much more effectively as there was one instead of six municipal councils.
Suddenly Voeren became a political and linguistic battleground between the Francophone Retour à Liège (Return to Liège) party and the Flemish Voerbelangen (Voeren’s Best Interests) party. Gangs roamed the streets, defacing place-name signs, and in 1979 violence finally erupted.
On 21 October, what was supposed to be a peaceful march through ’s-Gravenvoeren degenerated into a pitched battle between demonstrators and the police. The centre of the village was sealed, but the demonstrators managed to get in through the woods. Despite a state of emergency, some 70 people occupied the local government offices and pelted the police with empty champagne bottles. The police replied with tear gas. Dozens of people were seriously injured. Only after hours of negotiation did the demonstrators withdraw, thereby restoring a measure of peace.
The national government falls!
It wasn’t to last. In 1983 the Francophone José Happart was installed as mayor of Voeren. The main problem was that he was a French-speaker and yet mayor of a Flemish municipality. Furthermore, he couldn’t speak Dutch, and refused to take a Dutch language test. Happart was dismissed. An appeal against his dismissal was successful, but the constitutional question dragged on for years. Amazingly, on October 19, 1987, the issues surrounding Happart caused the Belgian national government to fall.
The following year, concessions to the Francophone inhabitants were made and the powers of the provincial government of Limburg were curtailed. The municipality became more autonomous, and the government of Wallonia was allowed to build facilities for Francophones in Voeren.
The Flemish refused to lie down without a further struggle. In the 1994 municipal elections the Voerbelangen party made gains. The following year mayor Happart was forced to leave office. Furthermore, a national court of arbitration declared some of the 1988 concessions, such as the Walloon building rights, unconstitutional.
A further twist occurred in 1999 when EU nationals were given suffrage at the municipal level. This factor was decisive in the 2000 municipal elections because of the high number of Dutch citizens living in Voeren (about 20% of the total population). Voerbelangen won a majority of 53% of the votes and 8 out of 15 local council seats. In 2006 they made further gains. These days a kind of uneasy truce seems to have been settled over Voeren.
Still well worth a visit
Despite all its troubles, Voeren is an attractive rural area of Belgium that is well worth visiting. Its small villages and traditional farmhouses are set in rolling hills, orchards, fields, woods and nature reserves. There are plenty of hotels, B&Bs, hostels and camp sites available in the area.
Also surprising, considering its rural location, is the huge number of village festivals and events taking place in Voeren. The reason is simple, and is a heritage of the tug-of-war. Many Francophone and Flemish groups are still divided, and therefore organise totally separate events!
A good first port of call is the Voeren Regional Visitor’s Centre, Pley 13, s-Gravenvoeren, which is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It includes a cartographical exhibition which traces the history of Voeren back to 3500 B.C. Its nature exhibition describes everything you need to know about the region’s geology, fauna, flora, culture, traditions and regional products. The centre has friendly staff and a wealth of tourist documentation available, covering walking and cycling routes, accommodation possibilities, and interesting places to visit in the region. These include vineyards, wine cellars, breweries, a mining museum, beekeeping exhibitions and fish farms.
The Val-Dieu Brewery
And of course, you won’t have to go far to find a local brewery. In this case it’s the Val-Dieu brewery in Aubel. It makes three main beers:
- A “blonde beer”, slightly perfumed, 6° alcohol.
- A “brown beer” of scented malt with a coffee-chocolate taste, 8° alcohol.
- A “triple” blonde, slightly spiced with a fine balance between malt and hops, bitter and sweet, 9° alcohol.
The abbey of Val-Dieu was built in 1216 by Cistercian monks, who are of course well-known for their brewing skills. The Val-Dieu beers are apparently still made (approximately) according to the old monks’ recipes, but in 1997 the brewery was completely modernised. It’s well worth a visit. A multilingual guide can show you around for 6 EUR per person, and of course you can taste a glass or two. Prior booking is essential.