Belgium is a delightful country. But it does throw up some interesting questions. 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 in the area called the Voerstreek, where I was walking last week. It’s a delightful, peaceful, rural area, typified by lush valleys, rich orchards, gently undulating hills, meandering footpaths and picturesque villages.
“What? How? Why?”
OK, here we go with a bit of history. Voeren belongs to Flanders; it’s part of the Flemish province of Limburg. However, it’s not actually physically connected to the rest of Limburg. It’s floating about 30 kilometres away from – and so completely isolated from – the rest of Limburg! It’s actually surrounded by the Netherlands and Wallonia, as you can see in this map. (Just to make it more complicated: Voeren is called Fourons in French!)
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.
Belgian politics … !
It all started in 1932 when new linguistic laws were introduced in Belgium. These 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 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: despite the French-speaking majority, but that French-speaking inhabitants were 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!
Still with me?
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.
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 1979, what was supposed to be a peaceful march through ’s-Gravenvoeren degenerated into a pitched battle between demonstrators and the police.
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. However, an appeal against his dismissal was successful, but 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.
An uneasy truce
A further twist occurred in 1999 when EU nationals were given voting rights. This factor was decisive in the 2000 municipal elections because of the high number of Dutch (i.e. from the Netherlands) 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, which currently stands at 10 out of 15.
These days a kind of uneasy truce seems to have been settled over Voeren.
Phew! Quite a story for such a small bit of land.
However, don’t be alarmed. Despite its tumultuous history, Voeren is a delight to visit!