Friday, July 31, 2009

When Walloons and Flemings Collide

. Friday, July 31, 2009

I know very little about Belgium, other than the fact that every time I learn something new about the place it blows my mind. For example, its government is described by Wikipedia as a "federal parliamentary representative democratic constitutional monarchy" (whew!). The largest political issue is the festering fight for linguistic supremacy between the French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings that has led to large and growing sentiment that the country should just split in two. This, of course, would be a black eye for the E.U. (whose headquarters is of course in Brussels) but is mostly just weird: it's got to be the quaintest civil "war" in world history.

Speaking of quaint, Belgium also hosts one of the world's most idyllic cities: Bruges, the capital of Flanders. About which Wikipedia notes that "Bruges is known for its lace" and "several beers are named after Bruges". But I know Bruges best as the setting for the 2008 film In Bruges, which contains one of the best acting performances of the past five years (Ralph Fiennes as Harry Waters).

What does this have to do with anything? Nothing much, except as an excuse to link to this report from Ingrid Robeyns at Crooked Timber:

According to the Dutch-language Belgian newspaper De Standaard, Belgian politicians have decided that the best qualified candidate for the position to lead the Belgian National Office for Pensions will not be appointed. The reason? He is Dutch-speaking, and it was decided that appointing him would bring the balance of francophone versus Dutch speaking high office public servants in danger.

Strictly speaking this is not the case, since the official parity rule (that the positions of General Director are 50/50 split between the Flemish and francophone language groups) is respected. But apparently if one takes the Adjunct-General Directors of all Belgian Departments and Offices into account, a francophone needs to be appointed in order to have a 50/50 balance at these two levels taken together.

The obvious solution would be to require all top-level public officials to be bilingual, as private firms in Belgium tend to do too; but apparently a proposal to that effect in a major set of federal reforms in 2000 didn’t pass.

But the best part is this:

No francophone candidate passed the selection procedures, so the solution one has chosen for is to start searching again, and only francophone candidates can apply.

Again: quaintest civil controversy ever.

A few years back, Robeyns had a long (but instructive) background post on the Belgian political crisis here. Well worth reading.


When Walloons and Flemings Collide




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