BERNARD DAELEMANS, FLEMISH NATIONALIST AND FRIEND OF THE BASQUES: “Language is the driving force behind flemish nationalism”

Argazkia: Naziogintza

Bernard Daelemans (Mechelen, 1966) is a language teacher in Brussels. He is also a member of the Executive Board of the VLAAMSE VOLKSBEWEGING popular movement, as well as being the editor-in-chief of the periodical Meervoud. He has been familiar with the Basque Country for a long time, and holds many friends among us. He has visited our country 35 times during the last 30 years, with the latest time being during the Basque Homeland Day in Gernika. We hold an interview with him in Azpeitia.

Bernard, when I familiarized with your People, it brought my attention that you are not a isolated case, many Flemish nationalists have always held close and special ties with the Basque Country. Impossible to forget that well-known picture showing Willy Kuijpers with the Basque flag in Gernika during Franco’s dictatorship, impossible also to forget that big friend of the Basques, Walter Luyten. By contrast, I should confess not without certain embarrassment that overall we know little about Flanders. Am I right?

It holds true that the Flemish nationalist movement has scrutinized the Basque Country closer than the other way round. I got myself interested in the Basque Country during the mid-80s by means of the periodical Meervoud; it provided ample room to stateless nations over Europe, including the Basque nation. During that period, the Basque Country brought the attention of many Flemish nationalists.

When I first visited the Basque Country, it took me by surprise the fact that so little was known on the situation in Flanders. Many Basque nationalists here, for example, knew little of the sociolinguistic situation lived by our people, and they were surprised when I told them that in Flanders the prevailing language was Flemish, while French remained subordinate. In comparison, nowadays I think you know us better than before.

In my opinion, a wide range of Basque nationalists did not regard Flanders as an attractive option for ideological reasons, since altogether Flemish nationalism remains at odds with far-left ideology so entrenched in a sector of Basque nationalism.

Taking advantage of the privileged position distance provides and the deep insight you hold into our people, how do you perceive the present-day political situation in the Basque Country?

On the economic side, as far as I see it the management of the Basque Community government has not been bad, i.e. your economic standing is far better than that of Spain, and you have tackled with the fallout of the crisis better than the Spanish. To a large extent, that should be put down to your fiscal autonomy. You cannot play down that factor. Both Catalans and we would very much welcome the fiscal sovereignty held by you in the Southern Basque Country.

Now when it comes to the political side, the Basque Community government has not virtually made any advance on national matters, so no wonder if pro-independence advocates get upset. I think that your officials are just waiting for an end to the Catalan process so that they can take a political move in one direction or the other. I also think a solution to the consequences of the armed conflict is gridlocked, and that halts any steps towards Basque independence.

Let’s talk about Flanders now. Your brand of nationalism has always been very attached to language. If I am right, Flemish nationalists raised linguistic demands before proper political demands. Is it possible to understand Flemish nationalism without the linguistic element?

No. Language is the pivotal factor within Flemish nationalism. Language has been the driving force behind our nationalism.

Dutch (Flemish is a Dutch dialect) has provided the Flemish people with an identity, it remains its paramount feature. A French speaking Flemish is lame, someone who is not to be held as a proper Flemish.

When the state of Belgium was established in the 19th century, the Flemish elites spoke French to a large extent. Fortunately, a number of intellectuals did a great job providing our language with prestige. The new state operated in French, and the language of the common people, Dutch, was sidelined. The linguistic conflict erupted early on, and during the early 20th century it only intensified; the 1920s saw the emergence of the first linguistic acts that over time would outline the present-day linguistic territoriality. It should be noted that territoriality was established not along the lines of historical criteria but linguistic criteria, e.g. the county of Brabant was divided into two areas.

Your attachment to language is well-known, paradigmatic for many stateless European nations like us. I recall the story told me quite long ago by a Flemish nationalist. It went that in World War I a vast number of Flemish soldiers perished in war fields because they could not understand their French-speaking superiors’ commands. These grim events prompted the emergence of Flemish nationalism…

Indeed. In World War I most of the army officials among us spoke in French, while the rank-and-file showed a Flemish make-up, meaning that the language of the commanders was French, while that of the subordinates was Dutch. The French speaking officials showed a profound contempt towards our language and our speakers, committing horrific offences. Then, to fight all that, the first Flemish political party was founded, the FRONTPARTIJ, the ‘Front Party’.

The consequences of the war were traumatic for many Flemish, but it crystallized in the arousal of national awareness, as well as the establishment of a party fighting for the rights of the Flemish.

Interestingly, something similar took place in the Northern Basque Country with the Basque soldiers recruited for World War I, the so-called “Morts pour la Patrie”, while in that case the harrowing events did not stir up Basque nationalism, but a French sentiment… It is a peculiarity.

I am not very familiar with the circumstances of the Basques, but I would just say that political realities of France and Belgium diverge. In Belgium, the Flemish make up a majority, while in France the Basques are very few in numbers, so making it easier to Frenchify the Basques as compared to the Flemish.

The severe policies pursued by French Jacobinism and centralism are not to be overlooked when it comes to studying that phenomenon.

From an outsider’s point of view, it looks as if in Belgium you Flemish and Wallonians live ignoring each other, you the Flemish live in Dutch, with full cultural and linguistic sovereignty, your own media, political parties, powers, etc. Brussels may be the only exception to the rule….

Exactly. There is little interaction between both linguistic communities in Belgium, we are turning our back to each other, for example, the Flemish do not watch French language (Wallonian) television, less so the Wallonians our television, and it should be noted, they especially watch French channels.

While we keep few relations, we are always inclined to speak in French when interacting with Wallonians, but not the other way round, take for instance the Flemish schools, where French remains the first foreign language, while in Wallonian educational institutions English ranks first in foreign language options, and not Dutch. There is no reciprocity.

A friend of mine told me long ago that “were it not for Brussels, Belgium as a state would have long split in two”. Brussels is an undisputed historic part of Flanders, but it is nowadays profoundly Francophone. How is Brussels putting an obstacle to establish a Flanders Republic? Have you ever felt tempted to create a Flemish state without Brussels?

Brussels is a linguistic exception in Flanders. The city was Frenchified early on at the turn of the 20th century, since the big bourgeoisie and the elites were Francophone. By contrast, that did not happen in other Flemish big cities like Antwerp or Ghent, home also to French speaking elites.

Brussels’ shows a bilingual status, but that theoretical bilingualism often fails to crystallize, and the linguistic rights of us the Flemish are violated. (It is worth remembering that roughly a 10 % of Brussels inhabitants are Dutch speaking.)

In this case, the identification of nation and language throws us into a delicate position. Brussels is no doubt the capital city of Flanders, and Brussels citizens are Flemish who speak French, but admittedly some Flemish do not agree, and do not hold Brussels in high esteem at all.

It holds true that were it not for Brussels Belgium would have long vanished. Brussels is a big issue for us. Officially, no Flemish nationalist renounces to Brussels, but some nationalists of little patience who long for a Flanders Republic as soon as possible are willing to create a state without Brussels. I reject those ideas, and think that a solution for Brussels will be forthcoming in our future state.

Disputes between the Flemish and Wallonians are frequently ignited by the linguistic issue. For example, the French speakers have called into question the linguistic status held by the Flemish towns surrounding Brussels for many years. The linguistic disputes flaring across the region Fourons-Voeren have also frequently made their way to the media. How is that situation nowadays? Have they reached a linguistic peace? What are the pending issues according to the Flemish nationalists?

The present-day linguistic conflict is confined to the Flemish towns surrounding Brussels. The rapid growth of Brussels has attracted many immigrants to the municipalities around the city, they are civil servants who work in European institutions, and they have added massively to the increase in the number of French speakers. That is a matter of serious concern for us. Those municipalities were Dutch speaking communities, and they were classified as such according to the linguistic territoriality criteria of Belgium. However, when it comes to the right of vote, the French speakers have managed to include these municipalities in the Brussels area. They have, so to say, stripped Flanders of one of its parts, and have included it in the Brussels area.

Flanders can boast a Parliament of its own since 1971. What are the powers of that Parliament? Are these powers exclusive? What powers are the Flemish nationalists missing?

We hold exclusive powers in Education, Culture, Health and Infrastructures, except for the railway network. We also have autonomy in respect of Foreign Affairs, for example, the Flemish Government is entitled to sign international treaties, but we lack a fiscal sovereignty like that enjoyed by the Southern Basque Country.

The representation of Flemish nationalist parties in the parliament of Belgium is approximately 40%, shared by the centre-right N-VA (the main party) and the far-right Vlaams Belang. With regards to the political status of Flanders, what is the option of these parties? Additionally, N-VA is a member of Belgium’s coalition government, so how does that constrain pro-independence aspirations?

These two parties you have cited are pro-independence parties, that is clear in their statutes.

However, N-VA advocates for a confederate state in the short run. They think that in a confederate state the Flemish nation would operate on a large sovereign basis. Of course, we the pro-independence advocates are not happy with that.

At the moment of joining the government of Belgium, the N-VA sidelined its pro-independence and confederation demands. I am afraid that in the next elections due in 2019 that could transfer votes to the Vlaams Belang, which may open a scenario of great concern.

As in other stateless nations in Europe, Flanders is following with close attention the pro-independence process in Catalonia. We know you keep close relations with the parties and institutions there. In your opinion, how could the emergence of a new Catalan state in Western Europe affect Flanders and Basque Country?

The Catalan process has aroused a strong interest. The group VLAAMS VOLKSBEWEGING holds ties with Catalan pro-independence organizations.

Belgium’s official media find this topic unsettling, so they prefer to hide related information. They think that Catalonia could be a very dangerous precedent in that it could “contaminate” the Flemish nation.

Anyway, both for you and us, it is a fantastic opportunity; the latest independence surge went about 30 years ago, taking place in Central and Eastern Europe. A successfully completed independence process in Western Europe would greatly encourage Flanders and Basque Country.

Interview conducted by NAZIOGINTZA