North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Language and Borders

Our world of nation states is full of examples where languages and borders do not match up. In Africa, the legacy of European colonialism has left a trail of tensions and headaches. In India, an unwieldy democracy lumbers along. In China, language and the ethnic groups that consider them their mother tongue co-exist reasonably well if only because government policies forcefully make it work. Even in Canada, the English speaking provinces and French speaking Quebec periodically have their issues.

Today, however, one of the longest lasting delays (459 days) in establishing a government due to differences in parties due to language, is found in Belgium. A small country in Northern Europe, 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings have long been in conflict with the 5 million Francophones living in southern Wallonia and Brussels. There has been despair whether this country could even hold together.

The stark linguistic divides in Belgium

A "final" meeting between 8 parties, but principally divided along the line of Flemish-Franco populations, occurred today and a thorny resolution over how the bilingual central Brussels district would be addressed was hammered out. The country's king, Albert II, even rushed back to the country from southern France ahead of that meeting.

Queen Paola and King Albert II of Belgium

The country has been run by a caretaker government since elections in June 2010, due to a deadlock in trying to form a coalition. The Dutch-speaking Flemish handed the most votes in the June 2010 election to the Flemish N-VA party, which takes the position that Flanders should be more autonomous if not independent.

The solution? The one electoral district around the capital that always straddled that north/south line had taken advantage of being a "swing" voting block, allowing Francophone Brussels politicians in fact to run most of the show. Under the agreement, the district will be largely split along linguistic lines. (Not a particularly breathtaking breakthrough after 14 months of effort ...)

The delay in establishing a new government had begun to downgrade the economic rating of the country (sound familiar?) Standard & Poor's had a negative outlook on the country's debt rating in place since December 2010, while Fitch Ratings took the outlook down to negative in early March 2011. There are apparently still many economic and social issues to be hammered out by the parties, but the breakthrough over the language divide was the key one.

The major cities of Belgium, including the world famous Brussels as its capital

Behind the disagreement, lies one large irony for this small European country of 11 million. Brussels, Belgium's capitol, is home to most of the institutions of the European Union, including the European Parliament - the legislative chamber of the European Union (EU) - 27 states with a variety of languages and cultures.

The EU presence consists of a number of buildings, primarily the oldest, the Paul-Henri Spaak building, which houses the debating chamber and the President's offices, along with the Altiero Spinelli building which is the largest. The buildings are located in the European quarter in the east of Brussels. The complex is not the official seat of Parliament, which is in Strasbourg, France, but as most of the other institutions of the European Union are in Brussels, Parliament built the Brussels complex in order to be closer to their activities. A majority of the Parliament's work is now geared to its Brussels site

The Paul-Henri building

Let's hope this little country gets it's act together perhaps as an example to many other larger nations with deep internal rifts. In the meantime, what are two famous foods of the country?

Belgian waffles!



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