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Flanders: Touchstone of Identity

Recerca | 25/03/2008

The case of Flanders.

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Flanders has increasing powers of regulation but demands more. Cultural integration rather than civil rights are stressed. Despite entry restrictions and relatively low numbers, xenophobia by locals and unresponsive immigrant attitudes, are on the rise.


The tensions between Flemish and Walloon communities permeate public life in Belgium, and the issue of immigration is not an exception. In fact, it gives rise to fundamental controversies. Flemish parties demand more leverage in order to preserve their cultural identity, given the previous historical ascendancy of Francophone Belgium. The present federal administration has power over access policies and naturalisation; Flanders is in charge of integration, including things like granting work permits and enforcing compulsory language tests. This situation does not seem to satisfy those involved.

Paradoxically enough, non-european immigration has never been as massive in Flanders as in other western countries. Up to the 1970s, most foreign work-force was of latin-mediterranean origin. New economic prosperity gradually brought up the numbers, and the authorities reacted imposing strict policies. Right now, only 5’4% of the population can be considered alien, and still a slight majority of these are of European origin.

Despite these relatively moderate figures, Flemish nationalism tends to be extremely wary about cultural intrusion. Immigrants in Brussels (officially neither in Flanders nor Wallonia, but sentimentally claimed by the Flemish) choose French overwhelmingly as their language of contact, and the sense of newcomers operating as potential allies of old foes is certainly a factor. That helps to explain the increase of movements like Vlaams Belang (25% in 2007), both pro-independence and strongly xenophobic. That also gives a clue about why newcomers comply with cultural rules whenever enforced, but often regard them with disaffection.

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