7. Why do the Flemish people hold so strongly to the monolingualism in the Vlaamse Rand?

The Vlaamse Rand around Brussels is under pressure. This is due to the pressure of urbanisation, but also to the fact that a growing number of foreign speakers are coming to live in the Rand. As a result, many residents and local authorities see the rural and Dutch-language character of their municipality disappearing. The municipalities in the Vlaamse Rand are trying to keep this sociological evolution under control by encouraging foreign speakers to learn Dutch and by giving young Dutch residents from the municipality the opportunity to find affordable housing

THE VLAAMSE RAND

Nineteen Flemish municipalities around Brussels belong to the Vlaamse Rand. These include all municipalities bordering the Brussels-Capital Region or one of the municipalities with facilities. The six municipalities with facilities belong to this group of 19.

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

Recently, more and more French speakers and foreign speakers have come to live in Flanders, especially in the green belt around Brussels. Due to Brussels’ important role in Europe and the international community, an increasing number of foreign speakers are taking up their residence in the Vlaamse Rand as well. As a result, there is an important French-speaking minority in most municipalities around Brussels. In some municipalities the foreign-speaking residents are even in the majority. The figures speak for themselves: one in five residents of the 19 Flemish municipalities around Brussels is estimated to be of foreign origin. This amounts to 30 per cent in the six municipalities with facilities. This trend is continuing. Currently, only 40 per cent of the families with newborn children speak Dutch as their first language at home. This was concluded by researchers from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in 2010.

The municipalities and the Flemish authorities do not just want to sit by and watch this progressing Frenchification. For this reason, they are taking measures to protect the Dutch-language character of the region. A lot of local politicians in the Vlaamse Rand try to reinforce the Dutch-language nature of their municipality, for example by encouraging the use of Dutch (and often also by discouraging the use of other languages). The local authorities are in any case obliged to use Dutch, except in the municipalities with facilities. Traders too are often encouraged to use the language of the area and, in this way, to stimulate foreign speakers to learn it. In many municipalities in the Vlaamse Rand local politicians and action groups try to have the Dutch language prevail in the streets, for instance by encouraging new traders to choose a Dutch name and to only advertise in Dutch. Still, these often informal requests to local traders are not as far-reaching as legislation in Quebec, for instance.

There are a number of exceptions in which municipalities in Flanders are allowed to use other languages. Tourist centres, for instance, can provide their information in at least the three national languages. Specific regulations apply to Brussels Airport in Zaventem (a Flemish municipality without facilities). For instance, messages on screens and signs in the departure hall may be in Dutch, French, German and English.

POLITICAL EVOLUTION

Naturally, the rising number of foreign speakers in the municipalities in the Vlaamse Rand has an impact on the sociological composition of these municipalities. In addition, the many international newcomers are often wealthy, which causes the prices of building lots and houses in the Rand around Brussels to increase substantially. Young people who grew up there often have insufficient means to continue to live in their municipality and are forced to move elsewhere. That is why many local authorities and the Flemish authorities are introducing measures to enable these young people to continue to live in the municipality where they grew up.

The growing number of foreign speakers in the municipalities around Brussels changed not only the sociological character of these municipalities, but also their political nature. More and more French speakers are elected to the municipal councils. And then there is also the infamous electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV).

By incorporating Brussels and the 35 Flemish municipalities of the Halle-Vilvoorde district (including the six municipalities with facilities) into the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, French-speaking inhabitants can vote for French-speaking candidates from Brussels in the elections for the House of Representatives, the Senate and the European Parliament. That is why BHV is the odd one out. The electoral district covers two different language areas: both the bilingual area of Brussels and the monolingual Dutch language area. As a result, French speakers living in Gooik or Zemst, for instance, can also vote for French-speaking lists and candidates in Brussels. Conversely, Dutch speakers in Waterloo, for instance, cannot vote for Flemish candidates in Brussels.

From a Flemish perspective this creates the false impression that these Flemish municipalities belong to the Brussels-Capital Region and will therefore become bilingual. To many Flemish politicians this is a stumbling block because it discourages the integration of foreign speakers in their region and accelerates Frenchification. As a result, the division of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde has for years now been the central focus of the political discussions between Dutch speakers and French speakers, especially after the Constitutional Court ruled that this situation was unconstitutional.

Source: Living in Translation is written by VRT journalist Michaël Van Droogenbroeck. The brochure is an initiative of the not-for-profit organisation De Rand. See also www.livingintranslation.be.