In the years of football championships, everyone in Belgium rallies behind their national football team, the Red Devils. Suddenly everybody, regardless of region, language, or politics, is not just Belgian, but a Belgian. The Belgians expressed a collective schadenfreude after the French were defeated in the round of sixteen. For a few weeks to months, Jules Destrée’s early 20th century adage of ‘Il n’y a pas des Belges’ (There are no Belgians) is outdated and inapplicable, and the entire nation stands as one.
Once the championships are over, however, or once their national team has been knocked out, all Belgians will overnight turn back into Flemish, Walloons, and Bruxellois, and the talk of the day will be focused on all that causes disunity in the Kingdom.
All of them partake in the debate, except for a small group, living in a couple of remote villages and towns in the far east of the Kingdom. Here one of Europe’s ‘best protected minorities’, the German-Speaking Community of Belgium (GSC), remains the last outpost of true Belgians.
That is, at least, the conclusion that Frank Asbrock and Alain Van Hiel draw in their article in Psychologica Belgica, and how they explained their research to the VRT. Their findings are supported by the Statistics Division of the GSC: according to their research, 97% of the GSC have indicated that they feel a ‘connection with Belgium’; 95% indicate that they feel a connection with the GSC, and 94% that they feel a connection with both. Nearly 40% of the GSC identify not the GSC, not Belgium, but ‘Eastern Belgium’ as their homeland.
It may at first come as a bit of a mystery: why does this small community, far from the centre of Belgium, speaking a minority language, and culturally focused on Germany, identify with Belgium, whilst the rest of Belgium is stuck in a Dutch-speaking versus French-speaking conflict?
Perhaps the answer has already been given: as mentioned above, the community is possibly the best-protected minority of Europe. Under the system of Belgium federalism, it is one of three of Belgium’s communities, meaning the three federative states of Belgium based on language and culture, and responsible for areas related to the individual such as education, sport and healthcare (as opposed to the three regions, which have territorial competencies, such as agriculture, nature, and housing). As such, it has its own parliament and government that are equally as important, powerful and influential as the Flemish, Walloon, Brussels, French-speaking and federal governments (the Dutch-speaking institutions are merged together with the Flemish ones), with its own prime minister and its own legislative powers over its constitutional competencies and whichever competencies the Walloon government has delegated to it. They send one delegate to the Belgian Senate, and with just over 51,000 voters they are also the smallest constituency to send their own MEP to the European Parliament.
They are constitutionally protected with a relatively high-level of self-governance and autonomy. The reason that this community of roughly 70,000 inhabitants is able to be so autonomous can be found in the peculiarity of its country : as German speakers in Belgium, they have rights and privileges that they would not have had, if they were still part of Germany. In that case, they would have constituted some peripheral municipalities in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate. Instead, their autonomy, their political culture and their relative importance and influence all stem from being Belgian, which allows them to be more impactful than they otherwise would have been. This ability of having a stronger voice in the decision-making process is likely what fosters their identification with Belgium.
So whenever the championships are not ongoing, and it seems like Belgium is once again tearing itself apart at the seams due to inter-communitarian conflict between the Dutch-speakers and the francophones, remember that even in the darkest and most conflictual hours of the Kingdom, somewhere in the country’s periphery can be found a small group of German-speaking villages that are more than glad to be Belgians.
The last true Belgians speak German.