Location Belgium Belgium

Why is Belgium managing the recent fractures so badly?

David Van Reybrouck

Few countries in the European Union have such a large gap between native students and those of foreign origin, than Belgium does. There are few countries in the European Union where people of immigrant background  (called “allochtones”, allochthonous) have as much trouble finding work. No other European country has provided so many fighters to Syria as Belgium. Didn’t we know this?

Yes, we knew. For over ten years, sociologists have warned that the education of allochthonous is in trouble. Although the students of  Belgian origin rank well in international tests, the gap that separates them from children and young people from immigrant families is only widening.

Twenty-eight percent of them leave school without having obtained a high school diploma. At the age of 17, 68% of them repeated a year at least once (figures from francophone education).Nowhere else in Europe, is the segregation of ‘white’ pupil’s performance and that of allochthonous students as high as in Belgium.

In Brussels, immigrant neighborhoods, largely impoverished, are counted among the poorest municipalities in Belgium. He who is born into a family of immigrants would do better to ignore the statistics. They will show him that his generation will not have many more skills than that of his parents. That his opportunities on the labour market will be considerably smaller than those of his contemporaries: if average unemployment is around 30%, that of young people is 40%, and in some districts, it even reaches 50% or 60%.

Such percentages suggest that this is not the result of a lack of determination, but that there exist structures against which the individual toils and struggles to compete. And so if, almost by chance, he happened to get a job, these statistics prove that one out of two people coming from immigration will have to settle for low-wage and precarious work. Belgian sociologists talk these days in terms of “ethnostratification”: your origin defines in which segment of the labour market you will land.

Unless, of course, you opt for a more dangerous existence. Crime proliferates in these neighbourhoods. Increasingly, it becomes a springboard to religiously inspired violence. The Belgian professor Rik Coolsaet analyzed the reasons of the Belgian fighters in Syria; he concluded that the religious dimension is often incidental. He tends to support the thesis that it is not a question so much of “radicalized Muslims” than of “Islamized radicals.”

In many cases, religious radicalization is not the fruit of a process that lasts months or years, but a few weeks at most. Young people who engage in the ranks of the Islamic State are more familiar with the techniques of car theft than the Koran.

A de facto apartheid

Of course, we must consider the religious, ethnic and cultural aspects. And let us do it, because the figures on education, labour, mobility, housing are ruthless: immigrants living in Brussels live in a different Belgium than the rest of the country. Not in legislation, but in practice: structural segregation, parallel universes, the factual apartheid are all undeniable. And that means: different standards and different values. And in some cases, a total slippage.

How did we come to this? All the same it’s not the first time that Belgium has been faced with such a fracture. In 1830, the country gained its independence thanks to an unlikely coalition of miserables, bourgeois, aristocrats, priests, Freemasons, peasants and workers who all rejected Dutch rule. “Unity makes strength”, proclaimed their coat of arms.

But all this quickly proved to be more a dream than a reality. For as soon as the common enemy, the Dutch, was pushed back, colossal differences manifested themselves. Conflicts between workers and bosses flared after 1850. For longer than a century there opened a deep abyss between Catholics and liberals, which concerned the relationship between church and state and the place of religion in society. And between the Flemish and the Walloons, the fight for linguistic, cultural and political rights has been raging since the nineteenth century.

How was it possible to defuse these enormous tensions? Sociologist Luc Huyse showed that Belgian politics has often tried to address these major historical cracks by pacification. The struggle between workers and capitalists was negotiated by the establishment of social legislature and the universal right to vote (in 1918 for men, in 1948 for women).

Great historical flaws

Old sectarian strifes between Catholics and freethinkers, a rift that has its roots in the eighteenth century, were essentially regulated by the School Pact of 1958, which made ​​sure that every confession has its subsidized school system. As for the tensions between Flemings and Walloons, efforts have been made ​​since the 1960s to manage them by establishing a linguistic border and by implementing a series of State reforms which transfer the powers of unitary Belgium to the Federated States.

But if Belgium has been so busy with its great historical rifts, why has it managed the recent tensions so badly? The reasons are disarmingly simple: precisely because it is focused on appeasing these old grudges. Because it is focused on the way in which power and means were distributed along these old faultlines, watching with the eyes of Argus who received what and ignoring new conflicts, so urgent and oppressive as they are. As if, before a volcano ready to explode, the world was thoughtfully examining ancient rock strata.

It is true that the faultline between Catholics and liberals is clogged, but today the dual school system shares responsibility for the plight of education among immigrants.

Catholic schools for Catholic students? Not really: Belgium has largely secularized in the last forty years. Intermingling, then? Far from it: in cities like Brussels and Antwerp, Catholic schools disproportionately welcome “white” students, children of immigration are overrepresented in state secular education.

Immigrants are the first victims

And do not forget the most famous fault lines, that between the Flemish and the Walloons. The past decades, this country has spent far more time, money and energy on state reforms than on measures promoting social cohesion.

Meanwhile, and after six very advanced state reforms, we can boast of six parliaments, six governments, 47 ministers and six secretaries of state, all for a country which can be traversed by car in two hours.The Brussels Capital Region has nineteen cities, six police corps and a government that oversees it all, a Parliament and two mini-parliaments, one for Flemings, one for the Walloons and the icing on the cake, a coordinating body which has the grotesque name of “Common Community Commission.”

During the period of eighteen months during which Belgium has been without a government, foreign journalists have often told me while laughing, how delicious this absurd proof was that a country can function without a government team.

I always understood this remark as an inappropriate joke. For the first victims of this struggle between French-speakers and Dutch-speakers were individuals who could not identify with either of these two groups: immigrants in the impoverished towns of the country. The endless government negotiations were consolidating them with the idea that the Belgian policy was not their responsibility or their interest.

And if we could have lead effectively, in that time? If we had for longer shown willing to defuse the explosive tensions already palpable in society? If the fundamental inequality in education and the labour market had been denounced? This country must finally learn not to limit itself to plugging loopholes between population groups that existed here in 1830, but also with groups who arrived after 1960.






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