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The regional autonomy step

Belgium is embarking on a historic course aimed at changing the structure of this ethnically divided state into a federated from of government granting more autonomy to its feuding regions.

So far without final resolution, the Belgian Parliament has been poring over legislation formalizing the linguistic and political differences between the country's Flemings and Walloons.

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Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Wallons hope that by achieving more control over their respective communities they will be able to live together better than they have in the past in this kingdom that was created for them 150 years ago.

Commenting on these efforts to change the existing governmental structure, Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens remarked recently that "the state reform we are working on in this country constitutes a complement to our liberty and no more or less than an enlargement of our democratic ideals. This necessary reform, which responds as much to political reality as to the hopes of our citizens, will enable us to avoid the risk of becoming a schizophrenic Belgium."

This division between its two main linguistic groups has come to play an increasingly important role in the social economic, and political fabric of the small central European country. The split is visible in the street and road signs that tell the traveler where he is with Flemish, French, or bilingual inscriptions, depending on the regional and local administration.

The schism has spread its influence into virtually all aspects of public life from schools to politics, occasionally erupting into violence. This perennial crisis is based on the rivalry between the 6 million Flemings in the north of the country and the 4 million Walloons in the south and Brussels. They were thrust together because of their common Roman Catholic religion upon independence from the Netherlands in 1830.

The country was at first economically and culturally dominated by Wallonia, where the industrial revolution had produced thriving coal and steel industries. But following the decline of these industries and the modernization of the Flanders economy this century, the economic and political balance of the country shifted dramatically.

The Flemish surge resulted in clashes and pressure for change in the late 1960s. Strife between the linguistic families brought the country face to face with its divided destiny and resulted in agreement from both camps for a decentralization of the country and enlarged powers for each of the three main regions -- Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels.

While there is general agreement on the wisdom of this course, there have been endless political squabbles in the past decade about the details, and especially the status of Brussels. The capital, although geographically located in Flanders, is dominated by French speakers. But Flemings are resisting attempts to give it the same autonomous status for fear that it would team with Wallonia and enable French speakers to exercise excessive power.

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Politicians dealing with the issue have known for a decade that they would have to find the right formula to defuse this powder keg. Yet because of the intensity of the conflict, government after government has failed.

The country has had 24 governments since World War II, with only two serving out their full four-year terms. The current coalition of Social Christian and Socialist parties from both Flanders and wallonia, headed by Flemish Social Christian Prime Minister Martens, has been repeatedly buffeted by the problem. It is considered an almost last-ditch attempt to deal with the thorny issue. This government's downfall would undoubtedly mean months of uncertainty before a new coalition could be formed. That's because no single party in this fragmented political spectrum is likely to obtain a parliamentary majority. Any party seeking to govern is bound to seek an alliance with forces from the other ethnic region.

The Martens governmenths existence has been made more difficult by the shadow and influence cast by his predecessor, Leo Tindemans, also a Flemish Social Christian. Mr. Tindemans resigned in October 1978 after a falling out with leaders of the other coalition parties over their previous accord on this subject. Since then, he has sought to build a personal power base that extends beyond his native Antwerp into Brussels and even Wallonia. With the impresive voter support he obtained in the last parliamentary election following his resignation, Mr. Tindemans has frequently challenged the attempts and solutions of the current challenged the attempts and solutions of the current government on the controversy.

Addressing the Parliament at the start of the debate in March on the new legislation, Mr. Tindemans observed: "We must follow the government, but not at any price."

What Mr. Tindemans and much of his and Martens's party regard as their price for acceptance of the regionalization plans is assurance that Flemings in Brussels will not be controlled by French speakers. French forces on the other hand are demanding full regional powers for Brussels and economic programs that they hope will lift Wallonia out of its depression.

Once voted by the Parliament, the legislation would lead to a four-year transition period during which regional assemblies and administrations would be established and the political forces would enter into another negotiation on the final powers of these institutions and the national government.

But if the past is any guide, the dialogue will continue at the same pitch which has marked the dispute for generations. Governments will probably continue to be made and broken over the issue.


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