Today, Flanders (Dutch: Vlaanderen, French: Flandre or Flandres) is a nation and a region in western Europe and its inhabitants, the Flemish or Flemings, a people of over six million, living mainly in the northern part of Belgium. Its capital is Brussels, a city the Flemings share with the French-speaking Belgians. The principal language spoken and the official language in Flanders is Dutch, except for Brussels and for some municipalities on the border with Wallonia and Brussels and where French-speakers enjoy certain "language facilities". Small minorities speak French, Yiddish, Italian, Polish, Turkish, Berber, Arabic and other languages.
Historically, Flanders is an area in western-Europe, spread over what is now part of northern France (French-Flanders or "Frans-Vlaanderen" in Dutch), Belgium and south-west Netherlands ("Sealandic Flanders" or "Zeeuws-Vlaanderen" in Dutch). Ghent was the historic capital of the county of Flanders and Bruges the second city in the Middle Ages). The French city of Lille (Rijsel in Dutch) is the principal city of French Flanders.
Nowadays, "Flanders" is a part of the Kingdom of Belgium. It has achieved a high degree of autonomy. It has its own government, parliament and institutions, all based in Brussels. In its regional competencies, the Flemish Region sits alongside the Walloon Region and the Brussels-Capital Region; for the community competencies, the Flemish Community sits alongside the French and German communities.
During the 1970s the then-unitary government of Belgium started to devolve more of its powers to the French, Flemish and German speaking communities. At first, these communities obtained autonomy over cultural matters, but gradually three geographical regions were formed which became the constitutional parts of the Federal Kingdom of Belgium.
Upon being established by the Belgian legislature, the Flemish parliamentary assembly, the Flemish Parliament, united its regional and community institutions. As the Flemings also share 99% of their universities, media, cultural, scientific and sports organisations, the word Flanders primarily refers to the area where Flemings live, to the Flemish people (or "nation"), and, in a secondary sense, to its political institutions.
Flemish people live in either the Flemish Region (covering 13,522 km² and containing over 300 municipalities) or in the Brussels-Capital region. The Flemish area is divided into 5 provinces that form the Flemish region (as defined in the Belgian constitution) and Brussels where the Flemish speaking population has its own community institutions (alongside French-speaking one):
In Brussels, the Flemish government is also responsible for all community-legal matters (e.g. education and culture in Dutch). The Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie (in Dutch) is the Flemish council in the Brussels-Capital region for these matters.
The Dutch dialects spoken in Belgium are often referred together as Flemish (Vlaams in Dutch), although the standard language used in Flanders is the same as in the Netherlands, i.e. Dutch. Using Flemish to refer to dialectic language is also confusing as there are many different Flemish dialects that are sometimes mutually incomprehensible.
In Flanders, a strong political grassroots movement strives for greater autonomy for Flanders. It is called the Flemish movement. Within this movement, one can distinguish those who just want to improve current institutions (more federalism), those preferring a looser union with sovereign powers for Flanders (confederalism), and those favouring Flemish independence, thus complete sovereignty for Flanders. The latter are often called the separatist movement.
Flemish Culture, part of the wider European culture
Indeed, a distinctive Flemish literature as such does not exist. Books written by Flemings and by Dutchmen are read all over the Dutch-speaking areas. That most readers are able to distinguish the fine differences in vocabulary does not change that.
In a wider sense, Flemings read many books written in other languages: English (dominating scientific and professional literature), French, and to a much lesser extent Spanish, German, and other languages.
For students, the intellectual standard in Flanders is learning two or even three foreign languages. That openness, and the mainly Anglo-Saxon orientation is a rather recent phenomenon. Half a century ago, Flanders was heavily dominated by the French culture, which is now an honorable second. Proficiency in English greatly improved during that period, where proficiency in French decreased somewhat (according to certain research, less than the improvement in English). Proficiency in other languages increased and improved, although some employers complain about an seemingly eternal lack of sufficient proficiency in German.
Looking more closely, one notes some other typical cultural characteristics. Flemings have a greater respect for hierarchy then most Dutch, Englishmen and "Nordic" people. In this respect, Flemish culture is more of a Latin culture than an Anglo-Saxon/Germanic one. Related to this, political culture is more opaque, dominated by the main political parties and their wheeling, dealing and backroom agreements, and less transparant than Anglo-Saxon political life. This certainly has contributed to the extremely complex political institutions in Belgium.
In terms of intellectual discourse, Flemings appear more Anglo-Saxon, again preferring a down to earth, facts inspired (and sometimes boring) style. One might say the Flemings prefer a Cartesian discourse more than the contemporary discourse found in France.
Flemish political parties tend to be slightly more innovative. All new political parties during the last half century were founded in Flanders and most often in Antwerp: "Daensisme," progressive Christian-Democrats; Frontpartij & Volksunie, moderate Flemish; Agalev, alternative/Green; Vlaams-Blok: far-right; and ROSSEM, a short-lived anarchistic spark).
The somewhat more contesting nature of Flemish politics is probably related to the fact that initially, Flemings were massively discriminated against by the official Belgian institutions which had deliberatly chosen to use French exclusively in public life. Dutch was dominant in the Belgian population but nearly absent from the nobility and haute-bourgeoisie who dominated early political life (with its only 30,000 census-voters out of 3 million Belgians in 1830). Although the vast majority of discrimination has disappeared since then, the few remaining disparities (like the widespread discrimination against Flemings in medical urgency services in Brussels, recently acknowledged for the first time by a prominent French minister, Rudy Demotte) still have a clear influence on political life in Flanders.
The geographical region and former county of Flanders contains not only the two Belgian provinces but also the present-day French département of Nord, in parts of which there is still a Flemish-speaking minority, and the southern part of the Dutch province of Zeeland known as Zeeuws-Vlaanderen ("Sealandic Flanders"). The Artois area of today's French département of Pas-de-Calais was also a part until it became a separate county in 1237.
Thus defined, Flanders covers a total area of 12,500 km² with 5.2 million inhabitants since 2004, or 16,500 km² with 6.2 million inhabitants if Artois is included. During the later Middle Ages its trading towns (notably Ghent (Gent), Bruges (Brugge) and Ypres (Ieper) made it one of the most urbanised parts of Europe, weaving the wool of neighbouring lands into cloth for home consumption and export.
Increasingly powerful from the 12th century, the territory's autonomous urban communes were instrumental in defeating a French attempt at annexation (1300-1302), finally defeating the French in the Battle of the Golden Spurs (July 11, 1302), near Kortrijk. Flemish prosperity waned in the following century, however, owing to widespread European population decline following the Black Death of 1348, the disruption of trade during the Anglo-French Hundred Years' War (1338-1453), and increased English cloth production. Flemish weavers had gone over to Worstead and North Walsham in Norfolk in the 12th century and established the woollen industry.
Created in the year 862, the county of Flanders was divided when its western districts fell under French rule in the late 12th century. The remaining parts of Flanders came under the rule of the counts of neighbouring Hainaut in 1191. The entire area passed in 1384 to the dukes of Burgundy, in 1477 to the Habsburg dynasty and in 1556 to the kings of Spain. The western districts of Flanders came finally under French rule under successive treaties of 1659 (Artois), 1668 and 1678.
Spanish, Austrian and French Occupation
The period of Spanish rule was marked by the division of the Low Countries between the northern United Provinces and the southern Netherlands, approximating to today's Belgium and including most of Flanders. The southern Spanish half passed to the Austrian Habsburgs in 1714 as a reward for their acceptance of a Bourbon succession to the Spanish throne following the extinction of the Spanish Habsburg line.
Although arts remained for another century at an impressive level with Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640, returned to Antwerp at age 6), Flanders experienced a loss of its former economic and intellectual power under Spanish, Austrian and French rule, with heavy taxation and rigid imperial political control compounding the effects of industrial stagnation and Spanish-Dutch and Franco-Austrian conflict.
Conquered by revolutionary France in 1794 and annexed the following year as the départements of Lys and Scheldt, Flanders was attached to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 but became a part of the kingdom of Belgium in 1831 following the revolution of the previous year.
After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814 (confirmed the following year at the Battle of Waterloo near Brussels), sovereignty over the Southern Netherlands -- Belgium -- was given by the Congress of Vienna (1815) to the rulers of the Northern provinces of the "Low Countries". The Protestant King of the Netherlands, William I succeeded in rapidly starting the industrialisation of the Southern Netherlands, but failed to maintain good relations with the larger and rebellious Catholic provinces. The Belgian bourgeoisie was not only Catholic, as opposed to the Protestant north, but they also spoke French, instead of Dutch. Resentment grew both among Catholics and among the powerful liberal bourgeoisie.
In 1830, a street revolution in Brussels led to the splitting up of the two countries. Belgium was confirmed as an independent state by the London Conference of 1831, but deprived of the military strongholds of Maastricht and Givet (explaining those surprising indentations in the Belgian border) Sovereignty over Zeeuws Vlaanderen, south of the Scheldt river delta, was left with the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which closed this river for any sea traffic to and from Antwerp harbour until 1863.
Although the majority of the population of the newly formed Kingdom of Belgium was and is Dutch-speaking, French was imposed as the unique official language by its upper-class on administration, business, cultural and religious affairs. The Francofication of public life, started during the French occupation, was intensified in the early Belgian period. Ruled by a French-speaking minority (of just 30,000 census-voters for around 3 million Belgians in 1830, all 30,000 being French-speakers), all schools and universities in Flanders had to switch to French, leading to paradoxes as Dutch-speaking teachers speaking French to Dutch-speaking pupils, or Dutch-speaking teachers around Brussels being replaced on short notice with French-speaking teachers who then were unable to communicate with their Dutch-speaking pupils. Moreover, pupils were punished when they spoke their native language. The population of Brussels, a Flemish city by origin and the capital of Belgium, saw an increase in its French-speaking populace. During the 20th century, French became the language spoken by the majority of the inhabitants of Brussels.
However, a cultural and political movement claiming of a "revival of Flemish culture and identity" emerged during the 19th and 20th centuries (see also Flemish emancipation movement). This lead first to the option (and soon obligation) of using Dutch in public life in Flanders starting at the end of the 19th century; the reintroduction of Dutch in schools and universities in the 1930s; the University of Ghent adopted Dutch as language of instruction in 1930; the relocation of the biggest French-speaking university (the French-speaking part of University of Louvain) from Flanders into Wallonia in 1968; and the installation of a federal state structure with a Flemish government during the last quarter of the 20th century.
Emancipation of Flemings in Brussels happened much later. Only in the 60’s, legislation was established on correct and equal treatment of both Dutch-speakers and French-speakers in Brussels, but today, the implementation of these laws is still a major problem. As an illustration, around 1990 the Brussels regional government had to officially acknowledge that until then, social housing in the Brussels region was reserved exclusively for those submitting an application in French.
World War I significance
Flanders saw some of the greatest losses of life of the First World War including the battles of Ypres and the Somme. Due to the hundreds of thousands of casualties and the poppies that sprang up on Flanders Fields, they have both become an emblem of human life lost in war.
Flemish feeling of identity and consciousness grew through the events and experiences of war. The German occupying authorities had taken several Flemish-friendly measures, but more importantly the experiences of the Flemish speaking soldiers on the front catalysed Flemish emancipation. Their suffering is still remembered by Flemish organizations during the yearly "IJzerbedevaart" (Yser pilgrimage) and "IJzerwake" (Wake of the Yser) in Diksmuide at the monument of the "IJzertoren" (The Yser tower).
In the last quarter of the 20th century, the European integration became gradually more and more important. In 2004, it is estimated around 40% of national legislation is implementation of European Union law.
The influence of European Union law on Flanders is quite substantial, and politically relevant. It can be felt, among others, through:
Among the results with a particular relevance for Flanders (or wider), it can be noted, without attempting any exhaustiveness: