Dutch has largely disappeared from officially bilingual Brussels. The Netherlands must no longer neglect its duty and promote the language in this originally Dutch-speaking city, writes philosopher Mark Coelen on EW Stage.
According to a language census from 1846, 60.3 percent of the municipality of Brussels was Dutch-speaking. In adjacent municipalities that are now part of the Belgian capital – such as Schaarbeek (70.5 percent), Etterbeek (96.1 percent) and Anderlecht (89.9 percent) – Dutch had an even more dominant position at the time. Almost two centuries later, nothing is left of this hegemony: the BRIO research institute reports that a meager 16.3 percent of the Brussels Capital Region speaks Dutch. The 2024 Belgian elections do not appear to put a stop to this decline.
More and more Flemish people are demanding confederalism, a form of government that in practice turns Dutch-speaking Flanders into an independent country. If that happens, the same applies to French-speaking Wallonia with its crippled economy. The income per Walloon is about 32,000 euros, per Flemish more than 45,000 euros. A significant difference, which may become even greater: supporters and opponents realize that the Walloon economy will deteriorate dramatically if the elections result in a victory for confederalism. It is plausible that Walloons will then move to Brussels. The economy there is not faltering at all – the income per Brussels resident is almost 75,000 euros – and French is in fact the main language. Such a migration flow puts further pressure on the poor position of Dutch in Brussels.
Lack of sense of responsibility towards Brussels
There is therefore no shortage of urgency to improve the position of Dutch in the Belgian capital. There is a sense of responsibility, not only in Flanders. It is a task of the Dutch government to promote Dutch abroad (where the language is spoken). Especially in Brussels, where people have used (a variant of) Dutch since the late Middle Ages.
The Dutch government invests approximately 6.7 million euros annually in the Language Union, a knowledge and policy organization that is committed to the Dutch language. A limited part of that money is intended for activities to promote Dutch abroad. This amounts to approximately 1.5 million euros. The vast majority of this is intended for language education in countries outside Europe. Not really a fat guy.
Language propaganda based on the French example
The Netherlands can learn a lot from France. It has been investing heavily in language education for a long time to improve the position of French abroad. This is done mainly through the Institut Français and Alliances Française. These organizations have branches all over the world and can count on an annual subsidy of 37 million euros from the French government. The Organization Internationale de la Francophonie, comparable to the Dutch Language Union, also receives a government grant every year: 15.6 million euros (not all of this money is intended for language education abroad).
France therefore spends much more money on language propaganda, especially if you include President Emmanuel Macron’s investment of no less than 185 million euros. In 2020, he announced that he would transform a historic estate with castle in Villers-Cotterêts into a global center for the French language. In addition to several exhibition halls, the impressive complex – which opens its doors at the end of this year – has a research lab for language issues.
Also good for the economy
Why should we follow the French? Promoting a language abroad is more than a patriotic need of any self-respecting country. It also generates additional trade, benefiting the domestic economy. Brussels has almost 1.3 million inhabitants, approximately as many as the provinces of Drenthe, Zeeland and Flevoland combined: a considerable market by Dutch standards.
Scientists confirm the connection between a shared language and economic gain. Research shows that French-speaking countries generate an average of 22 percent additional trade income through mutual trade. France benefits indirectly: as a result, GDP per French person is 2.6 percent higher.
Yes, we can also speak English to each other. In this globalized world this is sometimes an unavoidable conclusion. But in Brussels the cards are different. Promoting Dutch there is a cultural-historical settlement from your own pocket with returns.
Act of peace by a proud mediator in Brussels
The Flemish desire for confederation is not purely economic in nature. It upsets Flanders that French-speaking Belgium did not take Dutch seriously for years. In Wallonia, Dutch is not a compulsory school subject, in Flanders French is (both languages are compulsory in Brussels). A year ago it was announced that Dutch will be compulsory in Walloon schools from September 2027.
In the meantime, in recent decades, many tens of thousands of Walloons – who have little or no command of Dutch – have moved to Brussels because of the opportunities offered by the metropolis (and there may be more after the elections).
Additional investments in language education can partly remedy these learning deficits and social tensions. Promoting the Dutch language in Brussels is an act of peace, committed by a proud mediator, au moins, a mon avis.