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Flemish nationalists aren’t happy with plan for more English in Brussels

Flemish nationalists aren’t happy with plan for more English in Brussels

by host

BRUSSELS — Language wars are back in Brussels.

The topic has long been a divisive political issue in Belgium, where linguistic differences between the Dutch- and French-speaking communities — the country’s two main languages — have at times turned into bitter political conflict.

Now, a proposal from the Flemish liberals aiming to turn English into the third administrative language in the country’s capital is sparking criticism from the northern region of Flanders’ nationalist party, New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).

“English in Brussels can be an initial language to welcome expats,” Cieltje Van Achter, the head of the N-VA’s group at the Brussels regional parliament, told POLITICO.

But, she added, “it’s important that people who decide to spend their lives here also learn French and Dutch,” to facilitate their integration.

The debate — a recurring one in Brussels politics — over the importance given to English in the European capital was resuscitated earlier this week after the Flemish center-right party Open VLD proposed English be used in administrative procedures.

The proposal, which is part of Open VLD’s electoral program ahead of the 2024 Belgian federal elections, aims to give English “the same rights as Dutch and French in regional and communal administrative services, without turning it into a third official language,” the party said in a press release.

“Oral contact with citizens should be allowed in English. We should be polite and welcoming to people who do not speak Dutch or French,” Brussels Minister for Multilingualism Sven Gatz, who proposed the measure together with State Secretary for Budget Alexia Bertrand, told Flemish Radio 1 on Tuesday.

The idea would only apply to basic administrative acts.

“Citizens would have the right to use English for their basic interactions with the commune’s services,” said Nele Matthys, a spokesperson for Bertrand, but clarified official documents would not be written in English.

In the Brussels region, administration officials are required by a 1966 law to speak either French or Dutch, the two official languages of Belgium’s only bilingual region.

Speaking English has become increasingly common in parts of the European capital, which is home to tens of thousands of diplomats and where more than a third of the population is not Belgian.

But, given the language sensitivities in the capital of a linguistically divided country, chances are slim that the proposed reform will ever be adopted.

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