By Laurence van Ypersele and Ben Wellings
The “In Flanders Fields Draft Declaration’ was tabled for discussion by the government of Flanders in the summer of 2010.
The politics surrounding this Draft Declaration illustrate some of the difficulties in commemorating the Great War in Belgium. They also make an interesting contrast with the politics of remembrance in the United Kingdom, where – outside of Northern Ireland – the Centenary commemorations will be used to emphasise (British) commonality rather than national distinctiveness.
Belgium is currently divided into three major political and administrative regions: Flanders; Wallonia; and Brussels. As a federation organised along consociational, linguistic lines, each of these regions is highly autonomous. In this political context it was possible for the government of Flanders to draft a Declaration for discussion amongst the 50 foreign governments participating in the planning of Centenary activities in Belgium. However, the government of Flanders sent this Draft Declaration neither to the government of Wallonia nor to the federal (Belgian) level of government. Objections were raised from amongst the 50 foreign governments that this was inappropriate and that the diplomatic services of those foreign governments would only deal with the federal level of government in Belgium in equal government-to-government discussions.
So, when the government of Flanders, under pressure from foreign ambassadors, gave its ‘In Flanders Fields’ declaration to the federal level of government, thus making it a ‘national’ declaration, changes to the wording and meaning were proposed.
The government of Wallonia immediately suggested using the word ‘Belgium’ in place of ‘Flanders’ in the text. It also called for recognition of the rights of minorities, explicit recognition of the involvement of soldiers and civilians in the name of freedom and democracy, and mention of the Second World War as well as the First. All of these suggestions were in some ways pointed reminders of historical divisions rather than grounds for Belgian unity, where Flemish and Walloon collective memories of twentieth century conflict diverged.
However, a political compromise was reached on October 2, 2012. After two years of political discussion, the word ‘Belgium’ can be found in the text, along with reference to the people who defended democracy and mention of the respect for ‘diversity’ (in place of ‘minorities’). The rest of the declaration didn’t much change from the Draft.