Vastlegging taalgrens.

In some municipalities on the language border facilities are granted to those speaking a different language, as in the Flemish town of Ronse | Véronique Seynaeve

Borders, Language & Territory
1962 - 1963
Read aloud

The Establishment of the Language Border

Belgium Becomes a Federal State

The political significance of the Dutch-French language border had for a long time remained limited. However, the aspiration of the Flemish movement to achieve a monolingual Flanders made the language border a subject of debate. In 1962 it was legally established. A year later this was followed by the demarcation of the bilingual Brussels agglomeration. That was the decisive step towards the federalisation of Belgium.

Read aloud

In order to resolve language conflicts it was decided between the two World Wars that the official language of administration, education and the law should coincide with the local language. From the 1930s on Dutch became the official language in Flanders and French in Wallonia. Brussels and the surrounding municipalities formed a bilingual agglomeration in the Dutch-language area. On the Eastern frontier a German-speaking areathe so-called Oostkantons, which Germany ceded to Belgium after the First World War as ‘compensation’. was created.

Every ten years a ‘language census’ was to be organised. On the basis of that municipalities and administrative language could change. Out of fear that those censuses, as in 1947, would be disadvantageous for the Dutch-speaking municipalities around Brussels, the Flemish movement lobbied for fixed language borders. They came about, after violent debates, in 1962-1963. Parliament established the border between the French- and Dutch-language areas and limited the bilingual Brussels area to nineteen municipalities. The division was of course artificial here and there: many border municipalities had inhabitants from both language groups.

Gaston Eyskens.

Belga Image

Premier Gaston Eyskens (1905-1988) informs members of parliament that the unitary state has had its day (1970). Eyskens had been campaigning since the 1930s for more Flemish autonomy.

Read aloud

Belgium Becomes a Federal State

After the ideological conflict between Socialists and Liberals on one side and Catholics on the other was settled by the Schoolpact of 1958, regional tendencies in the country gained more scope. As a result the Flemish-Walloon opposition gained in importance.

At the beginning of the 1960s many people considered a reform of the unitary state inevitable. The establishment of the language border was a step in that direction. In Flanders the cry for cultural autonomy had long been heard. On the Walloon side politicians and trades unions wanted the authority to ward off industrial decline. In addition, they were afraid of becoming a political minority in Belgium, because the Walloon population was stagnating. Parties such as the Volksunie, the Rassemblement Wallon and the Brussels Front démocratique des francophones (FDF) enjoyed success by championing their own language group or region. The agitation surrounding the splitting up of the bilingual University of Leuven gave extra momentum to the rising tensions between the Dutch and the French speaking communities.

In 1970 the government of Christian-Democrat Gaston Eyskens tinkered for the first time with the foundations of the Belgian state structure. The language border was constitutionally anchored. The Dutch-language, French-language and German-language Communities were given limited responsibilities for language, culture and education. In addition, a Flemish, Walloon and Brussels region was set up with economic powers. At the national level a number of measures guaranteed the balance of power between Flemings and French-speakers. Both groups were given the same number of ministerial posts.

The implementation of the reform led to new issues. The conviction grew that a more thorough modification of the state structure was necessary. In 1993, after a radical revision of the constitution, Belgium became officially a federal state, made up of three communities and three regions the so-called federated entities.

Focal points

Koepelzaal van het Vlaams parlement.

Wikimedia Commons

In 1996 the members of the Flemish Parliament moved into the former Hôtel des Postes in Brussels. The parliament building was thoroughly renovated and its crowning glory was the dome-ceilinged chamber.

Read aloud

Flanders, More than Cultural Autonomy

After the first state reform in 1970 the communities and regions grew into fully-fledged political bodies with their own government and parliament. They were also given more and more powers and financial resources by the national, later the federal government. For example, the communities were made responsible for education, welfare and healthcare. The regions were given responsibility over, for example, public works, spatial planning, housing, labour market and agricultural policy.

As early as 1981 the Flemish Community and the Flemish Region decided to merge, with one parliament and one government sitting in Brussels. Since then, a ‘minister-president’ has headed the Flemish government. On the French-language side community and region remained separate structures. From 1995 on the Flemish Parliament, like the parliaments of the other federated entities, was directly elected, so that it acquired greater democratic legitimacy.

Discussions about new state reforms have not ceased since 1970. A lack of unanimity on the direction of travel led to compromises. In this way major conflicts were avoided, clarity in the state structure suffered as a result. For the nationalistically inclined groups in Flanders, still more powers must be transferred to the federated entities, or Flanders must even become independent. Other parties and groups in turn see in cross-border issues like the climate and the energy supply a reason to restore certain powers to the Belgian level.


Wikimedia Commons, Finne Boonen

Brussels has a lively Congolese community in the Matonge district. The district is also the arrival point for many African migrants.

Read aloud

Brussels, Super-Diverse

In the discussions about the federalisation of the country Brussels remained a constant bone of contention. The capital lay on the Dutch side of the language border, but in the 19th and 20th century the population had become very Gallicised. On the edge of Brussels too the Gallicisation was noticeable. Hence the bilingual agglomeration was expanded as a result of the 1947 language census from sixteen to nineteen municipalities.

In 1988 Brussels received its present statute. From then on, the nineteen municipalities formed the Brussels Capital Region. The region was given powers on territorial matters, such as spatial planning and economy. Personal matters, such as education, welfare and healthcare, were the responsibility of a Flemish and a French-language community commission for Brussels. At the same time the city of Brussels remained the capital of Belgium, capital of the Flemish and the French Community.

Brussels also became the European capital and that translated into the composition of the population. The establishment of European institutions in 1957 and of NATONorth-Atlantic Treaty Organisation, Western military alliance founded in 1949, led by the United States of America in response to the Cold War. in 1967 – with many international organisations and companies in their wake – lured an impressive variation of expats to the city. Apart from that, from the 1960s on, people from all over the world moved to Brussels, in search of a better existence. The region became super-diverse. In 2021 the Brussels Region had a total of 185 nationalities. 35% of the 1.2 million inhabitants had a nationality other than Belgian. French remains the most commonly spoken language, but there are more and more mixed-language and foreign language families. Dutch, after French and English, is the third most-used language.

Renard speech Eenheidswet.
Belga Image, 4331

The Walloon Socialist trades union leader André Renard (1911-1962) during the great winter strike of December 1960-January 1961. Federalism must provide Wallonia with the levers for economic recovery.

In de zogenaamde Marsen op Brussel van 1961 en 1962 betoogden duizenden Vlamingen voor de vastlegging van de taalgrens en de begrenzing van de Brusselse agglomeratie. Hier ontmoeten Vlaamse manifestanten tegenbetogers bij de Tweede Vlaamse Mars op Brussel, 14 oktober 1962.
Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven, KFA3958

In the so-called Marches on Brussels of 1961 and 1962 thousands of Flemings demonstrated for the establishment of the language border and the setting of a limit to the Brussels agglomeration. Here Flemish demonstrators clash with counter-demonstrators during the Second Flemish March on Brussels, 14 October 1962.

Walen go home.
De Morgen, Vertommen

In 1966 Flemish students demanded the transfer of the French-Language section of the University of Leuven to Wallonia. The question was settled in 1968 with the founding of Louvain-la-Neuve near Ottignies. At that moment the student protests, both in Leuven and in Ghent, assumed a more clearly progressive and anti-authoritarian character.

Eerste congres Vlaamse liberalen.
Ghent, Liberas

Between 1968 and 1978 the three traditional political parties split along regional lines. Here one sees the leaders of the Flemish liberal party (Willy De Clercq, Herman Vanderpoorten, Frans Grootjans) in 1972. The Christian democratic party was the first to split in 1968, and the Socialist party followed suit in 1978.

Anti Egmont betoging.
Belga Image

The (failed) Egmont pact of 1977 envisioned a federalism with three equal ‘regions’ (Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia). The Flemish movement resisted the notion of Brussels as an equal third party. Demonstration against the Egmont pact in the Vlaanderenstraat in Ghent.

Eerste Vlaamse regering.
Gino Zamboni

The first Flemish Government, called an executive, is sworn in on 22 December 1981. It is led by minister-president Gaston Geens and includes members of all parties. From left to right: Jan Lenssens (CVP), Roger de Wulf (SP), Jacky Buchmann (PVV), Karel Poma (PVV), Gaston Geens (CVP), Marc Galle (SP), Rika Steyaert (CVP), Hugo Schiltz (Volksunie) and Paul Akkermans (CVP).

The Hague, National Archives

The royal question divides the country. Could Leopold III return as head of state after the Second World War? In the referendum of 1950 a mainly Catholic majority in Flanders was for, a mainly Socialist-liberal majority in Wallonia against. The Socialist party had warned against this scenario with this poster.

Discover more on this topic

Het Onvoltooide Land – de onschendbare taalgrens

Bron: VRT archief e.a – 26 apr 2009


Barnard Benno & Van Istendael Geert
Een geschiedenis van België voor nieuwsgierige kinderen (en hun ouders)

Atlas Contact, 2022. 

Bouveroux Jos & Huyse Luc
Het onvoltooide land

Van Halewyck, 2009. 

Fonteyn Guido
Vlaanderen, Brussel, Wallonië: Een ménage à trois

Epo, 2014. 

Goossens Martine
Vijftig jaar Vlaams Parlement

Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, 2021.

Martens Wilfried
De memoires. Luctor et emergo

Lannoo, 2006.

Raskin Brigitte
De taalgrens, of wat de Belgen zowel verbindt als verdeelt

Davidsfonds, 2012. 

Reinsma Riemer
Wandelen langs de taalgrens

Contact, 2005. 

Reynebeau Marc
Een geschiedenis van België

Lannoo, 2021. 

Scheltiens Vincent
Met dank aan de overkant: een politieke geschiedenis van België

Polis, 2017. 

Tindemans Leo
De memoires. Gedreven door een overtuiging

Lannoo, 2002. 

Van Goethem Herman
De monarchie en ‘het einde van België’: een communautaire geschiedenis van Leopold I tot Albert II

Lannoo, 2008. 

Van Maele Brecht
Taalgrens 50 jaar

Snoeck, 2013.