Eupen, Belgium. A recent publicity stunt designed to “rebrand” a city has opened old wounds as labels from other eras come to the surface, sparking fears separatism is making a comeback as groups take sides.
Eupen is a German speaking town in a French speaking part of Belgium, where people cross borders without a thought. Despite the range of identities, most locals do not appear to be troubled by questions of nationality.
But a recent move to rebrand the region, officially recognized as the German speaking community of Belgium, as the “Ostbelgien” has caused tremors of anxiety in a country long plagued by talk of separatism.
The decision to rebrand has caused ripples of alarm in Wallonia, the primarily French-speaking half of Belgium that contains and funds the German-speaking lands. Marc Uyttendaele, a constitutional law professor at the Free University of Brussels, warned that the new name of Ostbelgien would only cause confusion. He said it was “misleading” and not sanctioned by the constitution.
Ostbelgien’s minister-president Oliver Paasch, rejects claims of separatism. “It is the opposite: 99% are pro-Belgian, very loyal to their country,” he says. The new name “does not signify any political or constitutional demands, but is pure marketing logic for very pragmatic reasons”.
Ostbelgien is getting older, with not enough young people entering the labour market to pay for the pensions of retiring baby boomers, he says. “We are facing a difficult demographic situation. We need to attract more qualified people. If you talk about the ‘German-speaking community’ in Germany, people think you are talking about German-speaking communities in London or New York. No one thinks automatically about Belgium.” says Paasch.
Meanwhile a balancing act of nationalities take place in a no mans land of nationality. With all stakeholders praying the flames of separatism do not ignite in the process.