October 2, 2017 / 6:16 PM / 15 days ago

"Just talk": Belgium offers Spain relationship advice

Women shout slogans against Spanish National Police during a gathering outside a National Police station, in Barcelona, Spain October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Amid a rising babble of advice from European neighbours on how to handle Catalonia, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy might pay attention to one country that knows something about fending off separation -- Belgium.

The Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, took a lead among European governments on Sunday after police used force to prevent voting in a unilateral independence referendum by calling for leaders in Madrid and Barcelona to start talking.

“Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue,” Michel tweeted on a day when most European leaders, and the European Union authorities in Brussels, stayed silent on events in Spain.

Belgium has rejigged its constitution six times in the past half century to hold together its two halves: French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders.

Three centuries after Spanish rule ended in the lands that make up modern Belgium, a Belgian government in which Flemish nationalists play a major role feels it has something particular to say about the virtues of conversation.

“Just get around the table and talk,” a Belgian government official told Reuters, summing up advice to Barcelona and Madrid. “We strongly believe that full negotiations in which all parties are included can take away that sense of frustration.”

Reflecting on the three years in which Michel, a 41-year-old French-speaking Walloon centrist, has governed in coalition with the right-wing Flemish nationalist N-VA, the official said an important lesson for Belgians had been that dialogue with the separatists had substantially reined in secessionist sentiment.

“The separatist tendency has declined considerably when people see that their community is being treated with respect.”

FLEMISH ASPIRATIONS

Rooted in part in a history of domination by the industrial, French-speaking south during Belgium’s first century or so after independence from the Netherlands in 1830, Flemish nationalism flourished as heavy industry declined and Flemings, prospering, started to resent funding welfare transfers to the Walloons.

Frictions over language in universities broke out into riots in 1968 but mostly Belgium has kept a lid on communal violence, thanks in part to constitutional gymnastics that have left it a complex federal state with huge autonomy for the regions.

The N-VA has muted calls for more devolution and support for independence is in single figures, polls indicate, easing fears that a Catalan secession could revive Flemish aspirations.

“The pressure which has now built up in Catalonia has been negotiated away over the years in Belgium,” said Carl Devos, politics professor at the University of Ghent in Flanders.

That willingness to talk endlessly over legal reforms is in contrast to what many Belgians see as an inflexibility by Rajoy to accept changing Spain’s 1978 post-dictatorship constitution -- and hence to negotiate a more devolved status for Catalonia.

Michel made his “heartfelt” plea for an end to violence and for new dialogue after talking to some EU counterparts and to Flemish government allies on Sunday, the official said. It was not intended as an attack on Rajoy or the Spanish legal system, he said, but a response to a fear positions were hardening.

“It is our trademark to deal with pressure from regions wanting more autonomy peacefully,” Devos said. “So it is not surprising that the prime minister felt the need to speak out.”

Editing by Peter Graff

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