Switzerland and Belgium: Two Approaches to a Multilingual State

Switzerland and Belgium: Two Approaches to a Multilingual State

Today, Switzerland is one of the most successful countries in the world, boasting one of the highest GDPs per capita, standard of living, and economic freedom indices. Beyond its reluctance to engage in conflict, desire to stay out of supranational unions, and high degree of libertarianism, Switzerland remains unique relative to its European neighbors in another astounding way: it has four national languages. The Swiss population is split amongst two major language groups, German in the East and French in the West, with a third minor linguistic group, Italian, concentrated in the South. Its fourth national language, Romansch, is known by less than 0.5% of the population. Despite this lack of linguistic unity, the Swiss people manage to maintain a cohesive identity. Meanwhile, the close-by and similarly-sized European country of Belgium has extremely similar linguistically diverse demographics; the population is roughly half split amongst two major language groups, French and Flemish (a dialect of Dutch), with a concentrated third minor linguistic group, German. However, unlike Switzerland, Belgium lacks strong national unity and suffers from frequent secessionary movements. In this paper, I will explore how Switzerland managed to forge a single national identity despite its multiple language groups, and compare this to Belgium’s failure to do so, specifically focusing on the effects of ethno-symbolic nation-building, linguistic inclusiveness, and decentralized federalism.

Before we can begin to examine the causes of Switzerland’s unique nationalism, we must examine the nature of nationality itself within Switzerland. Unlike its neighbors such as Germany, there is no evidence to indicate that the Swiss ever had the desire to create a monoethnic state. There was no form of ethnic cleansing, suppression of minorities, or any other form of “Swissification”. In fact, Switzerland’s ethnic and linguistic diversity has often been seen as a point of pride to many Swiss citizens. We commonly refer to countries with such varied ethnicities as multinational states. However, calling Switzerland a multinational state would be disingenuous. A multinational state is one in which the members of multiple nations occupy one political state. However, in the minds of most Swiss citizens, Switzerland has only one nationality: the Swiss. No linguistic group in Switzerland has ever fought for secession, sought unification with linguistically similar neighbors, or formed an ethnicity-based national party. Switzerland is not a multinational state, but rather a multi-linguistic state, one where diversity of languages forms a core component of its national identity.

This stands in stark contrast to Belgium. Unlike Switzerland, Belgium is fraught with growing discord. Emblematic of this divide is the linguistic indicator that the French and Flemish speaking sides of Belgium have unique and distinct identities called Wallonia and Flanders, respectively. Despite similar linguistic divide in Switzerland, there is no term for the French-speaking or German-speaking sides of Switzerland. Since the country’s founding in 1830, French-speaking Wallonia and German-speaking Flanders have had major problems in working together. Historically, the Flemish have felt persecuted and would fight for equality with the Walloons. In recent years, the divide has become stronger than ever. In 2010–2011, due to a stalemate caused by opposing Flemish and Walloon parties, there were 541 days without an active government. Furthermore, many Flemish citizens support secession or greater Flemish autonomy, and there are even major political parties such as the New Flemish Alliance built on a secessionary platform.

To understand the causes of the difference in national mindset between Switzerland and Belgium, we must trace back the history of these countries to their founding. The Old Swiss Confederacy began in 1301 as an alliance between three cantons, purely for economic and defensive purposes in defending the sparse trade routes in the mountainous region and protecting against the tyranny of the Holy Roman Empire and Habsburg dukes. As the centuries went on, more cantons joined the alliance, but it remained just that, an alliance with no semblance of a central state. Furthermore, the people saw themselves as solely members of their own canton, with little in common with the people of other cantons. In his paper “A Swiss anomaly? A relational account of national boundary-making,” Andreas Wimmer argues that multi-cantonal organizations such as reading groups, hiking clubs, and research teams, set the seeds for future inter-cantonal relationships. While a sense of community was growing, the people’s’ sense of identity still remained with their cantons. The story of how this loose alliance of cantons became a singular nation is the crown jewel of the ethno-symbolism school of nationalism.

During the French invasion of Switzerland during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the French set up a Republican government to govern the Swiss region. While the Republican government was very short-lived, during its time, it promoted an idea of “Swiss-nationness” that pervaded the mindsets of many of the elites, even after independence from France and the falling back into a confederation. While Zimmer focuses on the actions of the elites, he does note that the movement had support across social classes. He explains that the group of elites, now wanting the create a national Swiss mindset needed to turn the alliance of numerous nationalistic cantons into a single national identity. However, not only did the Swiss nation-builders integrate the confederation of cantons, it did so in a way that was acceptable to and agreed upon by all of the language communities. However, this was not universally accepted at first, as resistance to centralization led to the Sonderbund (separate alliance), a coalition of largely Catholic (although there were Catholic cantons that did not join the Sonderbund) that favored localization over centralization. After a very short civil war in 1847 which lasted only a few weeks and claimed the lives of less than 100 people, the Sonderbund was defeated, and a new federalist constitution was created in which the political federal elite would not intervene in the cultural, linguistic, or educational traditions of individual cantons. These terms were suitable, and even the Sonderbund cantons got on board. In these realms, the cantons had essentially the same levels of autonomy both before and after 1847.

While this created a common political identity, bound by respect for direct democracy, federalism, and political rights, this does not explain the common national identity. Unlike their peers in neighboring countries like France, Germany, and Italy that could use common culture, ethnicity, and language, the Swiss elites turned nation-builders instead had to turn to adopting rhetoric and evoking symbols in order to stir nationalist “memory”. Out of these symbols including a flag, hymns, and national days, two of the most powerful were the geographic pride as the “Land of the Alps” and great national stories about lore such as the founding of the Old Confederacy, its valiant defense against foreign invaders, and national folk heroes like William Tell. However, the vital observation in this analysis is that most of these symbols were not created in 1848. The people were not somehow brainwashed into thinking that they grew up listening to the folktales as children. The Alps were not magically sprung from the Earth for the purpose of nation building. Rather, existing ideas and symbols that were already in the minds of the people were revitalized and repurposed for community-building goals. Even the Swiss flag was a revival of a 14th century military insignia worn by the Old Swiss Confederation and the National Day is based on the supposed date of the creation of the Old Confederacy in the 13th century.

Compared to Switzerland’s extensive nation-building process, Belgium’s is extremely lacking, contributing to the lack of national unity from the onset of the country. The Belgian state began in 1830 as a series of riots that grew into a southern independence movement from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands fueled by Catholicism, anti-central authority sentiment, and resentment towards the more industrious North. Interestingly, this has quite a few parallels to the Sonderbund separation attempt in Switzerland, with the exception that this secession succeeded; however, this is a topic for future research. This new Belgian country was tasked with creating a new state out of the seceded territory with multiple language groups. Already, one of the stark differences is that the idea of “Belgium” was created concurrently with the Belgian state. The idea of the “Confoederatio Helvetica”, even only as a mere confederation or alliance, existed for centuries before the creation of the Swiss state. The Swiss nation builders had 5 centuries of history to draw upon. Belgian history, on the other hand, is not very old, and thus, its nation-builders did not have a long, historic past to rally the people around. While, of course, the territory of Belgium had a history prior to 1830, it was often a part of a larger neighboring country, even being nicknamed the “battlefield of Europe”, and thus there was little material for the basis of Belgian pride. Even though the Belgian elite tried to construct a Belgian identity by creating different national symbols such as a flag, a constitution and a national hymn, these symbols were not as successful because they were novel and created for the purpose of nation-building. Even the Belgian flag was “invented” in 1830 as a modification of the French flag (although it did use the colors from the coat of arms of the Duchy of Brabant, a piece of Belgian history).

In Ethnosymbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach, Anthony D. Smith observes two forms of ethno-symbolism, lateral and vertical. In lateral (aristocratic) ethnies, national identity is dispersed by the elites from the top-down. This is analogous to the way that the Belgians created their national symbolism. In vertical (demotic) ethnies, symbols and myths are already shared between the community regardless of social positions. Smith also writes that vertical ethnies “may be formed around tribal confederations…united for battle…”. Switzerland is clearly a near-perfect example of the vertical development model. It seems intuitive that symbols in a vertical ethnie would be more powerful than those in a lateral one. Indeed, Smith writes “vertical or ‘demotic’ ethnies reveal a much more intensive emotional bond between the members.”

While the differences in the methods of nation-building symbolism help explain why the Swiss had much stronger national unity than Belgium, it doesn’t explain the cause of the divisive antagonism between the language groups in Belgium. For that, we need to examine not only the history, but also the political systems of the two nations and how they dealt with linguistic diversity. To constructivists, language is simply a tool for unification but isn’t intrinsically important to national identity. However, this philosophy was interpreted in very different ways by Switzerland and Belgium. The Swiss recognized that each language was important to its speakers, and that respecting each individual language would incentivize loyalty to the nation as opposed to alienating parts of the population. Essentially, it was able to use language as a bargaining chip, something to offer local cantons independent control over in exchange for loyalty to the nation. Already at the founding of the country in 1848, the German, French, and Italian languages all saw equal status at the national level. The Belgians, on the other hand, used language as a much more active tool by forcing a common language with the hope of promoting national unity. The French-speakers, a minority in the United Kingdom of Netherlands, suddenly became a majority in the new Belgium, and used this opportunity to declare French as the national language, a decision that alienated the Flemish-speakers. Thus, Flemish became a symbol of the oppressed and the Flemish rallied around their language and “great past” of the Flemings. What began as a political movement for Flemish language equality grew into something far bigger: a nation. As the movement grew from demanding language equality, the Flemish began to demand cultural parity as well. The language evolved into more than just a language; it became an identity. Pushing for this were Flemish elites who hoped to use this identity as the basis to fulfill political goals, essentially creating a constructivist movement within Belgium, but this time, partially based around shared ethnicity, ancestry, and language.

Recognition of language is very important to people, and the French-speaking Belgian elite actively chose to not recognize Flemish when constructing the Belgian state. By the time that the Belgian government began to accept Flemish as equal to French with the Equality Law of 1898 (even this did not make Flemish equal, as there were still areas such as government and higher education where French was given preference over Flemish, even in Flanders), it was too late. The Flemish national identity had already formed. What makes the situation even worse, however, is that Belgium’s political system destroys any hope of further unification. Since the 1960s, the regions of Wallonia and Flanders have had their own autonomous regional governments that have a lot of overlap in powers with the federal government, allowing for the meteoric rise of national parties based around regional and identities. Furthermore, there is a concept of Language Communities in the Belgian governmental systems. By formalizing linguistic divide in the government and creating official segregation for different language groups, the Belgian political system essentially encourages regional and linguistic conflict.

This is in contrast to Switzerland’s political relationship with language, namely that it’s extremely minimal. Besides recognizing the four national languages, it takes a hands-off approach, and does not officially segregate the population or territory in the linguistic regions. This hands-off approach to not showing any sort of division or preference can be seen in the symbolic choice of Switzerland’s official name, Confoederatio Helvetica, or “Swiss Confederation” in Latin. By choosing Latin, a neutral language, the nation’s name does not symbolize a connection with any of the four national languages and doesn’t prefer one language to another. At the federal level, Switzerland uses the personality principle, allowing citizens to speak in any of the four national languages to federal authorities. At the cantonal level, Switzerland follows the territoriality principle, giving cantons the ability to choose official languages within their own borders. The Swiss Constitution states, “The Cantons shall decide on their official languages. In order to preserve harmony between linguistic communities, the Cantons shall respect the traditional territorial distribution of languages and take account of indigenous linguistic minorities.” This essentially creates many homogenous, monolingual units that combined make a large multilingual nation, but were able to live harmoniously due to the federalist separation of powers and the democratic process. When certain individual cantons see linguistic diversity within them, there are multiple ways they resolve this. First, they can choose to be a multi-lingual canton, of which there are four currently out of the 26 cantons. They can do this independently, as they have the full right to choose their language rules, including the decision to be multi-lingual. The other option is that they can choose to break up into different cantons. The canton of Jura, which was largely French-speaking, broke off from the German-speaking canton of Bern. To do this it required the consent of the entire country as it would create a new canton, but the referendum (an integral part of Swiss democracy) passed easily with close to 80% approval. This just serves as further evidence that the decentralized method of Swiss federalism works.

While Switzerland’s federalism and nation building ethno-symbolism did play a role in providing for a more cohesive society than Belgium, there are other factors that could have affected Belgium’s regional conflicts. For one, while nationalism and sociological ideas are important, another vital force behind regional conflicts in history is economics. The economic disparity between Wallonia and Flanders contributes to its instability. While Wallonia, being an industrial powerhouse, was originally much richer than Flanders, in the post-war period, Wallonia’s economy collapsed and was surpassed by Flanders which created a very successful post-industrial economic system. One of the bases that Flemish secessionists often use for justification is that the Flemish send more taxpayer money to Wallonia than they receive, essentially subsidizing the Walloons. While this does contribute to the animosity, I would claim that this is a symptom of the problem, not a cause. Economic disparity between regions is present in almost every state, even Switzerland, where the French and Italian cantons are facing higher unemployment rates than the German. In Switzerland, the people are ok with some level of subsidizing, because it is after all, going to benefit their Swiss nation. Subsidizing Wallonia causes grief to Flemish because the people they are subsidizing are Walloons; they are not bettering their nation of Flanders.

Furthermore, it is often suggested that external pressures played a role in heightening the conflict. Unlike Switzerland which remained essentially unharmed militarily throughout the 20th century, Belgium was destroyed by two World Wars. It is well documented that during World War II, the Nazis would urge the Flemish to create insurgencies for the purpose of destabilizing Belgium. However, the Nazis were able to do this by pulling at the strings of already existent underlying problems. As noted earlier, the Flemish had already began to feel a unique sense of nationality by the turn of the 20th century, before both world wars. Furthermore, the Flemish Movement was marred with the stigma of Nazism and remained dormant for nearly 2 decades after 1945. So if anything, the outside influence of the Nazis ended up helping sedate the Belgian conflict rather than incite it.

Switzerland and Belgium are similar in so many ways from their locations, sizes, populations, incomes, to demographics. However, the internal dynamics of these two countries could not be more different. The vast majority of Belgians, especially the Flemish, identify more with their regional identity than they do with their national one. In Switzerland, on the other hand, national and regional identities exist side by side and do not compete with each other, but rather complement each other through a federalist system. Cantonal identity encompasses language, culture and traditions, while Swiss identity is rooted in ideas such as the political rights that come with the Swiss citizenship and a sense of nationality that arose from a successful nation-building campaign using ethno-symbolism techniques.

The future for both these countries is uncertain. Belgium constantly teeters on the brink of breaking apart, held together largely by neither sides’ willingness to give up the city of Brussels (which is also the capital of the EU). Switzerland meanwhile, while almost never voting along linguistic lines in national referenda, often does so on issues regarding integration with the European Union or similar Pan-European organizations. Whether this will serve as a dividing force in the future is yet to be seen. Finally, the emergence of a new lingua franca on the world scene, English, is throwing a variable into play in both these countries, and it has the potential to be both a unifying force and a dividing one.

Understanding the successes of Switzerland and shortcomings of Belgium is important because it teaches us how to successfully create larger confederations or federations from diverse populations. Younger multiethnic countries such as India can learn from Switzerland’s model to create a stable federal nation. Furthermore, even supranational organizations such as the European Union can learn from Switzerland’s effective federal model in creating a successful central government while still ceding jurisdiction over areas such as language and culture to its member states. Understanding the role of nationalism in these two countries is extremely important as it can guide us on the path to being able to form successful stable and diverse alliances.


Beheydt, Ludo. “The Linguistic Situation in the New Belgium.” In Languages in Contact and Conflict: Contrasting Experiences in the Netherlands and Belgium, edited by Sue Wright, 48–64. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1995.

Christensen, Klavs Odgaard. “The Construction of Modern Switzerland: A Civic Nation United in Diversity.” In At Studere Europa — Studying Europe — Etudier L’Europe: Forskningsprojekter Inden for Europæiske Studier., edited by Ramona Amson, 29–45.

Cleppe, Pieter. “Belgium: Euroland or Switzerland?” Fair Observer. January 21, 2013. Accessed December 8, 2016. http://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/belgium-euroland-or-switzerland/.

Dacey, Jessica. “Swiss seek multilingual equilibrium.” The Guardian, August 7, 2009. Accessed December 11, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2009/aug/07/tefl-switzerland.

Edmundson, George. “Chapter XXXI: The Belgian Revolution, 1830–1842.” In History of Holland, (Cambridge Historical Series). Cambridge: University Press, 1922.

Gugler, Philippe, and Michael Keller. The Economic Performance of Swiss Regions. Center for Competitiveness University of Fribourg Switzerland. Harvard Business School. December 2009. Accessed December 8, 2016. http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication Files/Gugler-Keller-2009_The_Economic_Performance_of_Swiss_Regions_7bc4a3d1–9737–495c-aa09-aeeb7d56aa9d.pdf.

“History of Switzerland’s Flag.” History of Switzerland. 2004. Accessed December 9, 2016. http://history-switzerland.geschichte-schweiz.ch/history-flag-switzerland.html.

Linder, Wolf. Swiss Democracy: Possible Solutions to Conflict in Multicultural Societies. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1994.

McRae, Kenneth D. Conflict and Compromise in Multilingual Societies: Switzerland. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1998.

O’Neill, Michael. “Belgium: Language, Ethnicity and Nationality.” In Democracy and Cultural Diversity, 114–34. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Prospectjournalucsd. “SWITZERLAND: A COUNTRY OF MULTILINGUALISM.” Prospect Journal. July 8, 2013. Accessed December 5, 2016. https://prospectjournal.org/2013/07/08/switzerland-a-country-of-multilingualism-3/.

Smith, Anthony D. Ethno-symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach. London: Routledge, 2009.

“Sonderbund.” Encyclopedia Britannica.July 20, 1998. Accessed December 5, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sonderbund-Swiss-political-organization.

Stauber, Roni. Collaboration with the Nazis: public discourse after the Holocaust. London: Routledge, 2010.

“Structure of the Belgian Federal State.” Eutrio.be. 2010. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://www.eutrio.be/structure-de-letat-federal-belge.

Switzerland. Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation: Of 29th May 1874. Bern: Federal Dept. of Foreign Affairs, 1991.

Wimmer, Andreas. “A Swiss Anomaly? A Relational Account of National Boundary-making.” Nations and Nationalism17, no. 4 (2011): 718–37.

Zimmer, Oliver. A Contested Nation: History, Memory and Nationalism in Switzerland, 1761–1891. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.