When Danny Meilleur lost his warehousing job late last year, he knew he would have to expand his search far beyond his Belgian home town of Charleroi to find work.
“There aren’t a lot of jobs around here, and even those that have them are seeing their hours cut,” he said in his native French.
“But you have to get by in life. So I looked on the other side and, sure enough, there was a lot more going.”
For Mr Meilleur, “the other side” is Flanders, the Dutch-speaking Belgian region that has in recent decades grown both more prosperous and more distant from Wallonia, the French-speaking region in which Charleroi is the largest city.
In the past, few Walloon job-seekers would have crossed the linguistic and cultural divide in Belgium. The provinces have emerged more as rivals than partners in a unified Belgium – so much so that the collapse of the country is sometimes mooted as it lurches from one political crisis to the next.
Yet an unintended consequence of the economic crisis is that it may be helping to narrow the divide: official figures show the downturn is prompting an increasing number of workers to cross the border in search of a job.
Some 3,500 job-seekers from the French-speaking parts of the country have used the VDAB, the Flemish state employment agency, to find a job in the past 12 months.
“It’s a breakthrough year,” said Fons Leroy, who heads the agency, “and I expect we will have even more next year.”
The increase partly reflects closer co-operation between the component regions of Belgium, each of which runs its own state employment agency.
But the rise in inter-regional working mainly reflects the economic reality in Belgium. Unemployment in the French-speaking parts of the country is close to 20 per cent, more than double that in Flanders.
Even as the Flemish economy has weakened in the first half of the year because of flagging demand for its exports, many sectors are still experiencing labour shortages.
“With the crisis, there are loads of people who accept the jobs they can get,” said Fabrice Di Gloria, a Walloon who went through Tempo-team, a temporary placement agency, to find a job in a Dutch-speaking Audi plant on the outskirts of Brussels. “That’s not something that used to happen before.”
The fact that francophones traditionally refused to take jobs in Dutch-speaking regions has long been a source of tension in Belgium. Unemployment benefits are paid from a single federal pot. That has given rise to a stereotype that industrious Flemings pay taxes to fund the unemployment benefits of the Walloons.
The authorities estimate that about 36,000 people now commute to a Flemish job from a French-speaking home. That is a trickle where there needs to be a flood, the Flemish authorities say. “We need 50,000 more Walloon workers,” Kris Peeters, the head of the Flemish regional authority, said last year. “We cannot continue to be the motor powering Belgian growth without them.”
Jan Denys, a labour market expert at the employment services group Randstad, expects a surge in inter-regional commuting when the Flemish economy recovers. “Flemish unemployment is cyclical, so the demand for labour will increase rapidly once the downturn ends. In contrast, Walloon and Brussels unemployment is structural,” Mr Denys said.
Still, there remains the not insignificant challenge of bridging the cultural and linguistic differences that have hampered cross-border commuting in the past. Even those Walloons who speak fluent Dutch can struggle.
“There is a cultural difference that can be difficult to overcome,” a French-speaker working in Anvers wrote in an online forum.
“I’ve never heard of the songs or TV shows they talk about, and they’ve never heard of what francophones like. . . It’s like we live in two completely different universes.”