Global Policy Forum

The Death of Belgium?

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By Ian Buruma

Los Angeles Times
July 29,2008

Flemish and Walloon nationalism threatens the country. The European Union could face a similar fate.


Belgium is in danger of falling apart. For more than six months, the country has been unable to form a government that is able to unite the French-speaking Walloons (32% of the population) and Dutch-speaking Flemish (58%). The Belgian monarch, Albert II, is desperately trying to stop his subjects from breaking up the nation-state.

Who cares? (Apart from the king, that is. After all, without Belgium, he might be out of a job.) First of all, the Walloons do. Although the French-speaking Belgians started the European Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, they are now living in a deprived rust belt in need of federal subsidies, a substantial amount of which comes from taxes paid by the more prosperous, high-tech Flemish. A handful of right-wing Dutch dreamers care too, for they have visions of uniting Belgian Flanders with the Dutch motherland.

Alas for them, however, the Flemish have no such desire. Belgium, after all, became an independent state in 1830, precisely to liberate the Catholic Flemish, as well as the Walloons, from being second-class subjects in a Protestant Dutch monarchy.

But perhaps we should all care at least a little, for what is happening in Belgium is unusual but not at all unique. The Czechs and Slovaks already parted ways, as did the different nations of Yugoslavia. Many Basques would like to break away from Spain, as would many Catalans. Corsicans would love to be rid of France, and many Scots of Britain. Then, of course, there is the Tibetan problem in China, the Chechen problem in Russia and so on. No doubt some of these peoples would be able to survive perfectly well on their own. But history does seem to suggest that the cumulative effect of states falling apart is seldom positive.

Belgian separatists like to observe that Belgium was never a natural nation-state but an accident of history. But then, so are many nations, perhaps most. The accident in the case of Belgium is usually placed in the early 19th century, the result of Napoleon's European empire collapsing and Dutch arrogance. In fact, one might just as well set the accident in the 16th century, when the Habsburg emperor hung on to the southern Netherlands (today's Belgium) while the Protestant northern provinces broke away.

Be that as it may, nation-states were often formed in the 18th and 19th centuries to promote common interests that transcended cultural, ethnic, linguistic or religious differences. This was true of Italy and Britain no less than of Belgium. The problem now is that interests are no longer the same, or even held in common. The European Union, which actively promotes regional interests, has weakened the authority of national governments. Why rely on London, ask the Scots, if Brussels offers greater advantages?

When common interests no longer apply, language and culture begin to matter more. One reason Flemish Belgians resent having to prop up the Walloons with their tax money is that they regard them almost as foreigners. Most Flemish readers don't read French-language newspapers or novels, and vice versa. TV stations are separate. And so are schools, universities and political parties. Northern Italians don't like their tax money being used to help the south, but at least they still have a language -- more or less -- in common, as well as TV stars, a national soccer team and Silvio Berlusconi. The Belgians only have a king, who is descended, like most European monarchs, from Germans.

Again, why should this matter? Don't we feel sympathy for the Tibetans in their struggle for freedom? Why shouldn't the Flemish go their own way? It is one thing, however, to support a people being oppressed by an authoritarian government. And Tibetans are actually in danger of losing their culture. It is more disturbing when people choose to break up nation-states because they refuse to share their wealth, for linguistic or ethnic reasons. If Flemish citizens don't want their taxes to go to the Walloons, what about helping out unemployed immigrants from Africa, a large chunk of which the Belgians once owned and exploited as a major source of their prosperity? It should come as no surprise that the Flemish nationalist party, Vlaams Belang, is hostile to immigrants too.

So the fate of Belgium should interest us all, especially those who wish the European Union well. For what is happening in Belgium now could end up happening on a continental scale. Why, for example, should the prosperous Germans continue to have their tax money pooled to assist the Greeks or the Portuguese? It is difficult to sustain any democratic system, whether on a national or European scale, without a sense of solidarity. It helps if this is based on something deeper than shared interests: a language, a sense of common history, pride in cultural achievements. The European identity is still far from solid.

Perhaps the citizens of Belgium do not have enough in common any more, and Flemish and Walloons would be better off divorced. But one hopes not. Divorces are never painless. And ethnic nationalism unleashes emotions that are almost always undesirable. We know what happened when the twin pulls of blood and soil determined European politics before. Without having intended it, the European Union now seems to be encouraging the very forces that postwar European unity was designed to contain.


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