Rethinking Europe

Wither Belgium?

How much longer can Belgium survive the pressures of its unlikely origins?

Credit: Tuangtong Soraprasert/


  • How did Belgium, this misconstrued country, come about? It is nearly as illogical a grouping as Iraq.
  • General De Gaulle used to claim that Belgium was invented by the English to annoy the French.
  • Belgium was invented by the British and the French to annoy the Dutch.
  • Belgium could probably divide — without any major impacts on its neighbors.

After years of internal political stalemate in Belgium’s politics, the largest threat to the country suddenly seems to be – quite unusually in the postwar period – an external force: terrorism tied to the politics of the Middle East.

The recent attacks follow quite some time after the departure of Belgium’s fighter jets from the anti-ISIS war in Iraq.

But just how did Belgium, this strangely formulated country, come about? In some ways, it is nearly as illogical a grouping as Iraq itself.

Yet it is not as if Belgium was mid-wifed, as Iraq was, or even as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were, by a general settlement of a European war.

General De Gaulle, the erstwhile French president, used to claim that Belgium was invented by the English to annoy the French, which sounds credible at first blush. However, a little digging into the historical record shows it to be untrue.

If anything, though, Belgium was invented by the British and the French to annoy the Dutch.

Keeping Belgium safe

Flanders — until 1830 the southern and Catholic part of the Netherlands — was merged with French-speaking Wallonia, to create a buffer between Holland and France.

That maneuver certainly suited Britain. Since England lost Calais in 1558 during the reign of Mary I and gave up its attempt to hold both sides of the English Channel, the English/British strategy had been to keep Belgium out of the hands of a hostile power — especially one with a strong navy.

The French, who just 15 years earlier had been defeated at Waterloo — in Belgium — certainly counted, but throughout the 18th century, the Dutch had been at least as important as rivals to the British — and, in naval terms, rather more so.

By 1830, Britain had sent troops and ships to keep the Spanish, the Austrians, the Dutch and the French out of Belgium. The country officially came into being early in Britain’s century of (European) peace.

In the 20th century, the strategic task of defending Belgium returned to the fore with wars, both hot and cold, over Belgium.

During their aggressive period, the Germans used Belgian territory repeatedly for their ill-advised and illicit military conquest campaigns.

Under those circumstances, it is at least arguable that a major unacknowledged reason why Britain joined NATO — based, of course, in Belgium — was to keep Soviet tanks from the Belgian coast.

Possibility of Belgium breaking up?

Even if modern Britain fears neither the Dutch nor the French, would it object to Belgium breaking up today? Not officially, of course. And there is no reason to suppose that the Belgians, French or Dutch would much care about Britain’s point of view, anyway.

Any trend toward current European states dividing along ethnic or linguistic lines is sure to raise eyebrows in London and, more especially, in Edinburgh and Cardiff. A hard-fought referendum in 2014 kept Scotland from departing the United Kingdom by about 384,000 votes.

And Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, facing down a vigorous independence movement in control of Catalonia’s regional government, is unlikely to view a Belgian divorce with equanimity.

Any division of Belgium faces a battle over the border — specifically the status of Brussels, the French-speaking capital in the heart of Flanders.

If there is no option of internationalizing it — as a sort of European District of Columbia — it is sure to be a major source of tension between Flanders and Wallonia.

In light of the severe internal strife and mutual frustration among the Flemish and Walloons, the fact is that Belgium could probably divide — without any major impacts on its neighbors.

Economic impact

Flanders could end up merging with Holland and Wallonia with France, or both could stay independent — but in neither case is there likely to be economic disruption.

Would there be an economic impact on the former Belgium itself? This is certainly at the heart of the debate there.

Prosperous Flanders is fed up with subsidizing Wallonia. Some four-fifths of Flemings expect, and almost half hope, to see Belgium break up. Wallonia is much less keen on divorce.

Have we seen the last of Belgium? No doubt, the EU will soon have a panel studying the matter.

If neither language, culture nor history is the focus for the Belgian state, what is left but the King — and its national football team?

A brief moment of solidarity in the face of terrorist attacks will likely fade when the events recede further into the past. And Belgium will be left again to wonder why it exists and whether it should continue onward.

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About Quentin Langley

Quentin Langley is a professor at Fordham Gabelli School of Business and the author of Business and the Culture of Ethics.

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