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Putting Belgium on eBay?

What explains the mega-malaise currently gripping the Flemings and Walloons in Belgium?

October 26, 2007

What explains the mega-malaise currently gripping the Flemings and Walloons in Belgium?

For sale by auction: Country of ten million with well-established royal family, good reputation in chocolate and beer industries — and boasting a history lasting 177 years.”

“May need some refurbishment: Government has been missing for three months now, but seems to have managed anyway. Linguistic and cultural divisions persist and debts of 300 billion euros have to be reckoned with.

“The territory comprises two substantial provinces and a world-class city, home to several international organizations. Each of the provinces has obvious synergies with a larger neighbor, and it is possible that one of the international organizations housed in the capital would be interested in acquiring that city. A break-up bid would be considered.”

This is not, in fact, the description of Belgium as posted on eBay — although the idea might be tempting to some.

Unfortunately, it will never become this simple to solve the problem of political structures.

But imagine the beauty of it: If countries could indeed be taken over, merged and broken up in the way that companies are, the world would be simpler and more peaceful. Yugoslavia could have demerged in the 1990s, while Hong Kong acquired China, instead of the other way round.

In the absence of such an idealized global capitalism, what is the solution for Belgium? Currently, it takes a two-thirds majority in parliament to amend the constitution, but with Walloons and Flemings divided on the question of whether further devolution is desirable, no such majority required for reform will emerge.

Historically, Belgium has been dominated by six political parties: Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Liberals. In most countries that makes three, but in Belgium it’s six. Each of the parties is divided into separate Flemish and Walloon parties. Recent years have seen the rise of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party.

The two Christian Democrat parties are the centrists, and often ally with the two Liberal parties — or the two Social Democrat groups. But with the focus on calls for constitutional reform — which divide the country culturally and linguistically, not by political outlook — such coalitions are proving hard to negotiate.

Because of the fractured national and political situation, the monarchy plays a more active role in constructing governments than is normal in Britain or Spain. Perhaps this is right, as there is a Belgian saying that the only real Belgians are the royal family and the Jews.

Either way, the current crisis is stretching the talents of King Albert II, who is desperately trying to find a way for one person to be able to form a coalition government so that his country at least gives off the outward appearance of being governable — and self-governed.

The current intractable political situation gives rise to a broader question: Just how did this strangely mismatched country come about? It is not as if it was mid-wifed, 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. 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.

But 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.

But 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. Gordon Brown could hardly be pleased at the prospect of his Scottish homeland seceding from the country he runs.

And Spain’s prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, is not a Basque, but given ETA’s more violent record than any Scottish or Welsh nationalist group, he is unlikely to view a Belgian divorce with equanimity either.

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. 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.

Free movement of labor and capital is guaranteed with and through Belgium for all its neighbors by the Treaty of Rome. It is of no interest to, say, a British passenger on the Eurostar exactly how many countries he must pass through between emerging from the Channel Tunnel and arriving in Brussels.

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. Arguments about subsidies suggest possible future parallels with Britain. English nationalist sentiment is tiny, but is stoked by calls to end subsidies to the Scots and Welsh. The Scots, though with generally lower incomes and a bloated public sector, deny being subsidized.

Since the 1970s, the Scottish National Party’s most famous slogan has been “It’s Scotland’s oil.” Competing budgets prove the point in both directions. The Welsh have no such claim and more clearly benefit from both British and EU transfer payments.

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

Finally, one wonders to what extent Belgium’s somewhat unhappy history is at the core of its current problems. True, Belgium is neither a new country that came into existence after a struggle for liberation from communist or Nazi oppressors.
Nor is it an old country with 1,000 years of glorious history on which to reminisce. It came about at just the time when European countries were starting to develop global empires.

But that alone would not explain the current “grapes of wrath” period the country and its political establishment is undergoing. Could the current emotional malaise – questioning even the point of hanging together – perhaps be belated revenge of the gods of history for Belgium’s haunting colonial escapades, especially in Africa?

On the surface level, the colonial adventures have provided quite a bit of the wealth that can still be seen as resplendent today in the streets and palatial homes of Brussels.

At one point, if you recall, Belgium had an extensive African empire, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Kinshasa and formerly as Zaire), the 12th largest country in the world — and the largest in Africa.

Rwanda was also part of Belgium’s African empire – and the film Hotel Rwanda clearly paints Belgian rule as being the source of many, if not all of Rwanda’s recent problems.

Though open to question historically, the thesis of the film is that Rwanda’s colonial masters invented the distinction between Hutus and Tutsi. It was they who put the taller, paler Tutsi in charge — because they looked “more white.”
Where these colonial excursions instrumental in solidifying the concept of Belgian nationhood? There is no doubt that imperial adventures helped cement loyalty to nation states during the 19th century.

But in recent decades, the nation state has been under retreat in western Europe, and its small countries in particular. The three Benelux countries have been at the heart of calls for greater European union — notwithstanding recent Dutch moves in the opposite direction.

Belgium in particular — with its strong regions and its status as host to the EU — has seen its people shift their loyalties both up and down from the Belgian state. If neither language, culture nor history is the focus for the Belgian state, what is left but the King — and its national football team?