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Today Belgium, Tomorrow the European Union

20 June 2010

Today Belgium, Tomorrow the European Union

By Gwynne Dyer

Bart de Wever, the Flemish politician who promises the “evolutionary evaporation” of Belgium, is now the political king-maker in Brussels. The bureaucrats and politicians of the European Union, who also hang out in Brussels, will therefore have a ringside seat for the dismantling of the Belgian state. They should pay close attention, for their own turn may be coming.

De Wever’s New Flemish Alliance won 28 percent of the vote in Dutch-speaking Flanders, the northern half of Belgium, in the national election on 14 June. Elsewhere that would not be an impressive result, but in the highly fragmented Belgian political system it counts as an avalanche.

A long struggle will now ensue while the many Flemish and Walloon parties struggle to form a coalition with a parliamentary majority. It’s always a struggle, because there is very little by way of shared identity between the Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons. (After the 2007 election, it took 200 days to negotiate a coalition, and then there were three governments in three years.) Belgian politics has reached a state of semi-permanent paralysis.

The project for an independent Flanders is no longer a political pipe-dream, but the reaction elsewhere is likely to be a loud Who Cares? So we end up with a separate Flanders and a (reluctantly) independent Wallonia. We can live with that. However, the very thing that is destroying Belgium may also destroy the European Union, or at least drive it back to a much earlier version of itself.

It is customary, when discussing what’s wrong with Belgium, to recite a history lesson about how the French-speaking part, Wallonia, was one of the first industrialised areas in Europe and dominated the Belgian state for over a century. The Flemish always resented their lower status, and after the Second World War the shoe moved to the other foot.

Wallonia’s smokestack industries were dying, while Flanders got all the new high-tech industry and grew rich. By the 1980s the Flemish were powerful and confident enough to demand and get an extravagantly federal system, but in two key areas they failed. The Walloon political leaders ceded all sorts of powers to the various federal entities, but they managed to keep both taxation and social spending under the control of the central government.

So long as the Flemish politicians must negotiate with them about how money is collected and spent, the Walloons can ensure that a big chunk of federal spending is actually transfers of wealth from rich Flanders to poorer Wallonia (where unemployment is twice as high). After a few decades of subsidising the Walloons, many of the Flemish have concluded that the problem is the central government itself, and that the solution is its abolition.

Now consider the present difficulties of the European Union: most urgently the crisis of the euro currency, but more broadly the growing popular resistance to any further attempts to “broaden” or “deepen” the EU.

Might this be connected to the fact that the richer countries of northern Europe are getting fed up with the huge transfer of resources to southern Europe, and in particular with the way that their common currency has been undermined by the fiscal irresponsibility of the southern members? Of course it is, and it does not bode well for the future of the EU as currently constituted.

The architects of the euro half-understood that rich countries like Germany and France and relatively poor countries like Greece and Portugal need to run their currencies in different ways. The euro, as a one-size-fits-all straitjacket, was therefore a problematic currency from the start, but the elite policy-makers who wanted to “deepen” European unity were determined to have it anyway.

They tried to erase the north-south disparity by large transfers of resources from the rich to the poor countries, but that didn’t really change the economic structures and political habits of the poorer, mostly Mediterranean countries – and it awakened a powerful sense of grievance among the rich. Like the Flemish in Belgium, the northern European countries that use the euro are running out of patience.

Large transfers of resources between different regions are possible if people at both ends of the exchange see themselves as part of the same greater enterprise. But the Flemish don’t see themselves in that light – and neither do most ordinary people in the EU.

The “European” identity that has emerged with the growth of the EU in the past half-century is not a mere fantasy, but it is not a deeply rooted, instinctive identity for most people either. The sheer foot-dragging reluctance of the German government to finance the bail-out of Greece, even though the euro itself was at risk, is a measure of how deep the rot has gone.

Greece will probably declare bankruptcy in a couple of years, but the euro currency as a whole will survive until the next major recession. It will probably not survive beyond that, however, unless the national economic policies of EU countries can be subordinated to some all-powerful central bank. That is very unlikely to happen.

The euro, it turns out, was probably a step too far. Devised as a means of uniting Europe, it instead threatens to divide it fatally, and all the good that the previous, more modest version of the EU did could be lost.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 12 and 14. (“A long…paralysis”; “Large…EU”; and “Greece…happen”)

Belgium: The End Is Not Nigh

21 September 2007

Belgium: The End Is Not Nigh

 By Gwynne Dyer

Everybody knows some long-married couple who quarrel constantly but never break up. Squabbling does not mar their relationship; it IS their relationship, and they are addicted to it. Belgium is a bit like that.

It is now over a hundred days since the last election in Belgium, and Belgian politicians have still not managed to put together a new coalition government. Another three weeks, and they will overtake the recent record of 127 days set by Iraqi politicians in 2005 (although not the all-time record of 148 days, set by a previous generation of Belgian politicians in 1988). The Dutch-speaking Flemings and the French-speaking Walloons who have shared the country for the past 177 years are barely on speaking terms — and yet Belgium will probably survive.

“There’s no Belgian sentiment,” says Filip Dewinter, the leader of the separatist Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party, which recently proposed a referendum on Flemish independence. “There’s no Belgian language. There’s no Belgian nation. There’s no Belgian anything.” And while that is not quite true — there is a Belgian king, and a Belgian national football team, and even a Belgian army — he does have a point.

When the great powers carved Belgium out of the southern Netherlands in1830, they had the support of both the Flemings and the Walloons, whose shared Catholic faith set them apart from the mostly Protestant Dutch. But religion matters far less in today’s Europe, and language a lot more. Belgium, straddling the linguistic divide between Germanic northern Europe and Latinate southern Europe, was bound to be pulled in opposite directions, and local politics have made matters a lot worse.

For a century and a half, French-speaking Wallonia was the country’s economic powerhouse, the richest coal and steel-making area on the continent. The poorer inhabitants of mostly rural Flanders were largely excluded from power, and Flemish, the local version of Dutch, was seen by most French-speakers as a peasant dialect unworthy of respect. Then, as often happens in history, the worm turned.

After the Second World War Wallonia’s economy went into long-term decline, like other heavy industrial regions in Europe, while the Flemish population grew much faster and the economy of Flanders boomed. Now there are six million Flemings and only four million Walloons, and the unemployment rate in Wallonia (17.6 percent) is almost twice that of Flanders (9.3 percent). In fact, the Belgian federal government is now mainly a vehicle for transferring revenue from rich Flemish areas to poor Walloon areas, and “subsidies” from taxes paid in Flanders account for 15 percent of the income of Wallonia.

This was bound to cause great resentment in Flanders, especially given the previous history of Walloon arrogance. Prosperous Flemings vote heavily to the right, poorer Walloons vote more to the left, and there are no political parties that appeal to both language groups. Making a government always involves putting together parties from both sides of the language divide, and it is never an easy process. This time it seems close to impossible, and so the speculation about the break-up of Belgium has taken wing again.

For the past thirty years, a series of Flemish politicians who had mastered the art of appealing to their own group’s nationalist impulses in code, while still sounding reasonable enough to command some support in French-speaking areas, have managed to keep the show on the road, but the current prime minister-designate, Yves Leterme, has not. He campaigned on a promise to weaken the federal government further, which Walloons see as a threat to their subsidies, and so the coalition-making process has stalled.

It is a genuine political crisis, in a low-key Belgian sort of way, and the media at home and abroad have delighted in painting scenarios of partition. The civilised divorce of the Czechs and the Slovaks in the 1990s is offered as a precedent, and there is no doubt that it could be done: an independent Flanders, an independent Wallonia, and the city of Brussels, a French-speaking island within Flanders, as a city-state that continues to serve as the capital of the European Union.

But it almost certainly won’t happen. Even though the successor states would continue to share a common currency and the EU’s single market, the cost and disruption of separation would be considerable, and most people just don’t feel that strongly about it. If you needed one word to sum up the Flemish-Walloon relationship, it would be not hatred but grumpiness.

Sooner or later they will find some way to create a coalition government, or else they’ll have another election, but there will be no secession, not even a referendum on independence. When the far-right Vlaams Belag proposed such a referendum in the Flemish regional parliament in early September, not one other Flemish party was willing even to debate the issue. And of course an overwhelming majority of French-speakers oppose a split.

In the longer run, the worm may even turn again. The Flemish population is ageing much faster than the Walloons, and there is at last an economic recovery of sorts underway in Wallonia. So Belgium will trundle on, unloved, over-governed (nine regional and linguistic parliaments plus the federal government) — and generally a very comfortable place to live. Too comfortable for most people to get really passionate about politics.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“When…worse”; and “For the past…stalled”)