By Richard Norman
A blogger writes:
Belgium, as many of you will know, was established in 1830 for two reasons: to host the main international conflicts of the 20th century; and to provide a viable, long-term basis for Belgian jokes.
Every article on the subject these days seems to start with a similar joke and I was too tired to make up my own. The potential division of Belgium has been in the news a lot lately: for the last three months politicians from all parties have been unable to form a government. News of the turmoil even featured on the front web-pages of both the New York Times and Washington Post over the weekend. The possibility of violence is highly unlikely, the global significance of Belgium limited–so why, as the Economist asks, should anyone care? The curiosity is pretty easy to understand–here at the heart of post-national Europe people turn out to actually care about nations (based largely, in this case, on languages). It sounds like a good story–but is it so simple? The Belgian experience is different than other similarly bilingual countries such as Canada or others that have survived with sizable linguistic minorities. I think survival in these cases requires an open federalism, one that gives some autonomy to separate groups, but stops short of insular autonomy. In Belgium, each group has locked itself away to the detriment of all–and it is impossible to see how burned bridges will now be rebuilt. Belgian federalism is, as Tony Judt once wrote, "complex in the extreme…a continuing source of resentment on all sides." Huge political redundancies and a mania for bureaucracy have locked in linguistic tensions and have led to Belgium becoming "a quilt of overlapping and duplicating authorities." Judt puts his finger directly on the problem:
To form a government is difficult: it requires multi-party deals within and across regions, "symmetry" between national, regional, community, provincial, and local party conditions, a working majority in both major language groups, and linguistic parity at every political and administrative level. [Tony Judt. "Is there a Belgium?" NYRB.]
The Flemish and Walloons should long ago have divorced. While Canadians sometimes consider Belgium a co-example of two linguistic groups living peaceably, it takes little experience in Belgium (where I lived for about a year) to see how much more bad blood lies between Flemish and Walloon than between English and French Canadians. Generations of economic disparity suddenly and completely reversed have led not only to major cultural resentments but also a level of civic nastiness in evidence in many social relations between both groups. The current crisis, according to the Times article, may be the beginning of the end:
The turning point is widely believed to have been last December when RTBF, a French-language public television channel, broadcast a hoax on the breakup of Belgium. The two-hour live television report showed images of cheering, flag-waving Flemish nationalists and crowds of French-speaking Walloons preparing to leave, while also reporting that the king had fled the country. Panicked viewers called the station, and the prime minister’s office condemned the program as irresponsible and tasteless. But for the first time, in the public imagination, the possibility of a breakup seemed real.
Is it irresponsible to want to see a divided Belgium? Please leave a comment if you have an opinion… –Richard