Bye Bye Belgium?


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

4 thoughts on “Bye Bye Belgium?

  1. Hi Otto, and Nick

    You have made a very nice thread, and I could not resist commenting further (I forgot to put my name on my first comment). I wonder if shared values actually do unite very much.

    We might remember the bad old days just before the first great war in order to further enlighten us about the ?strength” of shared values. The socialists back then (such as Jean Jaures) were sure that workers across Europe would refuse to fight each other because — they shared values. Well, to the dismay of the socialists, workers were glad to do so, and die by the thousands for the nations they were born into, even though those nations gave them back very little justice or equality.

    Nick is right that while Americans share values, the sharing is uncomfortable (and it always has been so). People often forget that nearly half a century went by after the founding of the US before the President Lincoln suddenly declared that the US was a nation dedicated to a principle (value) that all men are created equal. Dedicated to what? Perhaps Lincoln’s audience did not hear him correctly. Nearly 100 more years went by until that ?dedication” produced serious attention towards integrating blacks into the mainstream of US society. And the battle over racism in the US is not over by a long shot. So despite what Lincoln said, does the value of equality bind US citizenry together? Well, only in the mythic sense. I think what binds US citizens together much more tightly are the shared struggles that their forebears faced, and overcame together. The wars, depressions and so on. This history creates a pride in the group and a strange loyalty that demands further sacrifice together as a group as needed.

    I think this is the main problem with the current European experiment. Shared values are there for the plucking. And there is a negative connection to the past — no more internal wars. But no one has yet sacrificed or died for Europe itself (as opposed to their homeland). Thus, Europe remains a grand idea, but as a homeland it lacks visceral connecting links to one’s identity. This may come, but I would argue that it will come through tragedy rather than declarations of shared values.

  2. There is nothing irresponsible about questioning the arbitrary national boundaries drawn up by history, or allowing the right to self-determination within a peaceful and democratic framework. If anything, greater local autonomy based along ethnic lines may be the flipside of growing integration under the auspice of the EU and the shared values mentioned above. Of course, I have no idea what the Belgians themselves think – I wonder if they have the same kind of asymmetry as in Canada, where a majority of Canadians outside Quebec would like Quebec to remain in Canada, while a near majority within the province want separation.

    On the question of values, though, I think Bernard-Henri Levy is thinking more about the idea of America than the reality – anyone following the national discourse can clearly see that many Americans are just as parochial, about their language, the Christian/monotheistic basis for the country, etc., and anyone who has lived in America for even a little while will quickly realize what a divided country it is, even in terms of its own identity.

  3. Hello Richard and Anonymous,

    That’s a nice post indeed. I was actually in Belgium at the time of this television hoax. I think the foreign media has blown this joke up to enormous proportions. In fact, I did not have the impression at all that the television-joke was seen as the beginning of the end of the Belgian state, at least not in Belgium itself (perhaps it did look that way from the skyscrapers of Manhattan).

    I like the comment about love. In Europe, the love for our country is primarily based on a shared history (even though most individuals living today were not even born during most of that history). In America, at least that’s how I understand it, the love is primarily based on shared values (freedom, liberty, and justice).

    I agree that being Dutch is a big part of my identity; and whenever some Dutch philosopher (Grotius, Spinoza) is mentioned in a lecture abroad, I feel proud, and tell everyone that I am Dutch too. But I cherish even more the values on which the Netherlands (and many other nations) is based.

    It is often suggested that the unification of Europe should be based on this more abstract love for values too, since the history of Europe is one of almost perpetual conflict, not brotherly love. This is what Bernard-Henri Levy said about it: ‘European nations are bound within by history, by language, by culture, sometimes by skin color. The idea of Europe is to lift above all of that, to abstract from all the qualities that caused hate and war. It is very similar to the American identity, whose achievement is to unify all the disparate parts: people with different backgrounds, ideas, races and religions.’

    I guess, then, that when the Belgian state ceases to exist, at least the Belgians have their European values to hang on to. (And I believe the Netherlands would love to welcome the Northern part of Belgium as part of our country.) That was a joke, of course: I believe Belgium will not cease to exist.

  4. Hi Richard

    Nice post! One does feel uneasy rationally discussing the breakup of states. It sounds so radical. Is it only revolutionaries who dare take the power to plot who should have power? But why do we as average people so quickly (self) impose such a restriction on our right of expression? We give allegiance to our country even to the point of death, but why? I think it is similar (but worse) to discussing divorce. Love may be gone, conflicts may rage, but the institutions retain their mysterious power. Our imaginations may fail us in explaining why we give such allegiance, but we give it nonetheless, and when the state is gone (as with the marriage) we have lost a piece of ourselves. So when should we give up part of our identity? It would be best if we give it in order to get something better. What would be better? I would argue better implies more trustworthy. We do not (forgive me EU advocates) give up a piece of ourselves for an abstraction (integration, rights, even when we get back ?subsidiarity”). Perhaps this helps us speak more intelligently about nationalism. We tend to trust relating with people who share an ethnic or some other historical connection. So what about Belgium? I think the Belgians should dare to discuss their identity. But from the outside, we should just listen and hope they have something to talk about, other than just complaining about entitlements and taxes.

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