Monday, 10 September 2007

Dismantle Belgium?

There was an interesting piece in The Economist last week about Belgium and whether or not its existence really makes sense in the 21st century. Ostensibly it was just about the current conditions in this one tiny country, but in effect it cuts to the heart of the future of Europe as a whole.

The magazine asks the question, given that we’re now in month three of Belgium having no new government because the two parties can't agree, is it time to revaluate the Belgian state? After all if the parties, made up along ethnic/linguistic lines of French-speaking Walloons in the south and Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north still have so much tension after nearly 200 years, perhaps the time may be coming to rethink Belgium’s status.

Invented as more of an accident of history than out of necessity, Belgium is a consequence of the wars or religion from centuries ago. All of the low countries were once controlled by Spain, as part of the Habsburg inheritance. When the seventeen provinces of the North, led by Holland, converted to Protestantism, they revolted against Spain and fought an 80-year war for independence. Eventually they won it, but Spain kept the provinces of the south (what is today Belgium). The areas under Spanish control remained Catholic, while the independent north became strongly protestant. When Napoleon wrested the Belgian territory from Spain and united it with the Netherlands, the territory remained attached to the Netherlands following his defeat in 1815. However the Catholic inhabitants of the southern provinces feared they would lose religious freedom if they were part of the protestant Netherlands, so they revolted shortly after and created their own country in 1830.

Since then, the country has been in a perpetual feud within itself, with the Walloons and Flemings never getting along. So, the Economist asks, maybe it’s time for the country to be split.  The problem with this solution has always been that Brussels, which is the capital and is predominantly French-speaking, is located in Flanders. So splitting the two would create a bit of a situation. 

But it occurred to me, with Brussels now being the administrative capital of the EU, why not make the city an independent entity, like Washington DC in the United States (which is not a state but rather a district, belonging to the federal government). That way the EU’s capital would not belong to any particular country, but rather to the EU itself. Neutrality guaranteed.

Of course this idea probably presents more problems than it solves. For instance, I doubt many Belgians would be happy with losing their one and only significant city. But implicit in this solution is also the suggestion that Wallacia should go to France and Flanders should go to the Netherlands. My understanding is that the Walloons would be amenable to this idea, but the Flemish would definitely not. You would think that in Europe in 2007, religion wouldn’t be a big enough issue to still be causing problems like this between Catholics and Protestants, but it does. Flemings are essentially very conservative and would still be loath to join with the Dutch, their dislike of whom seems to only be surpassed by their dislike for the Walloons. What a cranky bunch!

So of course this idea isn’t practical right now, as the whole thing would be a lot more trouble than its worth. But it may be an idea for the EU to consider in the future. Similarly, if more and more authority is transferred to a federal level in the future (and that’s a big if!) it could lead to a call for the dismantling of many European states as these unions are deemed less and less relevant in the modern context. We’ve already seen this with the Scottish National Party (SNP) which just won regional elections in the Scottish Parliament. Their whole party platform is for Scotland to succeed from the UK and become an independent nation, and their argument rests on the idea that with a united EU, there is no need for Scotland to be united with England any longer, and that there is room for small states with few resources to be successful now (they point to Ireland as an example). So down the road, could the EU open up room for an independent Basque Country, Catalonia, Corsica, or Lombardy? It’s an interesting question.

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