Saturday, October 06, 2007
The Balkanisation of Belgium
Over the next week, I'll be posting a series of my articles on Belgium, one of my favourite countries. As I'm sure you're aware the very existence of the country is now at stake, due to the increased demands of Flemish nationalists.
Here's my piece on why the disappearance of Belgium from the map of the world would be a sad event, from The Australian.
It's given us waffles, the saxophone and the bittersweet ballads of Jacques Brel. Not to mention comic book adventurer Tintin, ace sleuth Hercules Poirot and 400 varieties of some of the best beers in the world. But after 177 years of history, Belgium is facing the biggest threat to its existence since the tanks of the Wehrmacht rolled over its borders in May 1940.
Three months after a general election, the country is in paralysis and still without a government. The elections brought to an end an eight-year period of socialist-liberal rule, with the right-wing Flemish Christian Democrat-Flemish nationalist alliance emerging as the largest parliamentary grouping but without an overall majority. The Flemish nationalists' ambitions are clear: they want independence for the Flanders region from Belgium. The francophone parties refuse to co-operate with parties who demand greater autonomy for Flanders.
If Belgium's Flemish and French-speaking areas do go their own way and the country disappears from the map, it will be a sad moment in modern European history. It's easy - and in some circles almost compulsory - to talk condescendingly about Belgium (usually along the line of "what famous people has Belgium produced?"). But the truth is, the small, densely populated kingdom has much to be proud of.
A rule-of-law democracy, Belgium has lived in peace with its neighbours and in the post-war period has played a constructive role in European affairs, being a founder member of the European Coal and Steel Community, which evolved into the European Economic Community in 1957. Despite its linguistic divisions, Belgium works: over the past half-century there have been far worse places in the world in which to live.
But as worrying as these developments are, the problems facing the country are not unique. The great European paradox is that as the countries of the Continent, under the aegis of the EU, are brought closer together, so separatist movements within countries are gaining ground.
In Britain, the Scottish National Party recently won power in elections for the Scottish Assembly, set up by the Blair government in 1997. SNP leader Alex Salmond has formally launched draft legislation that would give Scots the chance to vote in a 2010 referendum of whether to break away from Britain.
"We in the Government believe that independence would be the best for our country," Salmond has said.
In Spain, the right of self-determination was asserted by the Basque parliament in 2002 and 2006, while in June the Basque terrorist organisation ETA, blamed for 800 deaths since 1968, officially announced the end of a ceasefire that had been in place since March of the year before.
And, of course, in the Balkans, the region where the separatist fever presently sweeping the Continent began in the 1990s, there's Kosovo, probably the most problematic case of them all. In Kosovo what is at stake is not just the futures of the province's Albanian, Serb and other ethnic minorities, but the battle for regional hegemony between the US and Russia.
The US wants Kosovo to be independent, confident that the new Albanian-dominated state would be a strong ally. Russia wants the province to remain part of Serbia, a country with which it has strong historical ties. And as in Belgium, the parties to the dispute are locked in stalemate.
Some would say the EU's unifying agenda has contributed, inadvertently, to the rise in the popularity of separatist movements. The deflationary economic measures adopted by member states in the 1990s to prepare for the introduction of the euro plunged many European countries into recession. In order to reduce their budget deficits to meet the so-called Maastricht criteria, countries reduced government support to industry and unemployment rocketed.
In Belgium, this hit the French-speaking south, where most of the country's heavy industry was based, particularly hard. The greater relative prosperity of the north has fuelled Flemish demands for independence: why should wealthy Flanders have to pay higher taxes to subsidise unemployed workers in Wallonias, or so the argument goes.
Second, the fact that countries can find a ready-made home in the EU makes independence much more attractive than might otherwise be the case. Europe's separatists may be nationalists, but their nationalism doesn't extend to opposing joining a body to which they must hand over much of their newly won sovereignty. The EU (or the EC, as it was then called), played a not insignificant role in the break-up of Yugoslavia, by prematurely recognising the breakaway republics of Slovenia and Croatia. If Slovenia and Croatia could cede, then why not Bosnia and Macedonia?
As the Balkans showed, the trouble with the separatist bug is that, like all bugs, it's highly contagious. If Kosovo is allowed to divorce from Serbia, why can't the Basques sever their links with Spain? And if Slovakia - a country which, apart from a six-year period during World War II, had no history as a sovereign nation until its independence in 1993 - can have a seat at the UN, then why can't Scotland, which was an independent state until 1707?
Moreover, it's a mistake to think that separatist demands will always rest on ethnicity. What will happen if Europe's sizeable and growing Muslim population starts to demand a right to self-determination? The idea is not as far-fetched as it might seem: in Britain there is already a self-styled Muslim parliament, and a recent poll showed that a clear majority of British Muslims want Sharia law introduced in civil cases relating to their own community.
In principle, of course, self-determination is a noble idea that all good democrats should approve of. But in practice things aren't so clear-cut. Do we really want a Europe split into scores of different statelets? And what guarantee is there that the newly independent countries won't split into even smaller parts too? No European state is ethnically homogenous, and if the ethnic minorities of every country demand the right to nationhood the Continent could be bogged down in separatist disputes for generations to come.
It's a fair bet that many European countries are already wishing the process of fragmentation, begun in the Balkans in 1990s, had never started.