Friday, September 26, 2008
Belgium faces historic break up- so will Britain be next?
Here's my article on the political crisis in Belgium- and why it could have wider repercussions-from The Mail on Sunday.
Crisis, what crisis? As I sip coffee in a Brussels cafe, it's difficult to imagine that I am in the capital of a country facing the worst political crisis in its 169-year history.
For eight weeks, Belgium has been without a government after Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned.
The latest impasse comes just four months after Belgium ended a nine-month period without a government, following an inconclusive general election result in June 2007.
Despite many negotiations, and the intervention of King Albert himself, Belgium's political parties have found it impossible to agree on the formation of a new administration.
Now it seems the future of Belgium is at stake. An increasingly vociferous Flemish nationalist movement is calling for the country to separate.
Opinion polls show an increasing number of Belgians believe separation is the only way the political stalemate will end.
If Belgium does separate, it is a move that will have repercussions not only for the country's 10.5million people, but for the rest of Europe, including Britain.
Belgium is a country divided by language: the Flemish, which make up 58 per cent of the population, have Dutch (or Flemish) as their native tongue, while the Walloons speak French. There is also a small minority of German speakers in the far east of the country.
Historically, the French-speakers in Wallonia, in the south of the country, have held the upper hand. For the first 60 years of the country's existence, French was the official language and Wallonia, the centre of Belgium's mining industry, was by far the most prosperous part of the country.
But that all changed when recession hit Wallonia in the Eighties. While the region is stagnating, Flemish-speaking Flanders is booming - tourists flock to its wonderfully preserved cities such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, and the area is home to many multinationals.
Greater economic prosperity has fuelled Flemish demands for greater autonomy - and even separation. In 1980, the Belgian constitution was redrawn, giving more autonomy to the Flemish north, the Walloon south and the bilingual capital, Brussels.
But the devolution of power, far from assuaging separatist demands, has only increased them - a lesson clearly not learnt by New Labour which pushed ahead with devolution for Scotland and Wales, believing it would strengthen Britain.
The Right-wing, anti-immigration and pro-separatist Flemish Party Vlaams Belang, denounced as fascist by opponents, has increased its share of the vote in every election since 1987. In 2007 it won 17 out of the 150 seats in the Belgian parliament.
Although Vlaams Belang's hardline stance is not shared by a majority of the population in Flanders, there is nevertheless widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.
'If there are 1,050 speed cameras in Belgium, then there are 1,000 in Flanders and 50in Walloon. And the money from the penalties is split up 50/50. OK, that's a bit exaggerated, but not far from the truth,' says Ben Thys, a Flemish businessman.
Flemish subsidies to the south are more than 3.3 billion euros a year. 'We are paying for the Walloons not to work,' says cafe owner Guy Wauters. 'Taxes are high because of this. The situation is simply not fair.'
More than 60 per cent of people in Flanders say they would like to see Belgium stay together - but only if the Walloons make concessions. And as the disagreements intensify, a growing number of Walloons think Belgium's days are numbered.
Rivalry between Flemish and French-speaking communities have always existed.
Only one per cent of marriages cross the linguistic divide. Two years ago a scandal erupted when Sophie Pecriaux, an MP from Wallonia, was found to be having an affair with Hendrik Daems, a Flemish politician.
If Belgium does separate, the consequences will be felt across Europe. If Flanders and Wallonia can be independent countries, why not Scotland and Wales? The SNP, the ruling party in the Scottish Assembly, has pledged that Scots will have the chance to vote in a 2010 referendum on whether to break away from the UK.
The disappearance of Belgium would also be a body blow to the EU and its dream of closer integration.
Brussels is the headquarters of the EU, and Belgium has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of monetary and political union. Yet many would say the EU has also contributed to the political crisis in Belgium.
The fact that newly independent countries can find a ready-made home in the EU makes independence much more attractive than might otherwise be the case.
Many people sneer about Belgium (usually along the line of 'name a famous Belgian'), but the country has much to be proud of - its ultra-reliable public transport system puts Britain's to shame, and the health service is highly regarded.
In the event of a divorce, what to do with these excellent services? And how would Brussels be carved up between the rival groups?
This issue could be why Belgium may yet pull through. 'I think we will stay together but in a new confederation, with Flanders and Wallonia having more control over their own economies,' says Ben Thys.
The question is: can people from different linguistic and cultural groups live together in one country? If not, then will Europe, including the UK, break up into succession of ethnically-based micro-states?
'I never could see the point of Belgium,' the wit Clement Freud once said. But the 'point of Belgium' will be most apparent if it goes.