February 12, 2011


The trouble with Flanders: Why Belgium’s unending linguistic disputes matter to Europe (Charlemagne, Jan 27th 2011, The Economist)

Paradoxically the slow dissolution of Belgium, the most pro-European of countries, goes hand in hand with the (uneven) deeper integration of the EU. Belgium is facing its worst troubles just as the EU confronts the gravest challenge to the euro. One way of looking at Belgium’s divide is as a counterpart to the EU’s split between a Germanic, frugal north and a subsidy-dependent Latin south. Financial markets stand ready to dump Belgian bonds at any hint of formal partition, because of uncertainty over who would repay the country’s debts. But, for the moment, the euro gives all parties the luxury of intransigence. Without it, the stalemate might have triggered a run on the Belgian franc.

Today’s blockage is unlike previous ones in that an avowedly separatist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has for the first time become dominant in Flanders. Led by Bart de Wever, a charismatic bruiser, the N-VA’s appeal stems precisely from popular exasperation with the messy, unsatisfying compromises of the older political groups. It wants a decisive shift of powers to Flanders, and makes little secret of its wish to see Belgium “evaporate” within the EU. Danny Pieters, the N-VA president of the Belgian Senate, says he sees no need for a Flemish army: one day Belgian forces will be part of a European one. For the N-VA, Europe is the acid that will help to dissolve Belgium.

Strangely, perhaps, this same erosion of sovereignty is seen as an antidote to violent nationalism. European integration overcame the historic enmity between France and Germany. Ireland’s entry into the EU helped to end the worst of Northern Ireland’s sectarian war. In the Balkans, the EU offers the balm of membership to heal the trauma of the Yugoslav wars. But is this not all romantic nonsense when Belgium, a founder of the EU as well as the host to its capital, struggles to hold together? No, says Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank. By “taking the gun out of politics”, the EU has contradictory effects. It makes it easier to draw violent groups into politics; but it also allows peaceful nationalists to act up, and voters to support them, because there is no danger of bloodshed.

We're not going to war to keep the Union together next time.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2011 6:29 AM
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