The End of Belgium?
“What do you know about Belgium?”, I recently asked a friend.
Looking slightly bemused, she dug into her mental recesses of 10th grade world history and replied, “WWI… no wait WWII… well something with Germany at any rate right? ummm… a city with a weird name– Sprouts?… no… Brussels! And…oh oh oh! Waffles!!!”
She gets full points because lets be honest, unless you are an international affairs geek like myself, most Americans probably couldn’t come up with five facts about this little state if their lives depended on it.
Recent events, however, have catapulted Belgian politics into the front page of international headlines.
Most recently, on Monday February 28th, the Belgian parliament finally came to an agreement after months of deadlock which some feared would split the country in half.
Yes… serious concerns that the country would split in half!
Belgium is a country composed of two distinct nationalities and as such is a country constantly on the edge. There are three major language communities in Belgium—French (Walloon), Flemish (Flanders), and German. Tensions between French and Flemish, the two most widely spoken languages, constantly flare up.
So when in 2006 a news report suddenly broke into regularly scheduled programming stating that the Flemish half of the country had succeeded, journalists scrambled to get the story, embassies franticly called their respective leaders, and the public began to panic. After a half hour of madness, the the TV station, RTBF, finally let on that the whole thing was an elaborate TV hoax a la Orson Welles, perpetrated in an effort to highlight the problems between the two language groups.
As the last 9 months of parliament deadlock illustrates, not much progress has been made. Part of the problem is that there are no political parties transcending the language groups. Each party has a Flemish, French, and German counterpart.
In November 2007, according to an article in The Guardian, many Belgians were expecting their country to break up. The article quotes Mark Demesmaeker, deputy mayor of a suburb of Brussels, remarking that:
[I] “can no longer see the value-added of Belgium, actually. There are six million of us Flemings, we work hard, we make money, and we’re perfectly capable of standing on our own two feet. Indeed, we would be one of the wealthier small countries of Europe. For us, Belgium is simply counterproductive. We’d be better off without it.”
As the deputy mayor’s argument implies, the Walloon French-speaking region has grown considerably poorer over the past few decades. According to that same Guardian article, the Walloons live off a portion of taxes gathered from the regions in Flanders (Flemish-speaking).
Caroline Sägesser, a political analyst at a Thinktank in Brussels, stated:
“There are two extremes, some screaming that Belgium will last forever and others saying that we are standing at the edge of a ravine […] I don’t believe Belgium is about to split up right now. But in my lifetime? I’d be surprised if I were to die in Belgium.”
So why does this matter? Kosovo, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Taiwan are all breakaway regions with whom Western Europe has had considerable involvement. Should Belgium, as the center of the European Union, itself break up along ethno-linguistic lines, it will have a direct impact upon the EU’s foreign policy in these other conflicts.
But, don’t worry, thanks to the global market, an end to Belgium will not mean the end of Belgian Waffles.