Belgium Should Remain United (Or Why Flanders Is More Like Kosovo Than Like Slovenia)

Belgium divided

Thanks to dr. ARF, readers of this blog have been brought up to speed with the ongoing political and state crisis Belgium is experiencing. To put it in a (Serbian) nutshell: “Flamanci bi kao da se odcjepe, a Valonci kao nedaju” (the Flemish like want to separate, but the Walloons like don’t let them). The sentence “they like want to separate and we like don’t let them” was uttered by this disillusioned Yugoslav soldier during Slovene war of independence, and immediately became the definition of a pointless war.

And yes – the Flemsih/Walloons thing does have certain parallels with Slovenian drive for independence in late 80s/early 90s. For example: Flanders is (like Slovenia) the “economic engine” of Belgium. French speaking Walloon region in experiencing high unemployment and is in dire need of total economic restructuring. Which is not likely to happen because apparently the Belgian welfare support for unemployment amounts to €2000 per month. Not a meagre amount, even by Belgian standards. Economy played a big part in Slovenia opting for independence. Namely: Slovenia being the economic engine of Yugoslavia had to (under the slogan of brotherhood and unity funnel ludicrous amount of cash to the undeveloped regions of Yugoslavia where it disappeared rather than being spent on development projects.

Also, there was the language issue. As far as I get it, Walloons (being basically French and all) are highly unlikely to learn Flemish, whereas most people in Flanders are capable of at least basic communication in French. Again, almost the same thing happened in Slovenia/Yugoslavia, where most Slovenes spoke Serbo-Croatian (even had to learn the language in elementary school) but none of the other Yugoslav nations spoke Slovene. Therefore, I think it is obvious that certain parallels between Slovenia and Flanders exist.

However. I do firmly believe that Belgium (unlike Yugoslavia) should remain united.

Odd as it may sound, geopolitically speaking, Flanders is much more like Kosovo than like Slovenia. Both Kosovo and Flanders have a “mother-state” across the border. Economically, socially and culturally Kosovo leans towards Albania rather than Serbia, while Flanders leans towards Nethelands rather than Belgium.

“Aha!” you say, but Kosovo is about to become independent and so should Flanders, then. “Well,” I reply. It is not that easy. If Flanders declares independence, Beglium basically ceases to exist. What happens to the bi-lingual Brussels? Does it become another Luxemburg or Liechtenstein? Belgium was established by its neighbours and if it no more, that means that there are also no more guarantees to its independence, which in turn means that both Walloons and Flemish can seek protection of their “mother-state”, perhaps leaving Brussels to continue as a small enclave, a no man’s land.

Ah yes, but then there’s the small matter of some 70.000 strong German minority in Belgium. What happens if they call to their Vaterland for help? The last time that happened, all hell broke loose.

Belgium should remain united, because its dissolution could very well mean the end of Pax Europeana as we know it.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

13 thoughts on “Belgium Should Remain United (Or Why Flanders Is More Like Kosovo Than Like Slovenia)”

  1. The Economist begs to differ: “Belgium has served its purpose. A praline divorce is in order.” (I can e-mail you the whole article if you want). Then again, this is also the publication that called for the abolishment of the European Parliament. The article doesn’t provide solutions for the Brussels/German minority question either. I’ve read elsewhere that BXL could become an “EU protectorate” but it sounds a bit far-fetched. That said, I can’t imagine how Belgium will keep things going the way they are now (government or no government) either. But I’m curious to hear more of what Arf has to say about this.

  2. I understand. I guess there is a fundamental difference between me and the editors of The Economist. I strongly believe that there is no force in the world that will stop the big European powers from trying to re-draw their borders in case Belgium is no more. That’s the whole point of Belgium. Perhaps this article by the NYT from 1918 (!) tells a bit more clearly what happens if an attempt is made at redrawing the map of that part of the world.

    It happened in Yugoslavia. At one point Serbia said that if Yugoslavia ceases to exist, borders between new states must be re-negotiated (i.e.: redrawn by force)

  3. It’s not realistic to predict a war in Western Europe if Belgium breaks away. Flemish don’t think of themselves as a Dutch people, and I also don’t think Wallonia would prefer to become part of the French Republic.They can become two new independent states like Czech Republic and Slovakia, and respect the current status of the German tiny minority. Brussel is the main problem, but it’s not Jerusalem , it’s possible to find a peaceful solution under EU patronage.

  4. Hang on, Poulette; here’s my say. 😉

    Through the media we’re led to believe that only a small fraction of the Flemish actually seek independence. I can’t say whether that’s true or not but as I stated before in my guest posts here – albeit not literally – I believe that the longer the Wallonian politicians give the Flemish a perpetual ‘Non’ on everything from the split of the electoral Brussel – Halle – Vilvoorde district (which means that the Wallonian politicians would lose out on a large number of voters because there are a lot of francophones who live in the Flemish towns around Brussel and are being ‘facilitated’ ie. they have all the facilities they’d have in Wallonia, implemented in towns that are strictly speaking Flemish, something that’s also a sore point with the Flemish, as they see this as the Walloons procuring more Lebensraum in Flemish territory, getting the best of the Flemish facilities, but still can vote for Wallonian politicians, making the coup complete) to the large state reform which is being proposed by the Flemish politicians.
    We’ve had a ‘Royal Scout’ in the form of veteran politician Eric Van Rompuy, a man, sorry, politician I dislike intensely because he once said that he opposes binding referenda because the electorate can’t handle the democracy they experience. Which means he says : “You’re too stupid to handle your own freedoms; we’ll decide them for you”. Then teach us how to handle them instead of treating us like unruly children, asshole!
    He was in talks with the bigwigs of all parties involved in an orange/blue (christian democrat/liberal; the only parties that can form a majority government) formation and in one prolonged swoop made sure Yves Leterme, who’s in his party and who won the election, got a second chance to open the official debate again and become prime minister. Not even a week has gone by and it’s the same old story, with the Wallonians saying ‘Non’ and the Flemish pushing for the BHV split and a large state reform. Oh, and the VB, of course, assembled the international press and prematurely declared the Independent Flemish State as fact. In the Flemish parliament, no less. No wonder The Economist says a praline divorce is in order. But then, what do the international media know about Belgium and why should they care? The only thing that matters to the outside world is where Brussel is going to be after the country splits. I’m sure Slovenija can say the same (see Michel Manske’s blog for examples of how Slovenija isn’t perceived in the world today). Did anyone care about Yugoslavia falling apart? Or the underlying reasons? Few remember that it started in Slovenija and far less know the underlying reasons.
    As for guarantees for independence, P, I think that is a moot point. Much more than we realize, we’re all being governed by the EU Parliament (except the British, that is, who fiercely protect their Island from outside Mainland interference). I don’t think Brussel becoming a EU protectorate is that far fetched. The francophone politicians so vehemently want Brussel to still be a francophone city on Flemish soil, but the truth is that the majority of people now living there are eurocrats like Poulette – which means English is the biggest language in our capital now – and they’re increasing in number every year. With the Euro firmly in place, Brussel could easily be some sort of free state and I think even the Flemish nationalists wouldn’t oppose that under the attitude of ‘If we can’t have Brussels back, the Walloons shouldn’t get it either’. And since most Flemings are at least bilingual (and I don’t mean that they speak French as we used to back in the day before Belgium became a federal state) and have a strong work ethic, they’d be safe within EU bounds an assured of supplying the majority of the local work force. I don’t think the Wallonian politicians quite understand that whatever happens, they are going to lose Brussel in the long run anyway. It’s already happening, right under their noses.
    As for the German minority : they are the quinessential Belgian model citizens, believe it or not, because they speak the three national languages (yes, this is a trilingual country, which is often forgotten, even by my compatriots both in North and South) and they are the most opposed about a possible Belgian secession because they don’t want to be reunited with Germany.
    And P, after reading my series, you should know that Flemings would never reunite with what you call our mother state. Hooverphonic’s Alex Callier, who has a Dutch girlfriend, put it this way : “The Burgundy lifestyle we have [in Flanders] is unknown to them [the Dutch]. So ironically speaking, we have more in common with the Walloons. People wanting to unite with Holland should think about that for a change.”
    There is no simple solution here. I think everyone knows that (except the fascist VB, of course) by now. Personally, I’m on the fence. I like Belgium the way it is, appreciate the Walloons for their more relaxed – almost mediterranean – attitude towards life and the natural beauty of a lot of their region, but I loathe their politicians, who, election after election, think they can bargain to get more money from the rich region that Flanders is, without actually giving anything in return or doing something about what ails them. Their solution seems to be “Gimme, gimme gimme” (like Serbia back in the day, indeed) and THAT is what started this crisis. The Flemish politicians (whom I loathe with a passion as well; I loathe all politics), for once united over all party lines in their ‘enough is enough’ stance, aren’t going to let them and that’s why this crisis happened. Wallonian Socialist party president Elio Di Rupo last week called for the Walloons to start thinking about their place when Belgium seceeded, because he felt it would eventually be inevitable. He stated that Flanders has all the attributes to make it on its own and that he didn’t want the Walloons ‘to miss the plane’. It’s a bit wry, if you know that this man’s party was in a large way responsible for that ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme’ attitude of the Wallonian government. So much that they’ve gotten used to it by now and can’t see anything wrong with it. But at least – for electoral purposes, no doubt – he is willing to acknowledge a change in the Wallonian mentality must happen. Last week, the news magazine ‘Terzake’ had a trilogy about the Czech/Slovak split, in which, ironically, the least fortunate region (Slovakia) wanted to seceed from the richest region (Czech Republic). And guess what? There still are differences, and yes, a lot of people, especially at the border of the now independent states, are unhappy about how they were treated, but Slovakia is well on the way of economical resurgence. I don’t see that kind of mentality in the Wallonian politicians.
    Oh yeah : and whatever anyone else says, I am actually proud of my cultural Flemish background and history. We have a lot to be proud of indeed. But I’m not prepared to think any less of any other culture because of it, not even the one south of the language border…

  5. @ARF: I obviously realize that the Flemish want independence and not unification with Holland. That goes without saying. But I do fear that a beak-up of Belgium would by necesity release teritorial claims by any and all neighbouring states.

    @Albert: I mean – the world hasn’t changed all that much… And if you wipe a sovereign country off the map, anything is possible. Including (forceful) redrawing of borders. The fact that this is 2007 and not 1917 makes no difference at all.

    For as long as nation-state is still alive, teritorry, people and language will be the most poweful galvanizing moments in politics. When the going gets tough, money comes in a distant fourth.

  6. Arf, very insightful, as always. Peng, call me ignorant, butI don’t quite understand why you’re so convinced of these teritorial claims. Can you clarify? Also, don’t forget that there’s another pretty important difference between the Dutch and the Flemmish: the former are Protestant, the latter Catholic.

  7. It’s only a minor detail, Poulette, but I’d say the Dutch are Reformed, just for argument’s sake. You have Protestants and Calvinists there and even that cultural difference, albeit less and less these days, is significant in Holland. Ask any Dutchman- or woman who doesn’t live up north what it means to live ‘upside the Moerdijk’ and they’ll tell you it’s a different world.
    I think what P means with those territorial claims, are the claims made pre- WW I by France, Germany and Holland to the regions that now make up Belgium. Personally, I don’t think the Dutch government would ever consider reclaiming Flanders into its territory the way they tried in the years after independence. By now, they wouldn’t want to go through all the trouble, let alone endangering their position in the EU when doing such a thing. Same goes for Germany and the East Canton. And since Wallonia is such an economical wasteland, I doubt France would reclaim it, since they have their hands full with French Flanders, which is their version – and by no coincidence borders Belgium; after all it WAS a region that belonged to Flanders once upon a time (around the Spanish invasion and the birth of the Reformation, it was a stronghold of the Flemish partisans, who called themselves ‘Geuzen’) – of Wallonia : an economical wasteland. So I really don’t see the undoing of Belgium as a means for our neighbouring countries to reclaim once lost territory, really. We’d all just become EU regions. But politically, I doubt the parts would be stronger than the sum on an international level, and none of the negotiators seem to realize this and instead appear to choose to stare at their respective navels, rather than keeping the international impact in mind…

  8. flemish and walloons themselves will be the ones to decide at the end of the day with a vote being the method. plans and negotiations come after an in-principle agreement and public consultation, and even more voting in border regions as to which side of the border they end up on. i don’t see any of this as a problem, and in modern western europe, i don’t think germany would get away with involving itself externally to a democratic process. they would be vilified in the media if they tried, and rightfully so.

    but the decisions should come down to the people.

  9. Ok, the Dutch are Reformist, but my main point was that the simmilarities between the Flems and the Dutch aren’t as clear cut as that. As for the teritorial claims, I don’t necessarily see history repeating here for precisely the reasons that Arf listed – particularly in the case of Wallonia. And like KarLos pointed out, getting involved in the democratic internal issues of a fellow EU country just wouldn’t go down very well – particularly where Germany is concerned.

  10. It’s a pet theory of mine that Europe is about to come full circle to pre-WWI stage, with five capitals (London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Belgrade) being the main players on the continent.

    I am also convinced that the generation of politician in power today generally lacks the historic perspective needed for maintaining peace on the continent.

    And every day I see more and more signs that in more and more places in the world more and mroe shit is brewing and noone seems to do anything about it.

    I fear the day when shit starts hitting the fan. And when it does, it’ll happen all at once.

  11. I think most Germans don’t know or care about the German minority in Belgium. And when shit hits the fan in Belgium one thing you won’t hear is “let us annex the area”. Apart from Eastern German skinheads, maybe, but they don’t count – you do need at least 3 grey cells to do bundespolitik…

  12. There is one real problem: money.
    Flemish complain now that there is so much money going to Wallonia, while more then half of that money comes back because the Walloon are able to buy Flemish products, something the EU knows and uses.
    But that’s not the problem, the problem are the Belgian debts.
    Since the Flemish nor the Walloon will agree swiftly on a dissolution, the EU (the Eurocrats will hate that Belgium splits and do everything to prevent it, in order to keep their creditability and the idea ‘United in Diversity’ alive) will step in and divide the debts looking at how much the two parties can actually pay. Whihc is 70% for Flanders, 30% for Wallonia.
    Result: Flanders will suddenly get so much debts that it will be ruined the day it becomes independent, just like Wallonia by the way.
    Apart from that Flanders, if Flanders keeps Brussels they will still have 17% of Francophones in the population to keep in mind. If not there will be less Francophones but they will still be there.

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