Nothing plucky about breaking up Belgium
Simon Jenkins defines the success of Flemish nationalists in Belgian elections as a bold step forward. It is anything but
Sophie De Schaepdrijver
Monday June 21 2010
The largest party to come out of the 13 June elections in Belgium is the New Flemish Alliance, which wants to get rid of Belgium. Its strategy, in the words of its leader, Bart De Wever, is to consign the Belgian state to "evolutionary evaporation". This matters to all of Europe, wrote Simon Jenkins [http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/17/plucky-belgium-leading-the-way" title="Cif: Plucky Belgium is leading the way. Today Flanders, tomorrow Scotland]. As the headline puts it: "Plucky Belgium is leading the way. Today Flanders, tomorrow Scotland." Across the continent, "the craving for lower tier self-government refuses to die". And, as state-wide solidarity between regions dwindles, so may Europe-wide solidarity.
Jenkins's piece questions the pious truths of "euregionalism". He has a point. Did anyone, even in the dewy-eyed days of Freddy Heineken's 2002 "Eurotopia [http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/2009/05/26/386-my-kingdom-for-a-beer-heinekens-eurotopia/" title="Strangemaps: My Kingdom for a Beer? Heinekens Eurotopia]", really think rich regions would extricate themselves from states only to get re-embroiled in the EU? If Flemings stop bailing out Walloons, why would they rush to assist Greeks?
Jenkins's Euroscepticism leads him to define all of this as a bold step forward. It is, of course, anything but. As the great Tony Judt argued more than a decade ago in his essay "Is There A Belgium? [http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1999/dec/02/is-there-a-belgium/" title="NY Books: Is There A Belgium?]", the slow implosion of the Belgian state is indeed indicative of what happens on the wider European stage. But Judt did not define this as a good thing. The division of Belgium happened against the backdrop of the larger crisis of the state, and that was nothing to wax gleeful about: "In progressively dismantling and disabling the unitary state in order to buy off its internal critics, Belgians may have made a Faustian bargain," he wrote, warning that citizenries cast aside "a sense of cohesion and common purpose" at their own peril.
One may argue that regions offer a more genuine sense of common purpose than do states, and are therefore better able to protect their citizens. That is certainly De Wever's claim: strengthened Flemish governance will, he states, more decisively defend the prosperity and culture of "our 6 million people on that little patch of soil that is Flanders" [http://nos.nl/video/163947-tom-lanoye-vreest-voor-vlaamse-republiek-onder-de-wever.html" title="NOS.nl: Tom Lanoye vreest voor Vlaamse republiek onder De Wever">"our 6 million people on that little patch of soil that is Flanders].
But does fiscal egotism create communities other than the gated kind? Will a rhetoric of prosperous retrenchment accommodate future calls for sacrifice? This remains an open question. In 2009, the New Flemish Alliance issued campaign posters showing a motorway exit sign with the reassuring slogan "Exit to Flanders ? Way Out Of The Recession". The ubiquity of today's financial meltdown precludes such hubris. Yet the notion that inhabitants of a more autonomous Flanders will somehow be spared the vexing issues of the day remains strong. De Wever's secret strength lies in the fact that he is a genuine Flemish nationalist ? he would choose Flanders over prosperity if he had to. But he is careful not to tell his electorate.
There are other things De Wever remains silent about, such as the fate of Brussels in a divided Belgium. The New Flemish Alliance has grown strong on the campaign to detach the northern exurbs of Brussels, which are technically Flemish territory [http://in.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-48040420100427" title="Reuters: What next for Belgium after government collapse?], from the capital's electoral district. For an outsider, it is hard to grasp the fierce emotions generated by this issue, until one understands that its parochialism is precisely its point: in Flemish nationalist rhetoric, Brussels ? French-speaking, ever more foreign ? is an "oil spill" to be dammed in.
Meanwhile, few Flemish autonomists want to get rid of Brussels altogether. Likewise, splitting the Belgian state down the middle is no option. So ? whither? One could think of strengthening the regions while defining a new role for Belgium, a polity that predated Flanders and Wallonia, after all (Jenkins's brief account of Belgian history since 1830 is deplorably inaccurate.) One could stop taking the division of public culture as a given ? see the opinions voiced on the discussion forum "Rethinking Belgium", by among others, De Wever's elder brother, Bruno, a professor of history [http://www.rethinkingbelgium.eu/about-rebel-initiative" title="Rethinking Belgium], or if you know Dutch, the most recent comment on Flanders and Belgium by the brilliant Flemish writer Tom Lanoye [http://www.foyer.be/IMG/pdf/Lanoye1.pdf" title="Belgi is geen land voor scherpslijpers en houwdegens (PDF)].
Alas, the road more commonly taken by too many politicians, Flemings and Walloons alike, is that of passive aggression ? a stance that, in a delirium of irresponsibility, hollows out all remaining sense of common purpose. They have a term for it in Belgium: in French "la strat?gie du pourrissement","verrottingsstrategie" in Dutch. There really is nothing "plucky" about it, unless, of course, one wishes to see the entire EU succumb to pourrissement.
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