In this essay I argue that we are entering the fin de jeu phase of the Belgian state’s agony. To see why the impending divorce of the Flemish and Walloon communities may be violent and highly damaging to the European experiment, read on… Mis au jour le 27 juillet 2010.
Summer Musings: The Violent End of the Kingdom of Belgium
By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
A barbecue gathering in our back yard yesterday has prompted me to speak out on what all of our sophisticated, worldly-wise Euro-parliamentarians down the road have remained silent about. It is something which the presidency of the European Union by a certain Herman Van Rompuy conceals rather than reveals, given his accession to power was largely in recognition of his supposed talent for keeping fractious language/ethnic communities together. The unspeakable fact is that Belgium is well on its way to splitting apart in the foreseeable future, perhaps in the next couple of years, and it may do so not in some laid-back velvet divorce as happened to the former Czechoslovakia, but quite possibly in a cataclysm which may resemble more the murderous events in the Balkans of the 1990s.
It is an unacceptable conceit to believe that ethnic violence and deadly intentions exist only among the undereducated and impoverished and so do not apply to an advanced economy at the heart of Europe, home to NATO and to the European Union institutions. This is a total misreading of the lessons of modern nationalism and of its destructive powers.
It is an error to believe that a people will follow its own material interest and not rock the boat. The decisive questions are which people and whose material interest. The contradiction in perspectives and prospects between the common people, the established elites and the newly ambitious political leadership of nationalist movements comes to the fore in such situations and vitiates the validity of normal, level-headed logic.
So what did I hear yesterday which spurred my mental juices?
Our dinner guests were a sensible, middle-of-the-road Belgian couple in their early 60s who speak matter-of-factly and have no penchant for over-dramatization. Amidst chit-chat over our grilled T-bone and chipolata sausages aux fines herbes washed down with some nicely chilled Lambrusco, they let drop the observation that Elio Di Rupo, the Socialist Party chairman from Wallonia who is now considered most likely to be appointed to head a new Belgian federal government, will be ‘the last Prime Minister of Belgium.’ They went on to agree with my suggestion that the singing of the Flemish anthem in the House on April 22nd by the extreme right party Vlaams Belang and the unfurling of a banner calling for the independence of Flanders foretold the fin de jeu, the impending checkmate of the Belgian state.
I have a certain depth of recollection on the linguistic issues that have troubled Belgium going back to my arrival in this country on a long term employment contact in 1980. Back then the hair-pulling that went on between the language communities was considered a quaint feature of Old Europe and nothing more. It is really in just the past several years of the new millennium that pro-independence movements originating in the North of the country moved out beyond the lunatic fringe and began to occupy center stage in the political life of Flanders. With the collapse of the Leterme II government and the parliamentary election results of June 13, 2010 which gave Bart De Wever’s separatist N-VA party of Flanders the single largest bloc of votes, the Walloons in turn began to consider their options very actively should divorce be forced upon them. Yesterday’s table talk demonstrated that these new realities have fully entered the consciousness of our friends and neighbors in and around the capital.
Why do I say the impending divorce may not be peaceful?
Because, in the end, the dispute between the communities turns on the status of Brussels, which is the hard nut to crack and where passions have been running high for some time.
Brussels is the largest and most important city in the country. Historically it was a cradle of Flemish culture and influence from the Middle Ages. It is today one of the 3 regions comprising the federal Belgian state. It is officially bi-lingual, a legal concession to Flemish nostalgia which contradicts the reality that 90% of its inhabitants are today French-speakers. Moreover, the Flemish Government has very calculatingly planted a number of its offices in Brussels and stepped up its subsidies to cultural institutions there as a pledge of its future claims to the city. Foreigners arriving at Zaventem Airport may be forgiven for thinking Brussels is a Flemish territory if they pause to read the highly prejudicial advertising posters set up along the path leading to the baggage claim and airport exit.
The fiction of a bilingual capital region is the first, relatively innocent background situation from which only the population of the capital itself suffers, so far silently. It contributes substantially to the unbelievable and finally untenable 20% unemployment rate within Brussels.
The language dispute in Belgium, like all ethnic conflicts, is finally about jobs and money, however much leaders may bring to the fore non-material issues of self-identity. The artificial requirement of bilingualism means in effect that the big public service employer in the capital draws less on resident French-speakers and more on out-of-towners, predominantly the outlying Flemish communities than would normally be the case. That helps to explain why 400,000 commuting workers enter the city each day. In effect four out of seven jobs in the capital are held by day-visitors. The payroll taxes of these commuters are sent onward to their towns of residence and do not support the Brussels budget and the urban infrastructure which they use each day. While this may not differ from city center/suburban patterns we see in many metropolitan areas worldwide, the overlay of linguistic/ethnic contradictions in and around Brussels makes it impossible to create a genuinely self-managing, self-financing Brussels economic region such as other world cities have done.
The potentially explosive trigger in Greater Brussels is what the local newspapers have long described as the ‘ring of iron,’ the communes legislated as Flemish-speaking which totally surround Brussels and separate it from the Francophone hinterland to the south. Several of these legally Flemish communes, where the French language is barred from use in public facilities, in fact have substantial minorities if not majorities of French speakers. The land and the people are at odds, and Belgian federal law favors the land, while turning a blind eye to the people.
These communities on the periphery (BHV) are the flash points which have brought the Belgian state to its present make-or-break situation. The dispute over their status brought down the second government of Yves Leterme this past spring. They are the flash points which will, when push comes to shove, move Brussels into the uncharted and highly dangerous possibility of murderous violence if separation advances, because the key to a viable separatist Flanders or viable separate Wallonia is precisely possession of Brussels.
What is both amazing and terribly disappointing has been the Political Correctness which so far has prevented the real and growing violations of rights in the heart of Europe from coming to the attention of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This appears to be a conspiracy of silence which is only leading to no good, since the depth of the impending crisis is being minimized.
The language laws in the nominally Flemish communities at the periphery of Brussels are an egregious violation of the rights of the populations on the ground. Historical claims and present-day realities are as much in contradiction in Greater Brussels today as they were in the Autonomous Province of Kosovo in the 1990s. But whereas the United States was busily championing the cause of the oppressed Albanian majority to serve America’s greater geostrategic interests, no one, NO ONE in Europe’s Capital is paying attention to a similar situation brewing under their very noses today, where the very same 90% majority in a given space daily faces discrimination and economic disadvantage imposed by a more populous majority in the larger area surrounding it. Moreover, the restrictive covenants on public housing and indeed on transfer of title to private property which exists in the Flemish communities in the iron ring are as close to Apartheid Laws as it comes these days on the European continent. In what can only be described as a conspiracy of silence, not a word is uttered about this in the European institutions that sit comfortably in their midst.
I predict that the further course of events will be decided not by the meek and cautious attorneys of Antwerp and Brussels and Namur, not by the Van Rompuys, but by the brash and colorful Bart De Wevers and Elio di Rupos, who have a great deal to gain from the crash of the Belgian state.
But does it all come down to a small number of ambitious and possibly reckless politicians pursuing separatist policies which coincidentally also serve their personal objectives? Of course, not. Developments such as I am describing have many causal factors in society at large which bear mention, not least of them the loss of raison d’être of the nation-state concerned.
Looking back at the dissolution of the Yugoslav federal state and outbreak of violence, it is clear that the passing of the strong-fisted leader Marshal Tito played a role. The economic slide as the over-invested, duplicative industrial bases of the various constitutive republics unwound was a major contributing factor, along with the injustice of financial transfers between and among the republics. And yet surely the decisive factor was the loss of the intellectual rationale that once held the nation together and put it at the forefront of the Non-aligned Movement. The raison d’être of a Yugoslavia melted away with the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War divide. A similar driver pulled apart the ‘artificial’ state of Czechoslovakia, which had the luxury of a gentle relapse because there were no major territorial disputes to poison the atmosphere.
It is no secret that the Kingdom of Belgium has been from its creation in 1830 as ‘artificial’ as they come. It filled a geostrategic necessity of its neighbors. Internally it corresponded to a religious reality as a predominantly Catholic state descended from the Counter-Reformation drive of the Spanish Habsburgs against the hearth of Protestantism in the northern provinces of the Netherlands.
In this sense, I would suggest that the general weakening of the Church in Belgium these past few decades in keeping with growing secularization across Western Europe and its failure to recruit priests adequate to its needs locally loosened the cement binding Belgium together. The move from Latin to the vernacular for Catholic liturgy beginning in the late 1960s as a result of decisions taken by the Vatican II in effect turned the Church from a source of unity into a constant reminder of language divisions separating parishes from one another.
The other major component in the national cement, the dynasty, has never recovered from the untimely death of the saintly King Baudouin in 1993 and his replacement on the throne by a royal couple who had never anticipated such an eventuality and had committed private, now publicly exposed deeds which undermined the moral authority of the royal house, leaving it vulnerable to the well-aimed slings and arrows of its detractors.
Those who believe that the sophisticated and worldly elites in Belgium will ultimately prevail and calm down the passions of the respective language communities should think again. In April former Prime Minister, now President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy called upon ‘the common sense’ of his compatriots to resolve their bickering without radical upheavals.
The ability of common sense under the steady hand of the hereditary elites to win out in Belgium was disproved very recently in the economic sphere. During the worldwide banking crisis of 2008, it turned out that local masters of the universe, in the person of Maurice Lippens and his friends at the head of the nation’s premier financial institution of the day, Fortis Bank, were utterly unable to rein in their own unreasonable and speculative ambitions for the sake of their shareholders and the greater public good. As the investment environment spun out of control, they stood fast by their ill-fated decision to take over ABN Amro Bank. In the end, the State intervened and saved the 50,000 jobs at Fortis and its service to more than half of the nation’s families at the cost of a fire sale to French interests. In fact, simultaneously the entire Belgian financial landscape was overturned and the authority of the elites went with it.
The Way Forward
I can anticipate many critical comments on this analytical note, asking what right a foreigner living in Brussels has to assume he has mastered the intricacies of the genuinely Balkanized politics of the Kingdom of Belgium, of catching the nuances in thinking of the through and through bilingual elites in this country. There will be the nitpickers. At the same time I fear that I have pinned down the overarching realities only too well.
In saying above that several of the props justifying the existence of a Belgian nation have been swept away in recent years, I was addressing only the domestic dimension. To be sure, the need of the country's powerful neighbors for a 'buffer state' between them in the form of Belgium ended with the advent of the post-WWII security architecture in Europe. However, the external imperative of Belgium's continued existence has re-emerged under a new guise in the past two decades.
Europe needs the Kingdom of Belgium more than it begins to acknowledge. This is so precisely because of its status as home to the European institutions.
The level of racism and xenophobia we see in the Flemish independence movement does not differ significantly from the anti-foreign, and specifically anti-Muslim movements in neighboring Holland or in France. However, because of its situation as Capital, Belgium’s break-up and likely accompanying violence in and around Brussels, will be more than just material for the wire services: it will put gravely into doubt the whole European experiment. Any attempt to find a new home for the institutions will bring to the fore the highly sensitive issue of where the fulcrum in Europe really lies in today’s expanded Union.
At the same time, it is patently obvious that following any declaration of independence by Flanders along the lines which the United Nations court declared to be rightful to any people in its controversial decision over Kosovo this past week, the status of Brussels will be up for grabs since both language communities need its economic engine to be solvable. And under present circumstances, it is not clear a free Wallonia would be anything more than an economic basket-case even with part or all of Brussels attached. After losing its ongoing multi-billion Euro annual transfers from Flanders, Wallonia would surely come to the EU begging for aid to stay afloat.
So, what is to be done? Firstly I say it is time for the European institutions to awaken from their slumber and adopt a pro-active and constructive stance. Over the past two decades, the Vlaams Belang and its predecessor movement, the Vlaams Blok, has been ever more aggressive, raising tensions between the language communities of Belgium. If this movement is properly held up to the searchlights of ‘international opinion’ and more particularly to the enlightened opinion of the European Member States, then there is reason to hope the country can be brought back from the brink.
More broadly, an open and sincere public debate must be undertaken within the EU over the rights and responsibilities of minorities and majorities within its Member States and over the virtues of federalism and extensive autonomy as against giving encouragement to the further cascade of self-determinations which explode ethnically mixed states, impoverishing everyone.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2010
G. Doctorow is a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman (Russian) Institute of Columbia University and author of the newly published Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. ISBN 9781453764473. Now available in paperback and downloadable ebook from www.amazon.com and European affiliates including amazon.fr and amazon.co.uk. At Barnes & Noble and selected bookstores.
Doctorow will participate in a Round Table on the Future of the Kingdom of Belgium at the 15th Annual Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities, 14-16 April 2011 in New York.