The Breakup of Belgium
Or: Fifteen Ways to Crack an Egg
Every few months, the media feels inclined to warn us of the impending break up of Belgium. And these news reports have been steadily feeding us for what? The past hundred years?
It is said that Belgium is, not only the only failed nation state in the world that actually works, but that it is also an accident of history. It’s not hard to imagine why. Consider this: In the summer of 1830, after a night of heavy drinking at the opera, some blokes woke up the next morning, not only discovering that they had acquired a set of cool new tattoos, but that they had also in-avertedly created a new country.
The day after
And they weren’t the only ones who were shocked by this. So was the rest of Europe. They didn’t quite know what this new country was for, or what to do with it. But it didn’t take long before everyone realized that no good would come of this, and that it should either be returned to the Dutch, or handed over to the French. Well, at least before someone would actually take this whole new nation thing seriously.
Unfortunately, the stiff-upper-lipped British, who at that time still hadn’t been exposed to Monty Python, failed to see the humor in all of this, and decided to make the whole affair official. Belgium was born. Of course, the newly formed Belgians never forgave them for this and started brooding on a conniving plan that would one day accumulate to payback time. More on this later.
Since then, the powers that be have all been hard at work, trying to undo the world of this little historic aberration. Though it must be said that Germany gave up after two disastrous attempts. Proving once again that anything that is created as a temporary solution for a temporary problem, always has the tendency to last forever. It’s a plain fact of life. And with that in mind, when global warming has destroyed our planet, the sun has engulfed our solar system, and the universe is being swallowed by a massive black hole, chances are, you’ll still be reading reports of the impending break up of Belgium.
By now, you’re probably asking yourself: “It can’t possibly be that difficult to tear up a nation? Look at Czechoslovakia!”
True, but that was a case were splitting up this former East European nation was a lot easier than having to spell it’s name correctly each and every time. In Belgium’s defense, there really is no single clean cut solution in dividing it up while keeping all parties involved happy. Yes, if Belgium had a profile page on Facebook, it’s relationship status would be: “it’s complicated”.
Mind you, the following article is no way an attempt to explain how Belgium works, or doesn’t work. That would be too difficult for the uninitiated to understand, or let alone care about. No, this is rather a non exhaustive list on how to break up Belgium seen from several different perspectives:
1. The Outsiders Viewpoint
“The Dutch speaking Flemish should join the Netherlands, because they speak the same language.
And the French speaking Walloons should join France for the same reason.
While the German speaking East Cantons get to return to Germany after all these years.
As for Brussels, it should become an independent European capital district in much the same way as Washington DC relates to the rest of the United States.”
This is the most common solution put forward by outsiders whom a) have no idea why the Belgians are still quibbling, and b) nurture the naïve idea that it’s a communication problem because both sides don’t speak the same language.
Hold on a second. If this really was a communication problem, you would think that after over a hundred years of talks, at least one side would have noticed that they actually don’t understand each other. But the fact of the matter is, there are still a sufficient amount of Belgians available that can speak two, or three, or four languages without problem. And it’s even not so uncommon that when two people from both sides who can’t or refuse to speak the language of the other side, will revert to something more neutral instead, like English.
The fact of the matter is, except for a few isolated areas around Brussels, most of the language issues have long been resolved. What we have here instead is your average everyday power struggle over who gets to say what and where. Or put another way: how to spend the tax payers money.
The Flemish Stake
With that in mind, it’s not difficult to see why this solution is a non starter. The Flemish, despite being the majority, have been struggling for equal say in their own country since the early nineteen hundreds. Place six million Flemish people together with sixteen million Dutch people, and all of a sudden, all of that effort is not only lost, but they will be reduced to a small minority. They would now have even less to say then if they had just stayed in Belgium. As such, it wouldn’t take long before we would start hearing about reports of the impending breakup of the Netherlands.
The Francophone Stake
And despite the fact that the Francophones in Belgium are in a minority, thanks to all the checks and balances that protect their rights, they have just as much to lose, if not more, as their Flemish counterparts. They certainly have no reason to leave Belgium. Four million Walloons would not only lose all these checks and balances in a France of sixty-two-million strong, but would also have to live with the fact that everything in their lives would now be dictated to them from Paris. And it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that socialist Wallonia wouldn’t mix all to well with the likes of Sarkozy. Skilled as the Wallonian politicians are, it wouldn’t take long before the impending breakup of France would start appearing in the news, and indirectly inspiring the Basques to do the same.
The European Stake
It’s also why the rest of Europe really isn’t all too enthusiastic about Belgium falling apart. There is the grounded fear that if Belgium disappears, the legions of just-out-of-work politicians that formerly ran this country, would export their breakup-know-how to other European hot spots seeking independence.
In conclusion: while the Flemish and Francophones may have little in common left with each other, they have even less in common with their same language speaking neighbors.
2. The Luxemburg Viewpoint
If parts of Belgium are going to be distributed around to its neighbors, it’s not hard to imagine that Luxemburg would like part of its old territory returned. When Belgium was given its independence, Luxemburg was split in two. Half of it got to continue as an independent country. The other half became a province in Belgium carrying the same name.
So rather then have the province of Luxemburg in Belgium handed over to France, the country Luxemburg could claim it back as its rightful owner. And while they are at it, why not be opportunistic and court the German speaking East Cantons to join them as well? I’m pretty sure they would be able to offer them better tax incentives, secret banking, and other niceties that Germany proper never could.
Add to that the fact that Luxembourg, however small it is, already recognizes German and French as its official languages. The East Cantons and the province of the same name joining Luxembourg would seem like a match made in heaven.
3. The Flemish Viewpoint
Because Flemish voters can only vote for Flemish politicians (unless you happen to live in Halle or Vilvoorde), they have no democratic say in what happens in the south of the country. As such, the Francophone politicians in the south aren’t accountable to voters in the north. So if money flows from north to south due to the solidarity principle, the south can spend or waste it as they please, and there is very little the north can do about it. Except complain and threaten to go it alone as they are doing now.
The Flemish solution to this problem other than declaring independence? Build more accountability into the system by slowing down these money flows and moving most of the responsibilities to the regions itself. That would mean that Wallonia may receive less money, but because Francophone politicians would then be spending money of their own constituents, there is actually a better chance that they will start spending it a bit more wisely.
And what better way to do this than to get rid of the federal government all together and let the regions sail it out on their own, preferably in confederation. But even if any of that is too much to ask for, the Flemish always have the option to self declare their independence. And in their ideal scenario for self rule, they get to keep Brussels all for themselves.
4. The Francophone Viewpoint: Plan B
The ones who have the most to lose in a break up of Belgium are in fact the Francophones. In fact, until recently, most just considered themselves to be just Belgians and nothing else, unlike their Flemish counterparts.
As a minority, they enjoy quite a lot of protections, and add to that, also the financial benefits from the no-questions-asked solidarity from the north. They would be hard pressed to find a better deal than this anywhere else. Even the money that is handed out by Europe comes with strings attached. And so it’s understandable that every time the Flemish push for more autonomy, they drag their feet. From their perspective, the breakup of Belgium is the worst possible outcome and the status-quo must be preserved at all costs. The fear is that handing out more autonomy to the regions, even their own, will down the road eventually lead Flanders declaring their own independence.
But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be prepared for if things would turn for the worst. Strangely enough, the Francophone contingency plans for an eventual breakup of the country are a lot further along in their planning than that of their Flemish counterparts. And it’s not just one plan, but several. In the event the problem doesn’t solve itself (uncanny how this articles still rings so true three years later), here are the alternatives:
The French Plan
The first natural solution would be to join France. Unlike the Flemish who created their own cultural biosphere when commercial television was introduced (and thus slowly lost their tight cultural bond with the Dutch), the Francophones are culturally still quite well linked with their French neighbors. Politically however, as mentioned earlier before, there would be very little benefits to such a union for the Walloons.
And while France in such a scenario would probably love to take the biggest prize of all: Brussels with all its EU institutions, it’s hardly likely that the other European nations would actually agree to this. Especially if Flanders were to dispute it.
But what about turning Brussels into a European District? There is a good chance that Britain would veto that out of fear this might be the first step in creating a United States of Europe. So in such a scenario where Wallonia joins France, Flanders would have a good chance of keeping Brussels.
As for the German East Cantons, they get to choose if they want to join Germany, or more fittingly Luxemburg.
5. The Francophone Viewpoint: Plan C
I practically fell off my chair when I recently heard one of the top francophone politicians proclaim that in an eventual split, Wallonia should join Germany rather than France. According to his words, despite the language difference, Wallonia has culturally more in common with Germany than it does with France. What can I say, the world is full of surprises. This was also the direct reason why I decided to write this article.
How absurd this may sound, I suppose the thinking went: after having been in union with Germany-light for the past 180 years, why not go for the real thing?
And politically, this might not be such a bad idea. Germany already has an impressive CV when it comes to annexing other countries, and despite their earlier failings, their last attempt, swallowing up East Germany, actually went rather well. Practice makes perfect I suppose. And even though the Ossies were practically bankrupt after years of communism; unified Germany still remains one of the world’s leading economies. Annexing Wallonia should therefore be a piece of cake. And Wallonia would probably enjoy more freedom from Berlin then it would from Paris.
The only question is, what would Germany have to win by this? Being such a big player in Europe, the main prize Brussels would be just as illusive to them as it would be for France.
As for the East Cantons, it would unquestionably go to Germany in such a scenario.
6. The Francophone Viewpoint: Plan D
In this scenario, the Francophones go for full independence. But to spite the Flemish, would take Brussels and a few neighboring Flemish municipalities with them in which the majority of the population speaks French.
In fact, at this point in time, it’s hard to imagine Wallonia going on its own without Brussels as a cash cow. But how would they get the Flemish to give up Brussels so readily? Well, it might not be that difficult after all. Flanders has a love/hate relationship with Brussels. On the one hand, they want to keep it, because it is part of their Flemish heritage. On the other hand, they know they’ve lost this city a long time ago and feel it to be completely alien to them. They despise the place for the simple reason that they are forced to speak French there, despite it officially being a bilingual city. So other than for the central European role it plays, there is no practical reason to keep it.
So for the Francophones to keep it, all they have to do is buy it off of the Flemish. How? Quite simple: Wallonia and Brussels will continue living together as a smaller version of Belgium. In return, they also get to keep the largest part of the national debt. Given the choice between keeping Brussels, or being almost dept free, it’s very likely that Flanders would happily choose the latter. Unless they get all emotional about it at the last minute. In that case, we might once again be in for another long set of talks and political crisis’s. Especially if it involves giving up some Flemish territory around Brussels as well. But hey, what else is new?
7. The Belgian Viewpoint
Believe it or not, but some Belgians actually still believe they are Belgians. They’re just scratching their heads as to how things got so complicated. I mean really, six governments to run a country of just ten million people? And that’s not including the municipal, provincial and European bodies of government that we get to vote for as well.
It’s ironic that with so many levels of democratic institutions in Belgium, that the more we have to vote, the less things gets decided.
So while the rest of the world wonders how it’s possible that Belgium runs like clockwork for months on end without any sign of civil unrest or crisis management, the answer is quite simple: There is a lot of redundancy built in. In fact, one could say that Belgium’s number one export product are politicians. While the British are still struggling with the game “try and name ten famous Belgians”, little do they realize that they are taking up many of the top spots in major world organizations. President of the EU? Belgian. Head of the organizers of the London 2012 games? Yep, Belgian too. But I digress.
For the true Belgian, the solutions seem obvious and simple. But just like all outsiders, most Belgians don’t understand how this complicated country works either, or why, or even how.
A Divided People
But rather than the naïve outsider who would simply split up Belgium by handing it over to its neighbors, the true Belgian wants to keep it together. The first simple solution being that Belgium should become bilingual over all of its territory, not just Brussels. As I said before, Belgium’s problems have little to do with language, but as it stands now, both sides hardly ever interact with each other. Each side has its own media that they watch and read. They listen to different songs, vote for completely different political parties and don’t even share the same political views. As a matter of fact, what’s even harder than the “name ten famous Belgians” game is the “name ten famous Belgians on the other side of the language border” game. Exclude politicians from this list and you’ll have most Belgians stuttering to get past two or three names.
So by making everyone bilingual, this would at least foster a better understanding of each other on both sides of the language border. Unfortunately, when this idea was opted in the ‘60s, the Francophones refused and the Flemish have begrudged them ever since for them not willing to learn Dutch. But hey, it’s not too late yet. It’s not like the problem of Belgium is going to be resolved by say 2060.
The Belgian Blunders
A second more practical solution would be to have national rather than separate regional parties voted into the federal government.
But what most Belgians have forgotten is that it actually used to be like this and it didn’t work either. It resulted in Belgium acquiring one of the highest national debts in Europe. The Flemish/Francophone tensions were dealt within parties which lead to back-room deals and the emergence of what we call: waffle iron politics. This meant that to keep the peace, any large investment in one side of the country had to be met with just as large of an investment on the other side, even if that side didn’t actually need it.
The result of this is what we like to call the famous blunders of Belgium. This country is literally filled with highways that lead to nowhere, unconnected bridges that cross rivers and canals for no reason, towns with completed subway tunnels and stations that never went operational, a complete artificial university town, and many more marvels and wonders of architecture that were built in places where it never made any economical sense to do so. It’s as if the Belgian surrealists gave up painting and went into landscaping, after they realized they could get much more work done as politicians with our tax payers money.
The only way to make this scenario work again is if we were to ask the people of Congo if they would be so kind as to allow their re-colonization by Belgium. In return for law and order, we would plunder their resources, so that once again, we can build overpasses that, in practice may not lead to anywhere, but symbolically bridge the language divide between north and south. For the Belgians are most happy when they get to build things.
The Belgian Bureaucracy
Other then that, the only hope the true Belgian has to keeping this country together is creating ever more complicated bureaucratic constructs, adding a new body of government here, an extra parliament there; what ever it takes to confuse the rest of us into believing that everything is fine and fair. The cynical view is that all power rests in Brussels anyway, whether it’s regional, communal, federal or European. All that really happens is that certain powers are simple moved to a different address within the same city.
8. The Brussels Viewpoint
Even though Arabic is spoken on the streets and English is taking over the offices in Brussels, it is still largely considered a Francophone city despite it being officially bilingual. (Bilingual in the sense of French and Dutch, rather than Arabic and English).
Why do we call them Francophones? Well, because not all French speakers in Belgium are Walloons. This is due to Brussels, which once was a Flemish town with Flemish inhabitants. But they didn’t move away. Instead, these inhabitants decided to speak French exclusively, because at the time, it was considered more civilized. In their eyes, only the poor and uncultured spoke Dutch, and it was this attitude that made it possible for the longest time, that French was the only official language of Belgium, even in Flanders.
The Brussels Enigma
In a way, it’s the Flemish French speaking elite of Brussels who created this whole mess to begin with, and even to this day, Brussels remains the enigma that is preventing any simple solution to solving the problem of Belgium.
Yet even today, Brussels continues to allude its ruling class. Once Flemish, yesterday French, today Arabic and tomorrow English? Brussels belongs to nobody and everybody. It’s both beautiful and extremely ugly. It’s a forward looking backwards place that is home to poor migrants and rich Eurocrats. Brussels is successful despite it being a failure. Yes, it’s the heart of everything surrealistic that doesn’t see itself as part of either Flanders or Wallonia. It’s a city with a mind of it’s own.
But that being said, the Francophones still see it as theirs birth right. As a matter of fact, they believe that Brussels is entitled to much more than what it has now. Not only financially, but also territorially. In fact, in this view, Brussels Extra Large would ideally grow to consist of half of the province of Flemish Brabant. Taking out such a huge chunk of Flanders would also have the added bonus of moving more Francophones into this area and making it more difficult for Flanders to split away from Belgium. A cunning plan indeed.
The screams you hear in the background? That’s the Flemish crying “Bloody murder!”
9. The East Cantons Viewpoint: Plan A
While the Flemish and Francophones send the country into its umpteenth crisis, the largely overlooked German speakers in the east sit peacefully on the sidelines wondering why we can’t all just get along together? Yes, it’s ironic, that this part of the country that was annexed twice from Germany after both world wars, would be the vestige of the last true Belgians.
Their ideal scenario would be for Belgium to stay together, but if they could ask for something, at least if anyone would be bothered to even notice them, it would be to create another body of government that would give them the autonomy to not only manage their culture and language as it is now, but also the land that they live. For the latter is still under the jurisdiction of the Wallonian regional parliament. In a way, this might make this simpler for everybody involved, as almost all the other regional and communal parliaments could join as one, as has already happened in Flanders.
10. East Cantons Viewpoint: Plan B
Let’s just say that if Belgium does split up. There is always the possibility for the East Cantons to join Wallonia, France, Germany, Luxemburg, or perhaps even Flanders or the Netherlands. Or they could form their own little nation. An un-survivable idea? Nonsense! All it would take is one very secure bank, a casino and a very low tax regime. They’ll have money flowing-in in no time.
And if they call it Belgium, they might even be able to keep the king.
11. Regional Viewpoint
There are those that believe that the nation state as we know it today should remain untouchable and unbreakable. Then there are those who believe that the nation state has had its day. It’s time for something new: the regions.
It may seem contradictory that a country like Belgium, so hell bent on breaking up, has the most pro EU population amongst all Europeans. How can a people that want to go it alone support an organization as the EU that wants to bring everyone together? A break up of Belgium would prove that the EU experiment has failed? Right?
Wrong. It’s this ever closer integration of Europe that is making the possibility of a Belgian break up ever more likely. How?
Well, to the regionalist, the problem with Belgium is that it’s too big to solve local problems and it’s too small to solve global problems. So on the one hand, it doesn’t really make much sense for Belgium to have its own foreign policy or even its own army. It’s impact on the global stage is simply too small to have any real effect. I’m sure Obama can relate to this every time he calls Belgium with the question if they can spare any more troops for Afghanistan: “Sure Obama, I’m sure we can send five more soldiers. Though I’m not sure how effective they’ll be. We can only afford for them to have four bullets each.“ It goes without saying that some resourced would be more efficiently poled in a larger organization like the EU.
All other problems should be brought as close to the voter as possible. In other words, smaller voting regions. You’re vote has more weight in a population of just fifty thousand then it would in a population of fifty million.
Bye Bye Belgium
In this scenario, nation states such as Belgium would evaporate. Things like law and order would be provided for by the EU while education, culture, economy and buildings permits would be dealt with in a region.
This could mean the further breaking up of Belgium into even smaller pieces, while at the same time the rejoining of historically old alliances. The Belgian and Dutch provinces of Limburg would unite once again. Flanders would shrink even further. Flemish Brabant would probably have the nerve to call themselves Brussels as a way of better marketing themselves to the outside world. And Antwerp would remain Antwerp because everyone knows the world revolves around them.
12. The British Viewpoint
Well, to be fair, this is how Britain does not want to see Europe turned into. But it would teach them a lesson for having created Belgium in the first place. Sure, it may have seemed like a good idea at the time: creating a Belgium in the middle of Europe as a way to keep the continent fragmented and distrustful of each other. But there is a price to be paid for turning Europe’s most prominent battlefield into an independent country.
And unfortunately for the British, the Belgians soon realized after two world wars that there really was no point to their country unless they got a little cooperation from their neighbors. So they convinced the Dutch and Luxembourgers to work together. When that seemed to work out ok, they pitched the same idea to the French and Germans. The coupe de grâce? They eventually managed to trick even the British into joining without offering them an exit strategy. And as you well know, the rest is history.
13. The Safe Corridor Viewpoint
Speaking of nightmares, the Francophones seem to have this silly idea that if Flanders ever does proclaim a one sided independence, it will close all of its borders and thus blocking any direct connection between Brussels and Wallonia. Never mind all the Schengen agreements and open European borders that are currently in place. Something had to be done about this!
The Sonian Corridor
And so to alleviate these fears, one Francophone minister proposed to annex the Flemish Sonian forest and hand it over to Wallonia. Thus creating a safe corridor between it and Brussels.
But what about the other exclaves in Belgium? Won’t anyone think of them? There is of course the complicated mess of exclaves in enclaves in the Baarle region between Belgium and Netherlands. But as long as both nations remain on speaking terms, we are not going to attempt at creating any corridors here just yet.
The Mouscron Corridor
There is of course the French speaking Mouscron exclave in Flanders. To facilitate a safe passage between it and Wallonia proper, a corridor following the French/Flemish border would seem well suited.
The Voeren Corridor
A similar situation exists on the other side of the country in Voeren, a Flemish exclave in Wallonia. In order to connect Voeren to Flanders, here too a corridor would need to be created encompassing the land between the river Meuse and the canal following the Dutch border.
The Vennbahn Corridor
And lest we not forget the East Cantons. The Eupen and Eifel regions are also separated by a bit of Wallonia proper. Though the corridor here does in fact already exist: The Vennbahn. It’s an old railroad that crisscrosses through Germany. Only, this long narrow and winding piece of land actually still belongs to Belgium. For when Belgium annexed the East Cantons, this strange border situation was created at the time for pretty much the same reasons as for why some politicians want to create a Brussels corridor today. Only then, it made more sense as border checkpoints between countries were still a reality in this part of the world.
14. The Lower Moerdijk Viewpoint
While the Flemish might not be too enthusiastic about joining the Netherlands, our fellow Dutch neighbors are more welcoming of the idea. Or at least to a degree. While the Dutch may lack a language divide, they do have a cultural/religious one. Everthing below the Moerdijk is generally speaking a catholic region, and everything above it is Calvinist in nature. As such, the people living in the lower Moerdijk have a tendency to feel closer at home with the Flemish then their Northern countrymen.
So rather than have Flanders join the Netherlands, they would rather break away from Holland and join Flanders instead.
This scenario would also seem fitting to contemplate Wallonia joining Luxemburg rather than France of Germany and creating a new country called Belux or Wallux.
15. The Greater Dietsland Viewpoint
I’m not sure if you’ll still find a lot of supporters for this today, but during the world wars, there were quite a few people who were receptive to the idea of forming a huge German federation. For many of the Flemish collaborators during the wars, they saw this as an answer to gain more rights than they would in a unified Belgium. It’s this connection that after the wars slowed down the progress of the Flemish movement in gaining more autonomy. Even today, the Francophones are still quick to make this link if it can block any meaningful discussion in changing the status quo.
In Conclusion: The Almost Impending Breakup of Belgium
But before we get ahead of ourselves, many of these scenarios depicted here are still far off. We have to keep in mind that several generations of politicians have spent the past forty years trying to split up a single voting district, and still without any success or end in sight. Breaking up an entire country as complex as Belgium is of a whole different order.
Yes, most other countries would have long chosen the path of civil war over such a dispute, and it is amendable that the Belgians have decided otherwise. The truth is, most people here don’t care enough to spill blood over it, let alone stage even the simplest protest march to vent any anger they may have. Government or not, beer needs to be brewed and chocolate made. life goes on as if it were any other day.
But forget everything I’ve just said for a moment. Because, if you’ve read any of the most recent reports in the news, it’s now quite apparent that Belgium really is on the verge of finally splitting up. ;-)