Sunday, June 13, 2010

Belgium on the brink: Parliamentary elections could lead to split

We're used to the issue of separatism here in Canada, with Quebec nationalists agitating for separation from the rest of Canada for decades now (despite two referendums with "No" outcomes), but the country dealing with it today is Belgium, which heads to the polls to elect all 150 seats in the Chamber of Representatives and 40 of 71 seats in the Senate.

The country faces a number of serious problems, including (as with the rest of Europe) the economy. As the BBC reports, "[d]uring the last three years the national debt has grown to unmanageable proportions." Just how bad is it? "The country's ratio of debt to gross domestic product is behind only Greece and Italy in the Eurozone."

And yet the election campaign has been dominated not so much by the economy but by language and culture, with the country's old divide between Flanders (the northern half the country with Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent) and Wallonia (the southern half of the country with Liege and Charleroi) threatening to tear Belgium into two distinct and sovereign states:

Belgium is holding parliamentary elections which could bring the country closer to a constitutional split.

The Flemish separatist party the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) is expected to do well in the vote.

Its leader Bart De Wever supports dividing the country in two, Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

However, a split bringing an end to Belgium would not happen immediately.

Belgian governments are required to be made up of a bi-lingual coalition, but this is the first federal election from which a party advocating the end of Belgium could emerge the outright winner.

And that could mean the end of Belgium as we know it.

Belgium is in effect two separate communities held together by a bi-lingual political system.

Much of public and political life in Belgium is dominated by bitter debates around language and the allocation of public resources.

Government aid to poorer Wallonia, home to four million French speakers, has caused resentment among Belgium's 6.5 million Flemish majority, correspondents say.

Until now separatist parties have been on the fringes of political debate.

But Mr De Wever, 39, has pushed his party into to the mainstream over the last three years while the other parties have been locked in a political stalemate.

It's a lovely country, and, to me, its bilingual and bicultural heritage is a strength, the whole being greater than the sum of the two parts (as Canada is much greater than the sum of its parts). And I find the move to break up diverse countries like Belgium along narrow parochial lines -- linguistic, cultural, ethnic, religious -- rather distressing. It may be necessary sometimes, as with the former Yugoslavia, and it may make sense sometimes, as with Czechoslovakia, but should the world essentially just be a collection of homogeneous states based on exclusive identity? I understand the sovereign aspirations of places like Flanders and Catalonia, for example, as well as Quebec, but it seems to me that their national identities can thrive within larger states like Belgium and, Spain, and Canada, not just on their own, where they are much more vulnerable to international forces, such as globalization and Americanization, that do not respect them at all.

Unfortunately, it's all too easy to focus on national identity instead of more pressing matters like the economy, and to use nationalism as a cure-all, with the Other (in this case, the Wallonians) scapegoated as the problem. Hopefully cooler heads and more mature voices will ultimately prevail in Belgium.



Belgium's Flemish separatist party, the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), has won more than 20% of the vote in parliamentary elections, according to early unofficial results.

If confirmed, the NVA would have the largest share of the vote, bringing the country closer to a split.

The NVA wants to more fully divide the country between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

But the party would have to form a coalition with Wallonian parties.

Such a coalition might force NVA leader Bart De Wever to tone down his Flemish nationalist rhetoric. 

An imminent split is unlikely. And while the NVA "won" the election, it only won 20 percent of the vote, far from enough to break up the country on its own.

Needless to say, this is a situation that bears watching.

(The Times has more.)

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  • As a Flemish and Belgian citizen I would like to add some facts to your allready very accurate description of our "situation".
    It is correct that Brussels is situated in the (flemish) north of our country. However Brussels is completely independent and has it's own government and parliament. Demografically it is part of the flemish north but the majority of Brussels' inhabitants speak french. There is no "solution" for Brussels in case of a split.
    The biggest problem is however that flemish and wallonians have completely opposite political views. Flanders on the right and wallonia on the left. One wants to cut spending by 22 billion the other wants to increase spending by 7 billion. I truly believe that nationalistic feelings have very little to do with the historic win of NVA. The flemish public just is so fed up with the continuous bickering between both sides. It wants to see the real problems (economic crisis, social security,...) adressed.The votes for NVA are essentially votes against the traditional parties (Christian democrat, socialist and liberal). For the first time in my life the 3 main parties are unable to form a majority.
    I do agree that our bicultural heritage is a strength and I'm confident our country wont be split. The problem isn't the people; it's the politics. Our political model is flawed and needs to be adjusted.

    By Anonymous kurt, at 8:19 AM  

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