On the eve of National Day 2018, His Majesty Philippe, King of the Belgians, recorded a short speech to the Belgian public. In all three of the nation’s official languages — Dutch, French, and German — Phillipe’s speech stressed the importance of unity, diversity, and a “deep faith in human beings” among the Belgian people. He ended the speech with a common phrase: Vive la Belgique. Leve België. Es lebe Belgien. Long live Belgium.
In most cases, such a statement would be considered a formality. When William Fitch wrote “Long live America” in 1918, he probably did not believe that the United States was in imminent danger of falling apart. Belgium, however, is a unique case.
Since before the beginning of King Phillipe’s reign and through five government turnovers under him, a growing number of Belgian politicians and leaders have called for Belgium to separate itself into its constituent parts: the Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the Francophone Wallonia in the south. For a Belgian leader, “Long live Belgium” is not just a throwaway phrase. It is a response to the rising Flemish — and to a lesser extent, Walloon — separatist movements.
Belgium currently exists as a microcosm of the multicultural cooperative effort that is modern Europe. Like the broader EU, it faces the same rising tides of nationalism and populism. Will Belgium survive? Moreover, what do Belgium’s problems mean for the long-term viability and success of its larger analog, the European Union?
An Odd Couple
The Kingdom of Belgium is a rather unusual country by modern European standards. The nation’s commitment to linguistic and cultural diversity is baked into its constitution, unique within a continent where most nations’ names line up with their respective dominant language and ethnic group. It is no wonder that the European Union has placed so many of its institutions in Belgium’s capital, Brussels. Belgium seems to be, in many ways, a microcosm of the kind of multicultural cooperation that the EU hopes to promote. To quote Belgian economist Philippe Van Parijs, “One could hardly have dreamt of a more suitable capital for a supranational Union than the capital city of a successful plurinational state.”
Beneath the surface, however, the marriage between Flanders and Wallonia is not so clean and successful. The regional government of the nation is split along both linguistic and geographical lines, with separate political parties for Flemings and Walloons. As a result, relative autonomy is afforded to the Dutch, French, and German sections of the country, as well as to Brussels.
Despite—or perhaps because of—these divisions, Flemish and Walloon politicians often disagree about the direction and composition of the overarching federal government of Belgium. Wallonia and Brussels tend to elect left-wing and pro-environment politicians, while Flanders has veered to the right in recent years. These political divisions, combined with cultural and linguistic differences, a rising national debt, and a general rise in a national ideology based on ethnicity rather than formal borders, have resulted in the revival of a modern movement to formally split the country. Flanders in particular has seen the strongest movement for separatism.
An Upcoming Divorce?
Polling from 2019 suggests that in a referendum on separation, nearly 40% of Flemings would vote to break away from Belgium, a significant increase from 2010. While the poll found that Belgians as a whole are mostly against a breakup, there was not exactly a supermajority in that camp. Furthermore, the two parties that won the largest percentages of seats in the Belgian parliament after the 2019 elections are both proponents of Flemish separatism: the New Flemish Alliance — the largest party in the nation overall — and their far-right cousin, Vlaams Belang. The only reason Belgium is not currently governed by separatists is that seven other parties across political, economic, and linguistic spectra were able to form a government instead.
To some extent, it makes sense that out of all the regions within Belgium, Flanders appears to be the one most eager to leave. The Dutch-speaking north is commonly considered to be more economically stable than the Francophone south, as evidenced by its lower unemployment rate and higher economic productivity. A combination of economic confidence and dissatisfaction with growing nationalistic pride is a common thread between separatist movements, and together they are likely responsible for the increasing calls for Flemish independence or at the very least confederation.
That is not to say that running an independent Flanders would be easy. A significant reason why Flanders is doing well economically is Belgium’s membership in the European Union. It is not clear that EU membership would be conferred onto its daughter nations in the case of a Belgian breakup.
In fact, it is unlikely that newly separated states would automatically be EU members. The closest thing to a precedent for such a move was the consideration of Scottish independence in 2012, and then-President of the European Commission José Barosso said in no uncertain terms that new states would be treated as new states, which would have to apply individually for EU membership consideration. Unless a deal was reached before separation, both fledgling nations would be left without a clear economic bloc or an established currency, rendering them simultaneously inside and outside of Europe.
The European Union would also have to deal with some fundamental questions after such a split. Brussels could very well become an independent city-state under the auspices of the EU. This would make the city even more of a “Capital of Europe” than it already is, inching the union closer to the “United States of Europe” concept that tends to make many Europeans somewhat nervous.
On a more philosophical note, the implosion of a Belgian state holds larger implications for the European experiment as a whole. After all, if Belgium, a microcosm of the larger EU and its values, cannot hold itself together, what might become of the supranational union? One could argue that the EU has its own “Flanderses” and “Wallonias,” and while the death of Belgium would not mean the death of the EU, it would call into question whether or not the EU truly benefits from being, as its motto says, “united in diversity.”
In the short term, there is next to nothing for King Phillipe to worry about. The current Belgian government, headed by Fleming politician Alexander de Croo, waffles on certain issues, but no major parties — aside from the Flemish separatists — have publicly entertained the possibility of a referendum on separation in recent years. Even the New Flemish Alliance is only in favor of a gradual move towards Flemish independence.
Still, as Flemish politics gain a more nationalistic bent and economic struggles continue in the nation, it is important to examine the possibility of that movement’s final goals as well its larger implications. At the end of the day, what would an independent Flanders or Wallonia become? What would they want, and what would they mean?
In the meantime, for the unionists who believe in the success of Belgium as a state and as a concept, there exists only one answer:
Vive la Belgique. Leve België. Es lebe Belgien. Long live Belgium.
Image Credit: Palace of the Nation Brussels by Senate of Belgium is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Source : https://harvardpolitics.com/flanders-and-wallonia/1335