The collapse of talks to form a federal government in Belgium is testing the country's legendary capacity for political compromise to the limit.
Negotiations to form a new coalition for the Belgian federal government collapsed on Thursday, some 74 days after election day. The grey and uncharismatic Yves Leterme, the Flemish Christian Democrat prime minister-designate charged with forming the government, requested from King Albert II that he find another formateur to replace him.
The premier-in-waiting's decision came shortly after crisis talks failed to shore up Flemish-Walloon communitarian differences in the Christian Democrat-Liberal (Orange-Blue) coalition-to-be. Although coalition building is a delicate and slow process in this complex and fractured political landscape, the fall of the government before it was even formed threatens to take Belgium into uncharted territory.
Accusations have been traded regarding who is responsible for the crisis, with some blaming Leterme's inexperience, lack of consensus-building skills and polarising manner, while others blamed strident members of the Francophone Christian Democrats. However, the stalemate seems too broad to blame exclusively on one person or party.
The broad lines of contention had already been drawn in June during one of Belgium's most polarised general elections in years. The wealthier Flemish, who still bear the Francophone Walloons a grudge for the historical suppression of their cultural and linguistic rights, have been pushing hard for further devolution of power to the regions. This is resisted in equal measure by the Walloons who are generally more attached to the centralised Belgian state and who stand to lose massive solidarity transfers from the central government for their relatively impoverished region which has suffered hard from the flight of heavy industry, traditional manufacturing and mining to other parts of the world.
You may be excused for thinking that nothing much happens in Belgium, a quaint land of mild-mannered and polite chocolate connoisseurs, beer aficionados and comic-strip lovers. But the country has been gripped by a non-violent conflict that began in the late 19th century which has sent few ripples into the wider world – largely due to the altogether sensible Belgian penchant for convoluted political compromises. But Belgium has now reached an existential impasse and is suffering an identity crisis.
So could divorce now be in the air?
Well, the Flemish far right are all for separation. The anti-immigrant pro-independence Vlaams Belang's strongman Filip Dewinter has called on the Flemish parliament to open the floor to discussions over independence. “Flanders must bare its teeth. The Flemish parliament must declare, without further federal negotiations, its autonomy and present it to the Flemish public in a referendum,” the extremist wrote on his website. It should be noted that the Flemish independence movement is not just a far-right phenomenon, but it is largely a conservative one.
However, the quest for Flemish independence comes up against an immediate brick wall: any unilateral declaration of independence is unconstitutional, even if confirmed by a referendum. In addition, although many Flemings may grumble about the relatively high tax burden they must bear in order to prop up the faltering Walloon economy, Flanders still remains one of the richest places on earth, with a high quality of life index. In addition, few are disgruntled enough to desire unlawful independence, which would largely be cosmetic anyway, since the Flemish enjoy self-determination already and largely call the shots in Belgium.
Another sticking point is multicultural Brussels which lies geographically in the heart of Flanders, has a native population that is around 90% Francophone, and provides employment for hundreds of thousands of Flemings. For obvious reasons, neither side is willing to give up the de facto capital of Europe which, like a dysfunctional marriage, is one of the main forces holding the country together. This leaves the Flemish independence movement with some stark choices: either give up Brussels, leave its current semi-autonomous status intact or “annex” it. Somehow, I don't see the “Jerusalemisation” of Brussels ever happening.
But what would the consequences of a unilateral declaration of independence be for Belgians and the wider Europe?
It is difficult to say what the effects would be, since no in-depth socio-economic and political studies have been carried out into the subject. In addition, it would depend on how and when such a declaration occurred.
The Flemish in favour of splitting away hope that a divorce would mean more of the fruits of their economic success would stay at home. However, this overlooks several important factors. Is it really in Flanders's self-interest to have a relatively impoverished and, hence, unstable neighbour at its doorstep? In addition, the tax revenue flows between the two regions are well-known, but the more subtle economic dynamics are less well understood – and, hence, a split could have an adverse effect on Flanders, especially in terms of business confidence if there is accompanying political turmoil.
Moreover, there is a lot to be said for the wisdom of maintaining economic diversity. Prior to World War II, Flanders was the relatively less developed region of Belgium, but Flemish multilingualism, versatility and focus on the service sector, hard sciences and the modern knowledge economy turned around its fortunes in the post-war years. But there is no reason to believe that this situation will last forever. A forewarning of this was how Flanders suffered disproportionately from the bursting of the dotcom bubble a few years ago.
Economic winds change and future Walloons could repay the relative Flemish largesse of today. Furthermore, Wallonia is making strong efforts to turn its fortunes around.
On the wider European stage, Flemish independence would present the EU with an unprecedented dilemma. On the symbolic level, it would appear paradoxical that a country that has been at the forefront of European integration over the past half century unravels. With the union already faltering under the weight of enlargement, eurosceptics would have a field day, conveniently ignoring the fact that nearly all Belgians are in favour of the European project.
Although Flanders easily meets – and even surpasses – all the objective requirements of membership, it may not simply be business as usual, contrary to Flemish nationalist expectations. If the Walloons are not on board and decide to be obstinate, they could make it difficult for a breakaway Flanders. Moreover, European rules state that no change to membership is allowed without the unanimous approval of all member states which, in a union of 27 countries, is hardly guaranteed.
Other EU member states may be hesitant to take up the Flemish cause because they are no less an artificial construct than Belgium and would fear that nationalist movements within their own borders would be emboldened: the Scottish in the UK, the Basque in Spain, to mention just two examples.
In short, it is in both communities' own long-term best interests to make the marriage work. As recent polls have shown, neither community wants to be swallowed up by the Netherlands and France. And the majority of this pragmatic people is well aware that a largely symbolic independence is not worth all the hassle it would involve.
More importantly, the language divide leads people to confuse linguistic diversity for cultural difference. As many of my Belgian friends have observed, the Flemish and Walloons have more in common with each other than with their language community across the border: they both value pragmatism, modesty, privacy, understatement and egalitarianism. In addition, they are perhaps the least patriotic and nationalistic people in Europe. Flemings view with disdain the stereotypical loudness and swagger of their Dutch neighbours, while the Walloons find the quintessential aloofness of the French unpalatable.
However, devolution is entrenching differences and, in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to divergence. Administratively it makes sense but what we need are efforts to reconstruct a common cultural identity, through, for example, bilingual schools and a bilingual national media to rebuild mutual knowledge.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 24 August 2007.