The enlarged EU spent 2007 searching for a raison d'etre, while Belgium struggled with its own identity crisis.
This year has been a busy and volatile one for the European Union. The union started the year by welcoming two new members, Romania and Bulgaria, and the euro area grew to embrace Slovenia, while the single currency has grown from strength to strength.
EU leaders ended the year by sealing a deal on a controversial reform treaty. But divisions remain as deep as ever regarding Europe's raison d'etre, with Europhiles in favour of greater political integration to enable the union to punch its weight internationally, while Eurosceptics want little more than a glorified trading bloc. Personally, I'm all for closer integration.
Belgium, a founding member of the EU project and home to most of its institutions, has also been experiencing a serious identity crisis ever since elections in June brought to the fore the demands for a new round of federal reform to devolve more power to the regions – a move strongly advocated by Flemish parties and equally strongly resisted by Walloon parties.
Ironically, Belgium may currently be falling victim to its own and the EU's understated success, and this could be an early sign of a trend towards a post-national Europe of regions. The economic stability brought by the single market and the euro has meant that, although the political crisis has raised eyebrows around the world, unlike previous impasses, it has not come with a serious economic price tag.
Wilfried Martens, who was premier in the 1980s during an earlier period of national crisis, said as much in an interview. “The euro did not exist [back then], and there was enormous pressure on politicians … if we did not find a solution, if we did not manage to set up a cabinet, the pressure became intolerable.”
In addition, while the art of Belgian compromise has prevented costly violence and conflict, the price has been a process of reforms and “federalisation” that has made Flemings and Walloons relative strangers in their own land.
Now, after six months of post-election deadlock, Belgians have finally got a government of sorts. Following months of bungling and the anointed premier-in-waiting Yves Leterme's failure to strike a classic Belgian compromise between the country's diverse and polarised political factions, outgoing prime minister and Belgium's de facto caretaker leader Guy Verhofstadt has been called in to work his mediating magic and cobble together an interim coalition.
But the country is certainly not out of the woods quite yet. Even with the emergency government, there is still no guarantee that negotiations to form an enduring coalition will succeed by the Easter deadline.
By then Belgium will have been left rudderless for almost a year, this means, in my view, that the current coalition-to-be partners have effectively lost their mandate and new elections should be called.
The danger here is that the far right could make gains on the back of disaffection at the deadlock. Alternatively, the socialists, who lost ground in the previous elections, could regain it. Whatever the risks, I think new elections would be the most democratic way out of the deadlock. And a friend believes that the way to solve the territorial pitch battle over the electoral area of Brussels and its environs would be to reinstate national parties.
What about the Belgians themselves? What do they think of the unfolding situation?
Well, the ongoing crisis is denting confidence in national unity and more and more people I meet are voicing pessimism for the future. Flemish and Walloon friends have expressed the view that they were born Belgian but they probably would not die Belgian.
This is reflected in public opinion polls. A survey conducted by the Dutch-language De Standaard and the Francophone Le Soir before the election in March found that nine out of 10 Belgians expected Belgium to still exist a decade from now but half didn't give the country much of a chance beyond 2050. In August, another survey was held and this time 38% of the Flemings said that Flanders had to become independent.
“If you asked me a few years ago whether Belgium could break up, I would have laughed at your naivety,” admits Beatrice Delvaux of Le Soir. “In just a few months, the unimaginable has become a possibility.”
In a previous article, I explored the possibility and potential consequences for Belgians and Europe of the country splitting up. I am personally in favour of the continued existence of this complex and colourful land and, having only recently become a citizen, I'm just getting comfortable with this new aspect of my identity.
However, this is with the proviso that Belgium functions as an effective country and not as two de facto states. This would require a broad change of directions and attitudes. Major efforts would need to be made to construct national cultural and political institutions. This would require the establishment (or re-establishment) of a bilingual media, national political parties and a bilingual education system.
It would also require Flemings to abandon their obsession with regionalism and Walloons will have to give on being monolingual and monocultural – Belgium is more than an economic space. If not, much as I dislike to say it, a divorce may be the only viable solution, despite the “Gordian Knot” of Brussels.
To decide the best way forward requires a massive soul-searching exercise involving all segments of society. Since the political elite is unlikely to start such a profound national conversation, perhaps we need to look elsewhere to set things in motion – and the media could potentially hold the spark.
Last December, the Francophone public broadcaster ran a spoof broadcast claiming that the Flemish part of the country had unilaterally declared independence. Instead of such a contentious and controversial stunt, it is time for Flemish and Walloon broadcasters to join forces and launch the great Belgian conversation.
They can adapt the format of the 100 Greatest Britons, of which there has been a Belgian version, and other such television voting shows and recruit prominent spokespeople to argue the case for and against splitting the country and propose feasible alternatives for the future. Then, after considering all the evidence, viewers could vote. This would provide politicians and citizens alike with a gauge of the popular mood and would pave the way to a considered debate on the country's future.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 26 December 2007.