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Posted by on Jun 13, 2010 in International, Politics | 0 comments

Belgium on the Brink

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.

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