08 September 2007

Belgium's Future

This week's edition of The Economist is only half joking when it says "Belgium has served its purpose. A praline divorce is in order."

The reference is to the Velvet divorce of Czechoslovakia in 1993, that gave rise to the modern Czech Republican and Slovak Republic. (Parlines, meaning chocholates generally, are one of Belgium's defining culinary specialties.) The Velvet Divorce's peaceful separation, which some think in hindsight has speeded up the ability of each to integrate into the West by reducing bureaucratic barriers, made dividing federal countries respectable.

The less delicate but necessary breakups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have also contributed to that view -- Montengro completed the break up of each of Yugoslavia's former Republics into autonomous units and the West is applying pressure resisted only by Russia and Serbia to give Kosovo independence.

Further afield, division has gained credibility as Ethiopia ended (by fits and starts) a seemingly eternal civil war by granting independence to Eritrea, and by the nearly consumated move to give Southern Sudan independence, largely resolving one of that nation's two great conflicts (Darfur remains an oozing boil not soluable by division because the oppressed population is not an overwhelming majority in the region). Israel, likewise seems set on a path of separation; it is building a wall between Israel proper and the West Bank (whose detailed location, constituting a land grab, rather than general concept, have been the main source of international consternation), and has withdrawn all Israeli settlers from the Gaza region.

Belgium, like Czechoslovakia, has two main semiautonomous regions with clear nation identities and geographic boundaries. Belgium isn't a perfectly simple question, Brussles is multi-cultural and comprises about 10% of the population. There are German speaking enclaves as well, but those are entirely within just one of the autonomous regions.

Belgium's constitution has been amended three times in the last forty years, most recently in 1993, each time largely to address further demands for regional autonomy. The European Union, meanwhile, has made some of the functions previously served by the federal government, like regulating international trade and providing a common currency, irrelevant. Current talk of division is fueled by a political deadlock on regional lines that has prevented the current round of federal legislators from selected a prime minister and group of department heads called a "government" in parliamentary systems of government, for months, despite interventions from the Belgian King, mostly as a result of a failure to agree on further devolution proposals.

The Economist captures the situation with this bit of pith:

[W]hen they vote, as they did on June 10th, they do so along linguistic lines, the French-speaking Walloons in the south for French-speaking parties, the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north for Dutch-speaking parties. The two groups do not get on—hence the inability to form a government. They lead parallel lives, largely in ignorance of each other. They do, however, think they know themselves: when a French-language television programme was interrupted last December with a spoof news flash announcing that the Flemish parliament had declared independence, the king had fled and Belgium had dissolved, it was widely believed.

Wikipedia is equally frank about the lack of common ties:

Belgian cultural life has become concentrated within each language community, and a variety of barriers have made a shared cultural sphere less pronounced. There are no bilingual universities except the Royal Military Academy, no common media, and no single large cultural or scientific organisation in which both main communities are represented.

The Belgian situation is only one piece of a European Union fueled movement towards regional autonomy. In Spain, the Galacians, Catalans, and Basques want more autonomy and are getting it. In the United Kingdom, greater autonomy has been awarded to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Canada, has likely seen growing pains that the weaker economic union of NAFTA in 1987 doesn't excacerbate to the same extent as the quasi-federal European Union. But, Wikipedia again, does a good job of summing up the trend, which barely avoided reaching a major division in 1995:

Quebec underwent profound social and economic changes during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. Québécois nationalists began pressing for greater provincial autonomy. The separatist Parti Québécois first came to power in 1976. A referendum on sovereignty-association in 1980 was rejected by a solid majority of the population, and a second referendum in 1995 was rejected by a slimmer margin of just 50.6% to 49.4%. In 1997, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled unilateral secession by a province to be unconstitutional; Quebec's sovereignty movement has continued nonetheless. . . .

In response to a more assertive French-speaking Quebec, the federal government became officially bilingual with the Official Languages Act of 1969. Non-discriminatory Immigration Acts were introduced in 1967 and 1976, and official multiculturalism in 1971; waves of non-European immigration have changed the face of the country. Social democratic programs such as Universal Health Care, the Canada Pension Plan, and Canada Student Loans were initiated in the 1960s and consolidated in the 1970s; provincial governments, particularly Quebec, fought these as incursions into their jurisdictions. Finally, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau pushed through the patriation of the constitution from Britain, enshrining a Charter of Rights and Freedoms based on individual rights in the Constitution Act of 1982.

Not every country has followed the trend towards division. East and West Germany reunited in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. The growth of the European Union has been a consolidating force at a new level -- in some respects, the E.U. insists on greater conformity than the federal government in the United States.

Belgium is hardly the hottest forum in which national division is being contemplated in Europe. The 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine came close to breaking the country apart into Eastern and Western portions at one point: "local officials in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, the stronghold of Viktor Yanukovych, started a series of actions alluding to the possibility of the breakup of Ukraine or an extra-constitutional federalization of the country, should their candidate's claimed victory not be recognized."

Even tiny Moldova has already had a civil war that remains unresolved:

The part of Moldova east of the Dniester River, Transnistria, which included a larger proportion of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians— claimed independence in 1990, fearing the rise of nationalism in Moldova and the country's expected unification with Romania at the dissolution of the USSR. This caused a brief military conflict between Moldova and Transnistria in 1992. Russian forces intervened on the Transnistrian side, and Russian troops of the 14th Army remain there to this day. Negotiations between the Transnistrian and Moldovan leaders have been going on under the mediation of OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, European Union, and USA. Despite expectations of the Popular Front of Moldova, Moldova did not unite with Romania in 1991. In the early 1990s, the future of Moldova was a source of tension in Romania's relations with Russia. A March 1994 referendum of the new constitution saw an overwhelming majority of voters favoring continued independence. . . . relationships between Moldova and Russia deteriorated in November 2003 over the Transnistrian conflict.

Columbia tolerates an autonomous region within its own boundaries held by rebel forces, and Nigeria appears to be facing fierce regional tensions as its Northern states adopt Islamist governmental systems not contemplated by its post-Colonial constitution. Somolia is united in name only. And, I haven't even begun to make a comprehensive list of the regional divisions that could easily errupt into new nations in this post.

I am inclined to agree with the Economist. Belgium probably has outlived its usefulness, and a broken Belgium might very well mean a stronger European Union, as smaller nations require stronger international institutions to survive.

This doesn't even mean that the King needs to be without a job. Queen Elizabeth manages to serve as Queen of many independent nations at once, and King Albert II is no slouch and could surely manage the same feat. Indeed, having three children, Crown Prince Philippe, Princess Astrid, and Prince Laurent, he could leave the Flanders to one, Walloonia to a second, and Brussles to a third, ensuring an orderly monarchical succession should the parted nations desire their own monarchs, a relationship that could be kick started by making the heir-apparent a governor-general for the King in each location.

One other point a review of the international scene of division reveals is how comparatively minor the regional divisions within the United States are today. Yes, we have Puerto Rico in an awkward autonomous relationship to the rest of the United States which most Americans would be happy to take or leave as the locals deem fit. But, as deep as the wounds of the American Civil War run, even today, the North and the South have considerably more in common than the Flemish and the Walloons, culturally anyway.


Dave Barnes said...

I love the idea of giving the District of Columbia to the King of Belgium.
Sending the District -- and its taxing authority -- to Europe is an awesome idea.
I know you wrote about Brussels, but I saw through your metaphor.

Anonymous said...

Amaze yourself. Vote about the future of the whole of Europe at www.FreeEurope.info.

Vote YES to Free Europe Constitution!

Mr. Colby said...

I was Googling trying to figure out wth the "praline divorce" bit meant. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Good point. And what do you think of, for example, Shoher's attitude like here http://samsonblinded.org/blog/reverse-darfur.htm ?