Two nations, after all?
Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Ever since it was carved by treaty out of the Dutch, French, and German borderlands after the Napoleonic wars, Belgium has been an odd kind of country--short on space, sunlight, and national identity. It was a shotgun marriage of two peoples, the Dutch-speaking Flemings in Flanders and the French-speaking Walloons in Wallonia, who, apart from a shared Catholicism had almost nothing in common. Since Brussels, the Belgian capital, is also the seat of government for the 27-nation European Union, Belgium has become a symbol of the unity-in-diversity that EU bureaucrats aspire to. But the marriage of Flanders and Wallonia, never a love match, has in recent decades entered a thrown-crockery phase. It has become a burning question whether the country is headed for an outright divorce, of the sort that broke Czechoslovakia into two countries after the Cold War.
The question has largely been answered. Belgium already looks less like a country than a loose confederation of two states. Partly thanks to half a dozen reforms pushed through since the 1970s by nationalists on both sides, French speakers and Dutch speakers inhabit different cultural universes. Most people have never heard of the major politicians, the major actresses, and sometimes even the major athletes on the other side of a country that is smaller than Maryland. They inhabit different political universes, too. Except in one nettlesome suburban area of Brussels, Flemings and Walloons are not permitted to vote for the same parties at the national level. They don't even obey the same laws. A major political squabble in recent years has involved whether Flanders or Brussels (which is itself an autonomous region) sets the noise pollution standards for planes flying into Zaventem international airport.
The main stereotype that outsiders bring to Belgium is the idea that all of this conflict was sowed for no very good reason by obstreperous Flemish fascists. And that is why the first thing the Flemish nationalist leader Bart De Wever wants to explain as he settles in for lunch in the dining room of the Flemish parliament in Brussels (that's separate from the Belgian parliament a few hundred yards away) is that his New Flemish Alliance party (N-VA) is not to be confused with the Vlaams Belang. Foreign coverage of Belgium tends to focus on the VB, a right-wing party that used to be called the Vlaams Blok. Along with its appeal for Flemish autonomy, the VB mixed in a big dollop of strongly stated anti-immigrant rhetoric. Its style resembled that of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France or the late Jörg Haider's Austrian People's party. The VB was very successful, too, winning key posts in Antwerp and increasing its score every election until it suddenly stalled out earlier this decade.
De Wever's N-VA is not that kind of party. It is true that his party splintered off from the same postwar movement of the nationalist right. Both parties believe that Dutch-speaking Flanders should break away from Belgium, leaving French-speaking Wallonia to fend for itself. But De Wever, who used to be a university professor specializing in 19th- and 20th-century political history, stresses that the VB, by getting wrapped up in anti-immigrant agitation, became an enemy not just of his own party but also of the cause of Flemish nationhood more generally. "They are the 'objective ally' of the Belgian state," he says, "the most principled argument for Belgium. People think: 'If this is the face of an independent Flanders, we're better off with Belgium.' " De Wever favors instead what he calls an "inclusive nationalism."
The second thing he insists on is that Americans may have an especially hard time seeing what is wrong with Belgian federalism as it now exists. With its already enormous devolutions of political authority to Flanders and Wallonia, Belgium now looks like the kind of federalism that American states'-rights advocates used to dream of. What needs to be remembered, he explains, is that the United States started as a loose confederation of independent states, which have slowly (and perhaps excessively) coalesced over the centuries. "We're different," he says. "We started as a unified nation-state and slowly but surely fell apart."
The Belgian state, in fact, now has little to do. National responsibilities of the smaller kind--from road-building to education--have migrated downward to the regions. National responsibilities of a larger kind have migrated upward to the European Union. Belgium uses the euro. And although there is still no EU army, cash-strapped Brussels has decided to pretend there is. It recently announced the closure or downsizing of dozens of military bases.