The Magazine

Belgium Waffles

Two nations, after all?

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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One of the roots of Belgium's instability is that it has seen one of the swiftest reversals of ruling class and subject class that modern history affords. In the early years of the Belgian state, French-speaking Walloons were top dog. They remained the country's elite until well after the Second World War. The faded French shop signs you can see in certain old neighborhoods in Dutch-speaking Ghent are a lingering reminder of the time when a Fleming had to speak French to participate in national life. Walloons almost never learned Dutch. Today the Dutch-speakers are rich and the French-speakers are poor, and the two generally communicate, if at all, in English.

Over the summer, Erik Buyst, an economic historian at the University of Leuven, wrote an enlightening short essay on how that happened. In the 19th century, Flanders was behind the eight-ball. You could say it was wiped out by free trade, just as Wallonia was enriched by it. Flemish agricultural products were undercut by cheap foodstuffs from America, and Flanders could not make linens--once the mainstay of its economy--as cheaply or as well as Britain. The country emptied out, much as Ireland did during the potato famine. A lot of Flemish nationalism, in fact--the kind De Wever and other modernizers want to overcome--is of an "Irish," never-forget-a-slight variety. Wallonia, by contrast, had coal and iron mines, which in turn bred engineering expertise, which made its upper-middle classes masters of the cobalt and copper deposits in Belgium's vast, inhumane Central African empire. Wallonia was an exporter of locomotives and other advanced machinery.

In the middle of the twentieth century, though, that situation got turned upside-down. A shift in energy resources was a big reason why. The coal mines of the South were depleted, requiring Belgium to import oil, and convert its industries to it. That meant building refineries on the coast, which was Flemish. Belgians, rightly or not, often describe coastal Flanders as the second-largest petrochemical economy in the world outside of Houston.

Wallonia is described through its own similarly graphic metaphor: as Britain without Thatcher. That the income of Flanders overtook that of Wallonia sometime in the mid-1960s is not just an accident of natural resources. It had political causes too. The heavily unionized South, with its rigid system of wage bargaining and a lavish welfare state won through uncompromising labor agitation, was totally resistant to change. For all the attention Flemish nationalism has received, the Walloons also gave an impetus to the breakup of Belgium, for their own economic reasons. They wanted to seize control over national economic policy in order to protect their dying industries. Wallonia would be an economy of coal, iron, and steel or it would be nothing. It wound up nothing. "In contrast with e.g. Glasgow or Bilbao," Buyst writes, "a successful reconversion to tertiary activities never materialized."

That scared foreign investors, particularly American ones, who were pouring into Europe in the decades after World War II. Already by the 1960s, 80 percent of the foreign companies present in Belgium were in the Flemish north, according to the Ghent university political scientist Carl Devos. Wallonia is now a basket case. Charleroi, the regional hub, shows a lot of the outward signs of a city run by a Socialist party machine: 30 percent unemployment, life expectancies that have receded to their levels in the 1950s, municipal council members sitting in jail, and a tendency of helpful locals to describe it as "our Detroit."

It is not surprising, then, that much of the rhetoric of Flemish nationalism has a Reaganite ring to it. Flanders, with 58 percent of Belgium's people, is paying for 66 percent of its social services, amounting to 4.4 billion euros in welfare transfers, according to the Action Committee for Flemish Social Security. That is an astonishing amount of money in a country of 11 million people.

That does not necessarily mean that the Flemish nation is going to storm out of the Belgian household in a huff. A number of things make the Belgian state extremely difficult to dismantle. But these factors for cohesion are all weakening.