The Magazine

Belgium Waffles

Two nations, after all?

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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First is Brussels, the love child of the Flemish-Walloon pairing, which both cultures claim as their capital. It is historically a Flemish city in the heart of Flanders, but it became the seat of the Francophone elite in the last century, to such an extent that Belgians used to joke that Brussels controlled three colonies: Flanders, Wallonia, and the Congo. It is now the bureaucratic capital of the European Union as well, which has French as one of its two working languages. An independent Flanders would either have a mammoth and expanding Francophone megalopolis at its very heart, or it would be a doughnut-shaped entity with one of the most dynamic cities in Europe excised. For the first time in recent months, though, certain Flemish nationalists have begun to moot the possibility of setting up their own country without Brussels in it.

The second factor holding Belgians together is their monarchy, whose binding capacity comes from a paradox: (a) The royal family is Francophone, and (b) Dutch-speakers have traditionally liked it better than French-speakers do. A referendum was held after World War II on whether King Leopold III ought to be returned to power. (He had been removed by the Nazis and sent to Germany under mysterious circumstances.) Flemings supported his return; Walloons opposed it. But today, the monarchy has been politicized by the task of keeping the country in one piece, and Flemings have grown increasingly republican. Barely a majority of Flemings support the monarchy. Although the royal family now speak Dutch better than they did, most young people see the royals as favoring the Walloons.

Finally, there is the country's national pension fund, which would have to be broken up along with the country, probably along a formula highly unfavorable to Flemings. But in a time of demographic decline and a mounting ratio of dependent retirees to active workers, the Belgian welfare state is no more viable over the long term than any other. (Given the massive unemployment in the South, it is probably less viable.) It cannot fulfill the role of holding the country together if it is an actuarial fiction. A complicating factor is the Belgian government's role in rescuing three major banks in last year's banking crisis. This creates another incentive for the status quo--but it puts pressure on state services, too.

There is an irony here, and one that has given Flanders's nationalistic modernizers an opening. Historically, both Flanders and Wallonia have pushed for more autonomy, but in very different ways. Flanders has traditionally wanted more respect for its culture, following the model of other great but downtrodden peoples seeking to gain full civil rights. There is a Catalonian or Québécois aspect to the way they lobbied for university instruction in their own language, winning those rights only on the eve of the Second World War. They were willing to give up a bit of economic power, as the economist Olivier Boehme has shown, in defense of cultural purity. Wallonia, by contrast, took its culture for granted. Its priority was seizing the policy levers it needed to keep its dying industrial economy intact. Both sides got exactly what they wanted. But the romantic, ethereal, "cultural" agenda of the Flemings won them real-world benefits. The hard-headed, brass-tacks, "objective" agenda of the Walloons has been a disaster in practical terms.

One of the results of this reversal of fortunes has been a high-stakes battle around history, an attempt to show the Flemish cultural agenda as somehow corrupt at its heart. There are not many places in Europe where the battle rages more furiously over who deserves blame for the country's 20th-century mistakes. (Spain is one.) Each side tries to portray the other as having committed worse excesses of collaboration. One side claims the Nazis freed Flemish POWs before Walloon ones; the other notes that Flanders had no collaborators more zealous than the Francophone fascist Léon Degrelle.

In public relations terms, the Francophones won this battle in a rout. It is the Vlaams Belang in Antwerp, not the National Front in Charleroi, that became the focus of worries that the Belgian right was fascistic and beyond the pale. Over the past couple of decades, Flemish and Belgian conservative parties erected what they called a cordon sanitaire around the Vlaams Belang to keep it out of government, citing its position on immigrants as xenophobic. Whether this was good politics or not, today it looks increasingly unfair, as all Belgian parties, left and right, Flemish and Walloon, come to the realization that reforms of immigration policy will be necessary to protect the Belgian school and social-service sector. Gerolf Annemans, the VB's leading intellectual, says that the cordon sanitaire is "purely political." Most of his opponents would agree with him, although they do not say so on the record.

On the other hand, De Wever is right that the VB's focus on immigrants was a mighty distraction from the important business of establishing workable Flemish governments. VB leaders used to eschew contacts with serious mainstream nationalist parties where they existed and governed (Catalonia and Scotland), preferring to spend time consorting with unstable atavists like Jörg Haider. Although the VB still gets a quarter of the vote in Antwerp, the N-VA and another liberal nationalist party are, if you take their votes together, quickly catching up. Most analysts believe the VB's star has been falling since the Socialists passed them as Antwerp's largest party in 2006.

De Wever sees the Catalans and Scots as allies always, and as models sometimes. "Barcelona," he says of the Catalan capital, "is living propaganda for self-rule." It is Catalonia, the engine of the Spanish economy, that offers the best parallel to the Flemish situation at the moment. "Our cultural battles are over," says De Wever. "We are not second-class citizens anymore." He is right about that, but it is a pleasant surprise to hear it. There is nothing rarer than a nationalist party or a civil-rights movement willing to take "yes" for an answer.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.