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.
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.
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.