You wonder how Belgium can be bothered having a national question. Does a country this small really need a velvet divorce? You can drive across it in a couple of hours and hardly notice you’ve been there. And despite two years of constitutional upheaval, Belgium certainly doesn’t look like a failed state. Travelling between picture book cities like Bruges and Ghent, with their chocolates and dentilles, you pass through endless neat suburbs and orderly villages of restored cottages. Bosnia it isn’t. Belgium is twee in a way rural England is supposed to be, but isn’t. I’m even told that garden gnomes came originally from Belgium, brought back home by British soldiers fighting in Flanders field in the First World War. Now the gnomes of Flanders want their own country.
Belgium has had one of the most intractable ethnic disputes in Western Europe. The enmity between the Dutch speaking Flemish in the north and the French speaking Walloons in the south of the country is deep, and intense, though fortunately not bloody. There are no pogroms or street fights, just the occasional flag burning. But these two peoples really don’t seem to want to share the same space. Last year, a failure to agree a new division of powers between Flanders and Wallonia left Belgium without a government for six months. The King had to step in and force the warring political parties to come to their senses and form an administration. In the capital, Brussels, a kind of linguistic ethnic cleansing has been taking place, with shop-keepers in Dutch speaking localities being ordered to take down signs written in French Last year, it was reported that a couple in one suburb of Brussels was forced to prove that they spoke Dutch at home before getting access to childcare
Following last month’s elections, in which the Flemish separatists made further substantial gains, there is an expectation, almost a presumption, that Belgium, after 180 years as a functioning nation state is on the road to partition if not perdition. The Flemish, with around 60% of Belgium’s 10.5m population believe they are the entrepreneurial, go-ahead partners in the Belgian national project, and tend to regard the Walloons, with their socialist politics and trades union ways, as a drain on the exchequer. Wallonia supplies less than 40% of Belgium’s GDP while consuming more than half of public spending. This hardly surprising, however, since unemployment in declining industrial Wallonia has been running at 20% – twice the rate in Flanders.
The way some Flemish nationalists talk about the Walloons is similar to the way Tory MPs used to talk about the Scots – subsidy junkies sponging off English taxes. Since 1993, Flanders and Wallonia have had their own regional parliaments with extensive economic powers, but devolution does not appear to have resolved the constitutional issues. Belgium is a de facto federation, except that neither of the dominant regions is prepared to give the federal government sufficient power to hold the country together. What is emerging is a confederation of two largely independent regional states living apart together within the boundaries of a nominal national entity.
Brussels, a kind of city region, has been the piggy in the middle the middle. The climate of constitutional uncertainty led t the neurotic drawing of linguistic boundaries in Brussels suburb. Paradoxically, it may be that the only thing now holding the country together is the financial crisis which has forced Flanders and Wallonia to recognise their common interests in the face of economic adversity. The collapse into state ownership of the large Belgian bank, Fortis, was a blow to national self-confidence but it also showed that there was some point in having a Belgian-wide government capable of nationalising failed financial institutions. But as the debris of the credit crunch is cleared away, the rivalry between Flemish and Walloon is likely to resurface and intensify as both sides blame each other for rising unemployment and higher taxes.
Mind you, some eurosceptic conspiracy theorists believe that Belgium’s constitutional crisis is a plot by the European Union to break European countries into regions the better to pursue its objective of creating a European super state. This little foundation in fact and the Belgians are quite capable of breaking up their little country on their own. Indeed, constitutionalists can equally claim that the EU is a countervailing force against disintegration since Flanders and Wallonia would have to reapply separately for membership of the European Union if Belgium did actually disintegrate. Nations like France and Spain, worried about their own regional autonomist movements might try to block the entry of the newly divorced states of former Belgium. Though it would be an irony too rich to contemplate were Brussels, the administrative heart of the EU, were to be denied entry to itself.
But euro paranoia aside, what lessons if any from the Belgian constitutional trauma? Well, if nothing else it confirms that language remains the most divisive factor in inter-communal disputes. Fortunately, Scotland and England speak the same tongue. We don’t need to worry about English language commissars ordering Scottish families to speak English at home or vice versa. Linguistic apartheid is the most disturbing dimension of the Belgian constitutional imbroglio. It is overlaid by a racial antagonism to Muslim immigrants – the Flanders nationalists have tended to be parties of the far right – more BNP than SNP. The Flemish separatist party, Vlaams Blok, was successfully prosecuted for racism and xenophobia in the Belgian supreme court in 2004. We are fortunate that the Scottish National Party is a civic nationalist party with a social democratic centre of gravity.
But language and race aside, is the UK going the way of Belgium? On the face of it, with a nationalist administration in Holyrood, and with a possible future Conservative government in Westminster looking to address the West Lothian Question, it might appear as if Britain is on the same trajectory. But somehow, I don’t think it will come to that if only because of the British tradition of constitutional innovation. Already the First Minister, Alex Salmond, is making discreet overtures to David Cameron, the likely future UK prime minister. I suspect there will be an understanding reached about giving Scotland more economic powers in exchange for a review of the Barnett Formula. There need be no histrionics. If a divorce is on the way it will be a very British divorce, not a Belgian passion play.