The Corner

Lessons from Belgium

It’s still too soon (unfortunately) to bring an end to the farce that is a united Belgium, but, with the crisis in that country dragging on, Gregory Rodriguez has some useful things to say (although he overlooks the fact that, if I remember the history correctly, the Flemish-speaking population was pushed around for much of Belgium’s first century) in the LA Times about its wider implications:

Four years ago, outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt called his nation “the laboratory of European unification.” In 1989, then-Prime Minister Wilfried Martens referred to Belgium as “the prototype of Europe.” The Federal Belgian State, he proclaimed, “is a prefiguration of a Europe of peoples, united in their organized diversity.” And, indeed, by virtue of a culture of political compromise and a mind-boggling, complex and constantly evolving government, for 177 years Belgium has managed not to split apart into its two major constituent pieces — each with its own language, culture and traditions: the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south. Belgium, it seems, not only shares its capital, Brussels, with the European Union, it also serves as the latter’s model.

Three short years ago, a United Nations report on “cultural liberty” glibly offered multiethnic Belgium as proof that countries don’t have to “choose between national unity and cultural diversity.” But it may have spoken too soon. For more than three months now, an ethnic standoff among the political parties has left Belgium unable to form a new government, and a growing number of Belgians are beginning to wonder what — other than soccer, frites and a king — they all have in common….Though intended to facilitate compromise, the incorporation of linguistic differences into the political system does little to make diverse Belgians feel part of the nation at large. In fact, it only reinforces the sense that the Flemish and the Francophones (not to mention the small minority of German speakers) are entirely separate peoples..So what has kept this consummately postmodern — or is it post-national — country together thus far? The monarchy.

But so far during this political crisis, King Albert II’s repeated calls for unity have gone unheeded. Yet while some Belgians deplore what one Flemish philosopher disdainfully called Belgium’s “identity of non-identity,” others embrace it. Nine years ago, a group of so-called Neo Belgicist intellectuals and artists published an open letter in which they affirmed their opposition to the existence of a single, solid national identity. Precisely because a national identity is nothing to be proud of, they argued, they are proud to be Belgians. In fact, they proclaimed Belgium to be the “antidote to nationalism.” And better yet, because it signifies so little, the Belgian state can easily be replaced by a new and broader “non-identity concept” of Europeanness. But if model little Belgium collapses under the weight of ethnic tensions, what makes them think that the giant European Union will not suffer a similar fate?

Food for thought.

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