Belgium is in danger of falling apart. For more than six months, the country has been unable to form a government that is able to unite the French-speaking Walloons (32%) and Dutch-speaking Flemish (58%). The Belgian monarch is desperately trying to stop his subjects from breaking up the state.
Apart from the king, who cares? First of all, the Walloons do. Although the French-speaking Belgians started the European Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, they are now living in a deprived rust belt in need of federal subsidies, a substantial amount of which comes from taxes paid by the more prosperous Flemish. A handful of right-wing Dutch dreamers care, too, for they have visions of uniting Belgian Flanders with the Dutch motherland.
Alas for them, however, the Flemish have no such desire. Belgium, after all, became an independent state in 1830, in order to liberate the Catholic Flemish from being second-class subjects in a Protestant Dutch monarchy.
But perhaps we should all care, for what is happening in Belgium is not unique. The Czechs and Slovaks already parted ways, as did the different nations of Yugoslavia. Many Basques would like to break away from Spain, as would many Catalans. Corsicans would love to be rid of France.
Then, of course, there is the Tibetan problem in China, the Chechen problem in Russia and so on. No doubt some of these peoples would be able to survive perfectly well on their own. But history suggests that the cumulative effect of states falling apart is seldom positive.
Belgian separatists like to observe that Belgium was never a natural nation-state, but an accident of history. But so are many. The accident in the case of Belgium is usually placed in the early 19th century, the result of Napoleon’s European empire collapsing and Dutch arrogance. In fact, one might just as well set the accident in the 16th century, when the Habsburg emperor hung on to the southern Netherlands while the Protestant northern provinces broke away.
Be that as it may, nation-states were often formed in the 18th and 19th centuries to promote common interests that transcended cultural, ethnic, linguistic or religious differences. This was true of Italy and Britain, no less than of Belgium.
The problem now is that interests are no longer the same. The European Union has weakened the authority of national governments. Why rely on London, say the Scots, if Brussels offers greater advantages.
When common interests no longer prevail, language and culture begin to matter more. One reason Flemish Belgians resent having to prop up the Walloons with their tax money is that they regard them almost as foreigners. Most Flemish don’t read French-language newspapers, and vice versa. TV stations are separate. And so are schools.
Similarly, northern Italians don’t like their tax money being used to help the south, but at least they still have a language in common, as well as Silvio Berlusconi. The Belgians only have a king, who is descended from Germans.
Why should this matter? Don’t we feel sympathy for the Tibetans in their struggle for freedom? Why shouldn’t the Flemish go their own way?
It is one thing to support a people that is oppressed by an authoritarian government — and Tibetans are actually in danger of losing their culture. But it is more disturbing when people choose to break up nation-states because they refuse to share their wealth, for linguistic or ethnic reasons.
If Flemish citizens don’t want their taxes to go to the Walloons, what about helping out unemployed immigrants from Africa, a large chunk of which the Belgians once owned and exploited? It should come as no surprise that the Flemish nationalist party is hostile to immigrants, too.
So the fate of Belgium should interest all Europeans. For what is happening in Belgium now could end up happening on a continental scale.
Why, for example, should the prosperous Germans continue to have their tax money pooled to assist the Greeks? It is difficult to sustain any democratic system without a sense of solidarity. And it helps if this is based on something deeper than shared interests: a language, a sense of common history. The European identity is still far from being solid.
Perhaps the citizens of Belgium do not have enough in common anymore, and the Flemish and Walloons would be better off divorced. But one hopes not. Divorces are never painless. And ethnic nationalism unleashes emotions that are undesirable.
We know what happened when the twin pulls of blood and soil determined European politics before. Without having intended it, the EU now seems to be encouraging the very forces that postwar European unity was designed to contain.