Is Belgium Breaking Up?

Article excerpt

ALL POLITICS ARE LOCAL, said Tip O'Neill. Not so. It is more true to say all politics are tribal. For the 1991 prediction of Arthur Schlesinger--"Ethnic and racial conflict, it now seems evident, will soon replace the conflict of ideologies as the explosive issue of our time"--has proven prophetic.

As Schlesinger was writing, the USSR, a prison house of nations held together by the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, the Red Army, the KGB, and Communist Party, was disintegrating. Out of the carcass came 15 true nations. Causes of secession: ethnicity and culture.

At the same time, Yugoslavia exploded. Slovenes and Croats broke free of Belgrade, and Bosnia was beset by a civil-sectarian war of Croats, Serbs, and Muslims. Macedonia seceded and, more recently, Montenegro. Now Kosovo, cradle of the Orthodox Serb people, but 90 percent Albanian and Muslim, is moving toward independence.

Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR came apart after they became free, thus confirming what my late friend Sam Francis said. Multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual countries are held together either by an authoritarian regime or a dominant ethnocultural core, as the English have held together the United Kingdom, or they come apart.

Today, we see agitation for secession by Scottish nationalists who wish to follow the Irish nationalists of the early 20th century out of the UK, which brings us to the point of this column.

Belgium, created by the European powers in 1831, is the likely next nation in Europe to break up--into a Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, tied to Holland by language and culture, and a Francophone south, Wallonia, tied to France by language and culture.

What puts the breakup of Belgium on the front burner is that this nation of 10 million has been without a government for three months. In June, Yves Leterme, the leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats, won the general election, but was blocked from forming a government by Wallonia, which fears Leterme is a closet nationalist bent on secession.

Belgium is also divided economically and politically. Flanders is wealthy, conservative, capitalist. Wallonia is poor, socialist, statist. As the Flemish 60 percent of the population generates 70 percent of GDP and 80 percent of all exports, it is weary of seeing its taxes--the top rate is 50 percent--going to sustain a socialist Wallonia where unemployment is 15 percent. By one poll, 43 percent of Flemish want to quit Belgium and go their own way.

What enables Wallonia to block formation of a government is a parliamentary system in which Flanders and Wallonia must each assent to any government, which means that half of the Walloons, 20 percent of the population, holds veto power over any national government. …