While the European currency crisis has cast a pall over the world’s financial system and toppled governments in Greece, Italy, Slovakia, and elsewhere, Belgium may be the one place where financial instability is a catalyst for greater political stability. After a world-record 535 days without a government, a coalition government in Belgium is set to be formed, ending, for the time being, speculation that the only way out of the crisis would be a partition of the country on linguistic lines.
The prime minister inaugurated today, Elio Di Rupo of the Socialist Party, is from the French-speaking part of Belgium, Wallonia. Some look askance at his suitability as a uniter, since his proficiency in Flemish is considered sub-par—in a country where bilingualism is more or less a requirement for federal office. Flemish is the first language of 60% of Belgium’s population. The rest speak French, except for a minuscule German-speaking minority. However, Di Rupo’s ancestry allows him to rise above Belgium’s divisions somewhat: he was raised in a Belgian orphanage, but his parents were Italian immigrants to Wallonia (his father died when he was one). He is also, incidentally, one of the only openly gay world leaders—perhaps the only one other than Iceland’s new lesbian prime minister. (Someone can tell me if there’s another one.) Di Rupo seems determined to lead Belgium back to stability and prevent partition.
Belgians seem to have finally realized that, as the home of the European Union headquarters in Brussels—and, despite its small size, a significant mid-sized E.U. economy—it is hard for them to help lead the continent back to stability while their own government barely functions. What remains to be seen is whether they have rushed too quickly into this new coalition and whether it can survive while excluding, as it does now, the country’s largest political party, the Flemish separatists. Already, tens of thousands are marching in Belgium to protest austerity measures that the government will finally be functional enough to implement.
Belgium, like many European countries (think Italy, Switzerland, and Spain), includes disparate cultural and linguistic groups sharing a country mainly because of an accident of history. For a decade or more, Belgium has appeared to be careening toward partition. Electoral politics divide the country along sharp linguistic lines. Walloons and Flemings already often feel that they are separate countries. The Francophones, in this, have the most to lose: without their ties to Flemish-speakers, it will seem hard to find cultural or linguistic justifications for being a separate country at all and not being just part of France. They will also be landlocked and cut off from their former capital. Flemings, on the other hand, often regard their linguistic cousins in the Netherlands as speaking a different language, even though Dutch and Flemish are mutually intelligible. That is to say, Flemish national feeling is stronger. Many Flemings regard their history as a slow emergence from beneath a Francophone thumb (despite the fact that it’s the Germans who keep invading them). Most of the centrifugal force is generated in Flanders.
One of the quandaries of Belgian separatism has been what to do with Brussels. Although technically Flemish, it is in a sense its own region and is nearly fully bilingual in practice. It is a microcosm of the country as a whole and is a place where the two major groups mingle—in the manner of many capitals of countries whose ethnic balance is constitutionally maintained only with great pains, such as Sarajevo or Beirut. Oops, maybe those aren’t the best examples. In fact, Brussels is a bit of a sore spot for Belgians since French-speakers have gradually, over the decades, become the majority there (much of that has to do with the placement of the E.U. headquarters there), and this increases the Flemish feeling that their language has lower prestige and that their country is being Frenchified. If Flanders and Wallonia ever separate, it seems possible that Brussels might become an independent city-state, like Monaco or Luxembourg, thus making Europe’s “capital” a special zone like the District of Columbia or the Australian Capital Territory.
In any case, we can fully expect an electoral backlash against the incoming left-wing coalition and its monolingual Mediterranean dandy of a prime minster (for, mark my words, that is how they will portray him)—if only because it is almost impossible for a politician to stay popular while presiding over an economic crisis. So we can expect the Flemish separatists to regain their lost ground in the next round of elections, and if they get near the center of power they will probably try to move towards a split faster than ever. Flemings tend to be more politically right-wing than Wallonia, and many Flemings stereotype Walloons as lazy and a burden on the state. In this, Belgium is like a microcosm of Europe itself, where Germanic-speaking Protestants in places like Germany and the U.K. tut-tut over the inefficiency and dysfunctionality and dependency of Mediterranean and Romance-speaking nations along the continent’s southern rim, like Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece.
The irony is that if Belgium splits up, whether into two or three entities, there will actually be little change in the daily lives of residents of the two new countries. They will still be fearing the economic effects of a currency crisis in the economic union they cohabit, and they will still enjoy the benefits of that union as well, with no controls on trade or immigration between the two nations. The main difference will be that their governments can finally move forward, as some but not all other E.U. member states are doing, to confront the continent’s economic problems. Heck, they may even coordinate their policy within the E.U. better after a split, like a divorced couple who finally achieve the easy and supportive friendship that they couldn’t manage while married. Wallonia will be a slightly more left-leaning country than Flanders, but, by European standards, not by much. Their differences have always been mainly symbolic and emotional.
Incidentally, it will be nice to see Belgium’s boring tricolor flag ...
... tossed on the dustbin of history to be replaced by the jaunty, eye-catching flags of Wallonia ...
... and Flanders.
The less said about Brussels’ flag the better, however. To be honest, it looks like a fleur-de-lis that someone has stepped on:
And now let us close with this image. Below is a photo of Belgian students in Ghent stripping down to streak earlier this year in honor of their country’s having reached 250 continuous days without a government, seizing the record from Iraq. Yet another feather in the cap of the country that has already given the world René Magritte, Tintin, and the Smurfs.