Nationalism: Crisis in Belgium, cracks in Europe

14 September 2010
Les Echos Paris

The divisions threatening the integrity of Belgium, the heart of Europe, have dire repercussions on the stability of the Union and its image overseas. And yet, argues political scientist Dominique Moïsi, Belgium and the EU need each other to survive.

At a time when the Flemish and Walloons are talking about putting up borders, if not walls, between them, whilst targeted minorities are being flown off of French soil by the planeful, what sort of image of itself is Europe projecting into the world? Belgium is mired in a political and identity crisis, and above all a moral crisis.

Is this another episode of the “Belgian saga”, a tragicomic and ultimately marginal exception, or does it reflect a more general and acute European crisis, of which the Kingdom of Belgium is but the most extreme expression? Washington DC’s special status makes sense within the framework of the American federal system. But can Brussels remain the capital of the Union if it ceases to be the capital of a member state of the Union?

Italians say their nation, in its 150-year history, still hasn’t managed to fit itself out with a state worthy of the name. In Belgium, will it be the state – founded in 1830 by the will of a Walloon elite backed by France under King Louis-Philippe – that will have failed in its attempt to forge a nation, despite the stability of its monarchy, of its colonial empire…and of football?

Belgians and Iraqis

“Flemings and Walloons have about as much in common as Eskimos and Muslims….” When we hear Flemish and, lately, Walloon commentators airing such outrageous remarks on French TV about the (dis)unity of the Belgian nation, we can’t help wondering what has become of European identity, and what can yet be done to save Belgium. Belgians and Iraqis now share the dubious distinction of proving equally unable to form a bipartisan government after many gruelling months. The situation is more desperate in Iraq, of course, given the violence there, but in terms of national identity, might it not be even more serious in Belgium? Ernest Renan said a nation is a daily referendum. If, day after day, the referendum comes out negative, then a breakup becomes inescapable.

It is no longer time to rehash the well-known causes of the present predicament. One side’s irresponsible arrogance, the other’s humiliation, the seesawing of superiority and inferiority complexes between the two communities, the complexity of the Brussels conundrum, the “betrayal” by politicians who, lacking sufficient sense of the state, are unable to bring the nation “back to life”…. It has all been said. And if her inhabitants no longer define themselves as Belgians, Belgium is dead.

A latter-day Tower of Babel?

The Belgian and European crises feed on each other in a negative dialectic that leads to an impasse. In reality, Europe needs Belgium every bit as much as Belgium needs Europe. Has Euro-gloom spread to Belgium, or is it the Belgian implosion that imperils the European Union, the fallout from Brussels irradiating Europe? After all, creating a Republic of Flanders and a Republic of Wallonia would be grist to the separatist mills of Catalonia and Scotland….

A mental and political universe is reflected in its architecture. The great French architect Christian de Portzamparc has been commissioned to create a new neighbourhood around the rue de la Loi in Brussels that should express Europe’s confidence and faith in its future and institutions. That would seem an impossible task today. Each country is bringing pressure to bear to have its own little neighbourhood and architecture. It isn’t Europe projecting itself into the future with an ambitious, unified project, but each European nation celebrating its past within a metropolis that is wondering whether it still has any future at all. Aren’t we running the risk of building a latter-day Tower of Babel?

In terms of image and reality, Belgium’s desire for, or resignation to, a partitioning is disastrous for Europe. In its weakened present state, Europe will not suffice to give Belgians any hankering to live together. But whatever their destiny, the Flemish and the Walloons should remain Europeans, i.e. open-minded citizens respectful of others. And if there are any Belgians left, they should speak up and speak out fast for the sake of Belgium – and for the sake of Europe.

Translated by Eric Rosencrantz

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