- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2007


In the early 1990s, following the fall of Communism, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia fell apart. Today, the federal Kingdom of Belgium, the last of Europe’s multinational states, is beginning to unravel.

In 1830-31, the international powers put Belgium together as a political compromise and an experiment in building one state out of two nationalities. The country is home to 6 million Dutch-speakers in Flanders, its northern half bordering the Netherlands, 3 million French-speakers in Wallonia, its southern half bordering France, and 1 million people in its capital Brussels, an enclave within Flanders, which is also the capital of the European Union (EU).

A deliberate “frenchification” policy has succeeded in turning Brussels, originally a Dutch-speaking town, into a predominantly French-speaking city. Even North-African immigrants were used to achieve this aim. The immigrants, coming from former French colonies, were given Belgian citizenship to force the Flemings into a minority position in Brussels.

Six years ago Claude Eerdekens, a leading Walloon Socialist and the chairman of the Naturalization Commission of the Belgian House of Representatives, admitted that his commission was granting citizenship to foreigners without investigating the applicants’ backgrounds because most of the immigrants speak French rather than Dutch. “Our commission does more for the frenchification of Brussels than the Flemings can ever do to prevent it,” he boasted in a newspaper interview.

All this would not have been possible if Belgium had been a democracy. Belgium’s Constitution stipulates, however, that no major decisions can be taken without a majority in both parts of the country and that the government should consist of 50 percent Flemings and 50 percent Walloons. In practice this means that 20 percent of the population (i.e. half of the Walloons) can veto every decision. This has made the Parti Socialiste (PS), the largest party in Wallonia, the power broker in the country.

While capitalist-minded Flanders generates wealth (it accounts for 70 percent of Belgium’s GDP and 80 percent of its exports), Wallonia, at the receiving end of a generous welfare system, spends most of the money and vetoes any attempt to reform the system. Every year 6.6 percent of Flanders’ GDP is spent on welfare in Wallonia.

Flanders cannot allow this situation to continue. The growing electoral appeal of the secessionist Vlaams Belang (VB), which strives for an independent Flanders, pressured the Flemish Christian Democrats to propose the transformation of Belgium into a confederation of two largely independent states with only the king, foreign policy and defense in common. On June 10, the Flemish Christian Democrat leader Yves Leterme, the son of a Walloon father and a Flemish mother, won the Belgian general elections. The Walloon parties refused to accept Mr. Leterme as prime minister, thus making it impossible to put together a Belgian government. According to the Walloons, Mr. Leterme is a closet Flemish nationalist. King Albert II is not too fond of Mr. Leterme either. Last year, the latter reproached the monarch openly for not speaking Dutch, the language of the majority of his compatriots, well enough.

Today, three months after the elections, Flemish politicians are openly suggesting that one should fill the vacuum left by the absence of a federal government by having the Flemish regional parliament unilaterally declare Flemish sovereignty. Last week, even the Economist wrote that it is “time to abolish Belgium.”

The unraveling of Belgium does not bode well for the EU’s attempts to transform itself into a multinational state. Belgium is not only the EU’s host country but also its model. As early as 1904 the Belgian socialist Leon Hennebicq, a Brussels lawyer, wrote: “Have we [Belgium] not been called the laboratory of Europe? Indeed, we are a nation under construction. The problem of economic expansion is duplicated perfectly here by the problem of constructing a nationality. Two different languages, different classes without cohesion, a parochial mentality, an adherence to local communities that borders on the most harmful egotism, these are all elements of disunion. Luckily they can be reconciled. The solution is [state-controlled] economic expansion, which can make us stronger by uniting us.”

His words foreshadowed the Europeanist project of the 1950s, which aimed for political unification through economic integration. Two years ago, Guy Verhofstadt, Belgium’s prime minister (maybe its last) called the country “the laboratory of European unification.” Today, it seems that what Belgium can teach Europeans is the unfeasibility of the “European project,” which attempts to amalgamate various peoples into a single welfare state, the European Union, while at the same time depriving those countries that create the bulk of the EU’s wealth of the power to decide how their money is spent.

Paul Belien is editor of the Brussels Journal and an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute.

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