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Article – February 1, 2008
Posted/Updated: 2008-02-01 16:40:09
EuropeBelgium's Identity Crisis
A Sign of Things to Come for the
European (China) Union?
Belgium, a model of European democracy, is experiencing a long, arduous political crisis that raises the question: Will the
European (ET says: how about China and Taiwan) Union face similar impasses?
BY RYAN P. DENEE
A drive through the countryside of Belgium is a unique and relaxing experience not soon forgotten. The scenic tree-lined roads, with trunks sometimes inches from the pavement, are an expression of order and natural beauty. The branches springing from opposing sides of the road intertwine to form a comforting tunnel of lush foliage.
Belgium’s government is in political gridlock, threatening to split the nation in two.
Beyond the roadside are vibrant green meadows, another facet of the country’s beauty. Fields dotted with grazing cows and wildflowers are pleasing to the eye. A walk through the serene, mature forests provides the opportunity for quiet contemplation.
The villages and towns are also welcoming. The narrow, cobbled roads wind by small yet practical and pleasant homes. The cafés offer the chance to sit and relax with a sandwich and a glass of locally-brewed ale while watching passersby.
A stroll through bustling downtown Brussels, the nation’s capital, which is lined with a variety of shops and stylish boutiques, is also a memorable experience. In particular, chocolate shops provide a treat that is world-renowned. The center of the city, like many of Europe’s great cities, offers visitors an open square, with beautiful, old and intricate architecture on every side, four to five stories high. The famous Brussels waffles (known as Belgian waffles in North America) are sold from small stands, offering pedestrians the unmatched taste of crisp yet soft dough smothered in rich whipped cream.
This is Belgium.
Yet this seemingly idyllic, peaceful country has just experienced an unprecedented political crisis.
From the national elections in June 2007 through late December, the country was without a government. For more than six months, disagreeing politicians and parties were unable to form a coalition to lead Belgium.
On December 19th, the king of Belgium intervened to help create an interim government that will serve the country for three months. In effect, the parties that were elected by the people of Belgium on June 10, 2007, remain unable to form a coalition.
A country with over 10.5 million people is sorely divided—to the point that the government has become paralyzed. A highly developed, modern country and democracy has been unable to produce leadership for the nation for almost 200 days.
This tiny land, nestled between France to the south, the Netherlands to the north, and Luxembourg and Germany to the east, has garnered international attention because of this crisis. Many cannot believe this is happening. Others wonder why it is taking place. Some, understanding the country’s differing peoples, suggest that Belgium should be dissolved. Others fear this possibility.
Why has this happened in such a seemingly tranquil country? How could this happen in a stable Western democracy in the developed world? What can be learned from such a high-profile social/political experiment that has led to a sovereign nation being without a government for half a year?
And what does this mean for the rest of
Europe (the world, such as China and Taiwan)?
A Brief History
Belgium was created by Britain in the 1830s. The northern Flemish region (predominantly Dutch-speaking) was combined with the southern Walloon region (largely French-speaking). Arguably, this was beneficial to the region at large, but not without consequences for the people living within its borders.
In the 19th century, the Walloon region had many natural resources. As a result, the Walloons were the wealthy people of the land. In effect, they dominated the country at the time, with many looking down on the Flemish with an air of superiority. In fact, it was not until well over 100 years later that Dutch became an official language.
In the latter half of the 1800s, as a fledgling nation, the Belgian government had to quickly gain the loyalty of its diverse citizenry. This happened through massive public work schemes, trade unions, nationalized industries and social security networks. Quickly, the entire government became a mechanism to reallocate wealth—in effect, buying the support of the people.
Over time, this caused the Flemish to become more prosperous. When some of the resources ran out in the French-speaking south, the north quickly became the wealthier region. Today, the Walloon region produces only 24% of the GDP, while representing 33% of the population. This change in economic strength, among other factors, has fueled a significant level of division between these two groups.
Consider the layers of government necessary to appease two distinct groups of people who would not agree—who would not put the other’s interests ahead of their own. In many regards, the government structure became a tangled, monolithic bureaucracy.
The current federal government is comprised of no less than 11 political parties. But these are regional, not national. In a nation where voting is mandatory, people tend to vote along linguistic boundaries. There are several parties with differing political platforms represented in Fleming, and there are several in Walloon, also with differing platforms. This means that a majority government is almost impossible. Coalitions must be established, in an attempt to “fairly” represent these two disagreeing groups of people. This has ultimately led to a tremendous stalemate—the recent inability of the government to form over a period of six months is a case in point.
One of the basic elements of the latest dispute is that the Flemish no longer want to subsidize the southern Walloon region. They are seeking a larger voice on how their money is spent. Those in the Walloon region do not see a need to change the status quo, leaving the opposing sides in uncompromising positions.
In summary: two peoples—two languages—and one struggling, crippled government.
This has led many to wonder if the country should split. Some have suggested that the Dutch-speaking region merge with the Netherlands and the French-speaking with France. Certain separatists have loudly cried for independence, but polls indicate that the majority of Belgians do not want to divide.