A war has been brewing in Europe and no one seems to care. Admittedly, the hostilities have been mild so far: hurt feelings, insults, diplomatic wrangling. Yves Leterme (a Flemish politician) questioned whether people in the French-speaking part of Belgium have the “intellectual capacity” to learn Dutch. Belgium, Leterme suspects, holds together as a nation only because of three things: “king, national football team and certain beers.” Not even all the beers.
Belgium is not the most obvious candidate for a unified state. It is, and arguably always has been, deeply and fundamentally divided between the French-speaking southern half of the country (Wallonia) and the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country (Flanders). The separation runs back to the Frankish invasions of the area back around the fifth century, which is a pretty longstanding divide even by European standards. Speaking of that era, Belgian historian Emile Cammearts wrote:
The Franks settled in the north, the Romanized Celts or “Walas” occupied the south. The first are the ancestors of the Flemings of today, the second of the Walloons, and the limit of languages between the two sections of the population has remained the same. It runs today where it ran 14 centuries ago, from the south of Ypres to Brussels and Maestricht, dividing Belgium almost evenly into two populations belonging to two separate races and speaking two different languages.
I can personally attest to the lack of Belgian national sympathies among many Belgians. The Belgian National Holiday on July 21 just passed by with little fanfare in Antwerp, where I have been living. It seemed largely an excuse to take a day off. This is in contrast to the holiday of Flemish pride on July 11, which was greeted with rock-and-roll performances in the city’s main square and general merriment in the streets. The holiday celebrates a 1302 battle, the Battle of the Golden Spurs, in which a bunch of proto-Belgian Flemish militiamen lured a group of French knights into a swamp and cut them to pieces. They kept the golden spurs of the French as trophies. The French knights were there in the first place because the citizens of Bruges had summarily executed everyone in the city who spoke French.
It does not help that the political unity of Belgium has ever been a slapdash affair. Stuck between French and Germanic empires (and a few others besides), the Belgians had a hard time of it throughout most of the last two millennia. The Belgian Revolution of 1830 led, finally, to the establishment of an independent Belgium dominated neither by the Dutch to the North nor the French to the South. It was basically a buffer state. But that did nothing to address the internal divisions. Belgium was little more than an alliance of French speakers who weren’t French and Dutch speakers who weren’t Dutch. Separatist parties on both the Walloon and Flemish sides have existed ever since.
It can be difficult, in Belgium, to find anyone who simply identifies as Belgian without immediately qualifying that Belgianness with other linguistic or geographical markers. That’s not to say people do not try. I’ve spoken to many people in both the North and the South who want to believe in Belgium. They are understandably annoyed with the rhetoric of division and the finger pointing that goes back and forth between Flemish and Wallonian Belgium. But asked to define that greater Belgian identity, they are often at a loss. They end up retreating back to language, region, city.
In Flanders alone one can detect the barely concealed contempt of a Gentenaar (resident of Ghent) when speaking about the daily behavior of an Antwerpenaar (resident of Antwerp) just a few miles to the east. Don’t even get the Bruggenaars (from Bruges) started on the Gentenaars and the Antwerpenaars. Belgium, in short, is a seething cauldron of division and resentment masquerading as a pleasant and polite society in Northern Europe. After the Flemish Nationalist party (N-VA) made a big showing in recent elections, Lieven de Winter, professor of politics at the Université Catholique de Louvain, has been quoted as saying, “We are close to the abyss.” Is all hell about to break loose in Belgium? And if Belgium cannot hold it together, what hope is there for the rest of us?
I know one Gentenaar who has been quietly collecting weapons for years now. He’s not openly saying that he is prepared to use them on the enemies of Ghent. He talks about the divisions with smiles and winks and comments about keeping the powder dry. But if there is one thing Europe has experienced time and again, it is the speed with which the civilizational contract can come undone. One minute, people are laughing and joking around; the next minute they are rounding up their erstwhile neighbors for deportation.
Ever since Bosnian Serb Nationalist Gavrilo Princip took his potshot at Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 and unleashed the nightmare of World War I it has been unwise to take matters of European separatism too lightly. And it is separatism about which we speak. Bart De Wever, head of the N-VA party that now dominates the political scene in Flanders, put it like this: “We are in each other’s face… And together we are going downhill fast. Flanders and Wallonia must be masters of their own fate.” De Wever does not see the dissolution of Belgium happening “overnight.” It could take two or three nights. The point is that he sees it happening, eventually and inevitably.
This scares many people, especially some of the Walloons to the south, who believe a split from Flanders will isolate them politically, economically, and ethnically. A Wallonian man in the Ardennes patiently explained to me that De Wever’s march up to parliament after his big electoral win mirrored Hitler’s march up to the podium for a speech in Munich. “De Wever uses the same exact gestures,” the Walloon told me, “the same exact body language. He is a Hitler.” Of course, when I asked this same Walloon his feelings about Belgium he was quick to dismiss the whole country. “It’s a mess,” he told me, “I’m hoping to move to Italy.”
There is something ugly in the very idea of separatism. It has the stench of “Volk” upon it. It was, after all, such regional tribalism that landed Europe in most of its 20th century wars. There is no World War II without Germany’s Blood and Soil. There is no Srebrenica without the Serbian call for ethnic cleansing. Vlaams Belang, the far right Flemish separatist party, is essentially fascist in its militant definition of what is and is not properly Flemish. Their recent election slogan, “Secure, Flemish, Liveable” has the distinction of being both mundane and vile. Many younger Belgians don’t trust the NV-A precisely because they see it as Vlaams Belang in disguise, Flemish nationalism prettied up for the international press. The fact that de Wever has, in the past, been seen palling around with hardcore rightwing nationalists like Jean-Marie Le Pen adds to the unease.
But the N-VA is not the Vlaams Belang, and the separatism being advocated by Bart de Wever has one important distinction from what one normally thinks of when the issue of separatism comes up. It took a late night discussion with Louis and Elodie S—, friends in the diplomatic corps living in Brussels, for me to fully comprehend the mood afoot in Europe.
You may recall that there is a new transnational entity in the world. It is called the European Union. As a political experiment, it is every bit as scary and exciting as the project the old boys put together in Philadelphia lo those many nights ago at the end of the 18th century. The dream of the EU, the insane proposition of it all, is that a collection of nation states that spent centuries mired in division and war can come together in peace and cooperation. All of them. No real borders. Economic integration. Political unity. Shared obligations in relation to the rest of the world. It is a stunning thing to imagine from a continent that was once described with the phrase “perpetual war” and whose greatest contribution to the first half of the 20th century was the attempt, in two world wars, to annihilate Western civilization completely.
Louis was smoking a cigar the size of a small tree trunk and holding a glass of tequila. He has spent a lifetime traveling the world, thinking about how it is that human beings govern themselves and one another. He peered at me across the table. “Why,” he asked, “why do you need Belgium anymore?” The question took me off guard. I hadn’t thought about it exactly that way before. Louis was right that the complexity of Belgium’s government is overwhelming. There are so many layers of governing you don’t know where to start: local, city, regional, national, federal. Adding the EU to the already complicated mix seems cruel. The question is whether the entity we call “Belgium” is really contributing anything to the equation anymore.
In more radical terms, this would mean that the nation state in general, in Europe, could become superfluous. A shocking thought, no doubt. But with the EU providing a federal role, and local and regional governments doing the rest, what good is the nation? The nation state can simply be replaced by direct regional relationships with the transnational body called the EU. If Catalonia is part of the EU, what need for Spain? If Sardinia is an EU member, why the extra baggage of Italy? This isn’t to say that all national entities must be dissolved, simply that many of them have outlived their usefulness.
That is exactly what Bart De Wever is calling for. Hardly parochial, he and his party are firm supporters of the EU. What his party supports is not the mass extermination of the Walloons, but the “evaporation” of Belgium and the direct absorption of two new states — Flanders and Wallonia — into the EU. There is no need for that extra entity, Belgium, at all. In a sense, De Wever wants Belgium to get smaller so that it can get bigger. This is not your father’s separatism, not the retreat into prejudice and closed-mindedness that the word so often invokes.
This new separatism makes for another interesting chapter in the unfolding story that is the EU experiment. The chapter has far-reaching implications for what national identity is in a global age. The withering away of the nation state means, potentially, that individuals in the EU can simultaneously identify with their local region and with the continent as a whole. When it comes to day-to-day affairs, a Flemish person can concentrate fully on being Flemish — the specific traditions, foods, language, history, stories, and anything else that makes a woman feel Flemish. But a Flem still has that EU passport. The EU passport means she is also European, and this transnational kinship allows her to go all over the continent with the freedom and confidence that such a trans-national identity provides. It also means that she agrees, in principle, to protect the greater project of the EU as the umbrella under which all the little regions of Europe get to be who they want to be.
Those two things, potentially, fit perfectly together. The point of the EU is to protect and organize the autonomy of its individual members, and the point of the individual members is to articulate the specific identities that the EU is meant to organize and protect.
It is not surprising that such ideas are strange and confusing to many. The idea, for instance, that the entity called Belgium could simply go away feels, initially, like a loss, a failure. Even for Belgians who don’t feel any great national pride, the loss of their nation is a potential source of trauma. This feeling is heightened by the petty resentments and chauvinism that gets thrown about in the feuds between Flanders and Wallonia. There are also the economic accusations. The relative wealth of Flanders versus Wallonia at the moment means that Walloons are often accused of loafing about and collecting a monthly check that is paid for disproportionately by the Flems (though all Belgians, it should be noted, are eligible for generous social assistance programs). I’ve no idea what the actual statistics on this matter are. It is real enough in the minds of the Flemish. Even a self-identifying Socialist woman from Flanders once rolled her eyes when I asked her about this problem. “They should work, maybe, a little more in Wallonia,” she said.
Bart De Wever seems to understand the ambivalence at the core of the Belgian mind. He thus plays a subtle and sophisticated game in slowly trying to bring more and more of these Flemish Belgians over to the idea of dissolving Belgium and absorbing Flanders directly into the EU. He is, as I write this, backing the Walloon Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo for prime minister. Many people speculate that de Wever assumes Di Rupo will be unable to govern effectively and will further alienate the people of Flanders from the idea of a unified Belgium. Meanwhile, De Wever continues to apply his special blend of charm, populist grandstanding, and clever political maneuvering in order to ease his separatist ideas into the mainstream. He poses with the winner of the Miss Belgium pageant as she tramples on the Belgian flag in one photo shoot, then he drives to Wallonia with a truck full of fake money to stoke the economic resentments of the Flemish rightwing in the next. Just when it seems like it might go too far, he makes some very reasoned and moderate statements about his love for Wallonia and the need to take all of this separatism business very slowly. It is not always clear whether he is trying to trick moderates into a form of hard Flemish nationalism, or trick nationalists into a new vision for Europe.
In the end, it might not matter so much. Personal motivations aside, de Wever is teaching a new generation of Europeans that they can transfer their trans-regional feelings of solidarity directly to this new entity called the EU. Saying, for instance, that “I am Flemish” and “I am Belgian” and “I am European” might be adopting one level of identity too many. Maybe people are at their best when they can identify with something either very personal or very abstract. Cut out the middleman, get rid of the intermediate identities that are confusing and hard to understand. German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas has long complained that one of the big problems faced by the EU is that people from the various nations of Europe have trouble feeling “patriotic” about an amorphous entity like the EU. It just might be the case that de Wever’s formula is an unexpected solution to that problem. A Belgian Walloon can be excused for having no extra room in his identity portfolio for being a European as well. Take away the “Belgian” and the EU identity becomes all the more precious and immediate. It also might resolve some of the tensions with his Flemish brothers to the North. Without the extra baggage of Belgium, two fellow Europeans — one from Flanders and one from Wallonia — might very well have more to agree about.
Perhaps it will never work out that way. Perhaps the inherent tension between different regional identities always drives people into conflict. Maybe the whole project of the EU will collapse into a disaster that will make the nightmare of last century’s world wars look like a good-humored rehearsal for Armageddon. Maybe people simply love killing too much. But I, for one, am learning to appreciate the new separatism. Death, I say, death to Belgium.
• 3 August 2010