Text size

Who really cares about a country that has not yet managed to form a government more than 120 days after elections; a country whose prime minister-designate, when asked to sing the national anthem (the "Brabanconne"), instead breaks into the French "Marseillaise"; a country that is "an accident of history," in the words of that same prime minister-designate, and whose public television station opted to hoax its viewers by "reporting" that the country had split in two and its king had fled; a country whose citizens saw fit to put it up for sale on eBay for the sum of one euro.

That same country gave the world Jacques Brel and Georges Simenon, Rene Magritte and Eddy Merckx, Tintin and the saxophone, wonderful chocolate, superb waffles, french fries (as they are for some reason known in English) and no fewer than 400 brands of beer.

But according to the prestigious magazine The Economist, today, no one would invent a country such as Belgium, which was established in 1830 for religious and political reasons that are no longer relevant. It should cease to exist - and if it did, that would not bother anyone, the magazine opined.

But such simplistic analysis is a privilege reserved for commentators. Reality is generally more complex. The story of Belgium is gripping, and ought to "bother" all of us. Here are the reasons:

1. The possibility that Belgium - one of the European Economic Community's six original members, whose capital is today the capital of the European Union - might split is an important test case for questions of identity in the modern era. The great paradox of the EU is that the very supranational umbrella it provides to its members, with its single currency and the constitution it is seeking to adopt, is precisely what spurs separatist movements to break up their longstanding national frameworks and, in their place, establish frameworks that would better express their self-determination within the supranational European framework.

2. The experience of history teaches that separatism is contagious. That can be seen in the great interest that television stations in other countries with strong separatist movements have been evincing in Belgium. The Scots and the Welsh, the Bretons and the Corsicans, the Catalonians and the Basques, the Lombards and the Ligurians - these are only a few of the separatists who are watching events in Brussels and have already discerned great potential in them.

3. The most interesting detail about the Belgian crisis relates to the factors that caused it to erupt: Some 45 percent of Flemings (Dutch speakers, who comprise about 60 percent of all Belgians) want to establish an independent Flanders; in contrast, 88 percent of Walloons (French speakers, who account for about 40 percent of Belgians) proclaim: "Hands off our Belgium." This gap, pundits argue, is due to cultural and, primarily, economic differences; to a severe lack of communication; but also to the (well-grounded) feeling among Flemings that wealthy Flanders is financing a "corrupt and unemployment-stricken Wallonia."

However, this economic-cultural background already has a venerable history in Belgium. The new element in this longstanding history of crises is political radicalization, as reflected in the results of the last elections. The person responsible for this radicalization is Filip Dewinter, leader of the Vlaams Belang party, which is considered even more extremist than Joerg Haider's party in Austria. Dewinter has converted his party's traditional anti-Semitic views into extreme Islamophobia. He sees Islam as "the free world's number one enemy" (as he told Adi Schwartz of Haaretz in an interview published on August 14, 2005). He proposes discrimination at public swimming pools, putting electronic manacles on asylum seekers and deporting women who wear head scarves. For the past 15 years, his separatist party has been steadily gaining strength. In the last elections, it won a quarter of the votes in Flanders, after having pulled the centrist Flemish parties into adopting extremist rhetoric of their own. Thus, for instance, calls were heard for significantly tightening immigration policy, and demands were raised that ranged from a major reform involving a significant devolution of government power to abolishment of the state, pure and simple.

Some term the developments in Belgium "the most severe existential crisis the country has known since the Wehrmacht invaded it in 1940." Others refuse to get excited, saying "we've already seen this movie" many times before, and this time, too, the battle over national identity will not end with the country splitting in two. But both camps believe that in the long run, perhaps after they are dead, their graves will cease to be located in a country known as "Belgium."

However, if the European unification process has been completed by then, one can assume that even "diehard Belgians" will no longer care.