Belgium's Separatist Crisis

Maybe only Magritte could explain the Belgian political scene. The tiny country that lends its capital to unified Europe enters 100 days without a government this week, a surreal event that has elicited new, frenzied talk of divorce between the nation's Dutch-speaking Flemings and the French-speaking Walloons. "They're down to sleeping in separate beds, or even separate bedrooms," says Pierre Defraigne, a Brussels economist at the French Institute for International Relations.

Calls for Flemish independence from the once dominant Walloons are ancient, of course. But while Belgium is prone to political crises—a string of short-lived governments in the 1970s and 1980s would make Italy blush—this one may be different. A recent poll showed 39 percent of Flemings favor independence, while only 12 percent of the less affluent Walloon minority want a split. Today's push for tiny Flanders' independence is in part a reaction to the continental superproject that surrounds it. The European Union inadvertently makes the process of internal devolution easier and the prospect of separation less dramatic, says Kris Deschouwer, a politics professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

Being small isn't a handicap in an enormous common market, where customers in Newcastle or Naples are just as accessible as, say, the Walloons of Namur. As a result, when considering whether to splinter off, a region's cost-benefit analysis changes—particularly for affluent regions with strong cultural identities. The new calculus, says Brussels economist André Sapir, is that independence no longer diminishes trading opportunities, but releases a region from fiscal solidarity with compatriots viewed as a costly burden. At the same time, as borders, trade and mobility open up, there may be a reflex to protect regional differences, culture and language by groups with historically robust identities. In addition, in the Belgian case, membership in the euro and NATO diminishes any potential concerns a separatist breakaway might have about monetary supply or defense. "The smallness of a country is much less of a problem than it was in the past," says Sapir.

As a result, rather than bringing Europe together, the EU unintentionally encourages regions to atomize. Political analysts say Europeans elsewhere would do well to keep an eye on troubles in Europe's capital. Belgium's peaceful breakup, were it to happen, could set a precedent for other Western European partition movements, in places like Catalonia, Lombardy and even Scotland, providing within Europe a ready argument, leverage and encouragement for autonomist regions seeking more extensive devolution. Like the Flemish, regionalists from Barcelona to Milan also ask why they must subsidize their less affluent countrymen with their regions' riches.

In Belgium, the economic rationale for a split seems particularly acute. Unemployment runs much higher (10.7 percent) in the industrial south than in the Flemish north (5 percent), and some disdain the Walloon "ball and chain." Exactly how much Flemish money pays for Walloon social benefits is hotly contested, but estimates that suggest it is as much as €10 billion, or €2,000 from every Flemish pocket, have fomented resentment. As a result, since the June 10 legislative election, it has become impossible to form a governing coalition. In August King Albert II took the highly unusual step of intervening in what the palace itself deemed a "crisis," calling for advice from a Council of the Crown, wise men assembled from political veterans, unseen in Belgium since the independence of the Belgian Congo in 1960.

Still, a Belgian divorce is far from imminent. Far-right Vlaams Belang party leader Filip Dewinter's motion in the Flemish Parliament last week on Flemish independence and a Flemish referendum on the topic were unsuccessful. Regardless, the impasse has renewed chatter in the capital of a sort of "Brussels, D.C.," an independent administrative capital for the European Union—just in case. That's unlikely, but this talk suggests something of a paradox in the Belgian separatist movement. Brussels, the capital of Europe, is viewed as something of a ground zero for an increasingly cohesive European Union. Yet this French-speaking city is surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders, and is but one economic force behind a region that would just as soon be on its own. It is an incongruity only a surrealist could appreciate.