Belgium, like the EU, is a Frankenstein creation

Telegraph, October 3, 2007

By Bruno Waterfield

To understand Belgium, imagine that the Union flag no longer flies over Britain or the Cross of St George over England. Imagine an alien flag fluttering from the spires and flying above official buildings across the land. The flag is not the red, white and blue of British Union, symbolising a shared national history stretching back centuries, but the azure field and 12 gold stars of the European Union.

Then imagine that your rulers tell you that you are not, in fact, British but that you are a European, a stranger in your own land.

For many Belgians, this experience is the reality of everyday life. It lies at the heart of an identity crisis that has robbed Belgium of a government for the past 115 days and threatens the country's very existence.

Paul Belien, a Flemish writer and commentator, believes that the hostility many Britons feel to the EU "project" is also the key to understanding why so many of his Dutch-speaking countrymen want an independent Flanders and an end to Belgium.

"For me, the Belgian and EU flags are basically the same. They are a denial of identity," he explains. "As a Fleming I feel the same when I see the Belgian flag as a British Eurosceptic must seeing the EU flag."

Like the EU, Belgium is an artificial creation. Geographically straddling the cultural boundary between Germanic and Latin Europe, Belgium's political fault lines are linguistic and follow the forced marriage of Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the Francophone southern region of Wallonia.

Belgium came into being in 1830, supported by great powers such as Britain, after a Brussels uprising by French-speaking Walloons angry at their treatment by the Dutch-dominated United Kingdom of the Netherlands

. A government and monarchy were created and, for over 130 years, Belgium's single official language was French – with the Dutch of its Flemish majority excluded from official life and the state bureaucracy. Flemings were not to receive an official Dutch version of the Belgian constitution until 1967.

Mr Belien emphasises that tension between Flemish and Walloon is not something that has accidentally sprung up over time. "The Belgian state has always seen the Flemish as a threat," he says.

This question of national identity is what lies behind Belgium's political crisis and the failure to form an inter-communal government after elections in June. True to its origins, Belgium has a democratic deficit rooted in a political system that institutionalises divisions between Flanders and Wallonia.

Belgium is a federal nation without national federal-level parties. Whether they are Christian Democrats, Socialists or Liberals, Belgians vote along ethnic lines; there are no national political figures in the country's 11 parties and there are five parliaments organised on rigid regional and linguistic lines.

While the Flemish make up the majority, with almost 60 per cent of the population, political power must be shared equally with the Walloons. And if half the country's 40 per cent of French speakers, making up only a fifth of the total population, want to block a new government coalition, they can. This is the mix that is making the formation of a new Belgian government next to impossible.

The crisis has made many Walloons, and moderate Flemish politicians, look beyond old Belgium to see the city of Brussels and the EU as the future. The bilingual and multilingual capital of both Belgium and the European Union is becoming widely seen as an example of a grand post-nationalist federal experiment transcending these ethnic divisions.

Joëlle Milquet, a defender of Belgium and leader of the country's French-speaking Christian Democrats, explains the connection. "The future of democracies belongs to federalism because this model makes it possible to gather people of different languages, cultures and traditions behind a joint project," she says.

"Belgium is, from this point of view, a laboratory. If 10 million people in a developed country do not manage to build a collective project, that would signal the bankruptcy of what one tries to build at the European and even international level."

For Mr Belien, the people who defend Belgium are the same as those who sympathise with an EU federal vision that is suspicious of all nationalism, whether Flemish or British. "Belgian and EU flags symbolise the denial of national sovereignty," he says.

"Many Flemings perceive Brussels as something dangerous to them. It is not only the Belgian capital but the EU capital. We do not make the distinction. Europhiles feel threatened by us. If Belgium cannot survive then the EU is threatened too."

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