As I write this I’m on holidays in Belgium with my family and I’ve made it my business to find out as much as I can about both the current political crisis in Belgium and the long history behind this crisis reaching right back to the formation of Belgium in 1830. Ultimately the big question has to be whether or not we are seeing the beginning of the end of Belgium, at least as we know it. Although I did most of my growing up in Ireland and consider myself to be Irish in many ways, I was not born either in Ireland of from even one Irish parent. Instead I was born in Belgium from two Belgian parents, or, to be more precise, in Flanders from two Flemish parents. It’s important that you know this because despite my best efforts some Flemish bias will probably creep into this article.

Before the current crisis can even start to make sense we need to look back, way back, to 1830. Unlike most nations Belgium doesn’t have its origins in revolution or the struggle for a people to have a nation of their own. Instead, Belgium is an artificial country formed by the great powers of Europe to solve a political problem. What ever the case may be today, on the day Belgium came into being there was no such thing as a Belgian identity. Within the boundaries of the new country there were, and still are to this day, two distinct people’s which are most easily distinguished by their language. To the north you have the Flemish who speek a variant of Dutch called Flemish, and to the south you have the Waloonians who speak French. However, it would be a mistake to think of the problems in Belgium as being about language, just like it would be a mistake to think think of the problems in Northern Ireland as b being about religion. Just like in the North the problems in Belgium revolve around two different ethnic groups struggling to assert their identity.

I don’t like using generalisations because they often over-simplify things but in this case I really think I have to. Walloonians are exceptionally proud of their French origins. Like most French people they have a tendency to be rather arrogant and genuinely believe in the superiority of French culture and the French language. Historically the Walloonians were the ruling class in Belgium with the Flemish being little more than peasants. The Government, industry, the military, and the church were all controlled by Walloonians and all their business was conducted in French. That former dominance is still evident in the Walloonian mind-set in the same way that the British mind-set is still influenced by it’s colonial past. Politically Walloonia is very socialist with a very generous welfare system and very extensive government control. There is so much in government hands in Walloonia that about 45% of the working population work for government agencies.

The Flemish people look to the renaissance for their culture. When you think of great renaissance painters you think of the Italian greats and the Flemish greats. Historically the Flemish were also market gardeners and farmers and that simpler and non-aristochratic history leads to a very different out-look compared to the Walloons. Politically Flanders is also more capitalistic despite still having a very impressive welfare state and public health system. Governments are always somewhat mistrusted in Flanders hence the state has its fingers in less pies. However, just like the Walloonians still carry the ghosts of their aristocratic past, the Flemish still have a big chip on their shoulder as a result of their past oppression. You can’t undo history and the Flemish are not yet ready to forgive or forget.

Although officially the border between Flanders and Walloonia defines where French is spoken and where Flemish is spoken the reality is that there is no clear dividing line and that the vague boundary between French and Flemish speaking regions has moved quite a bit historically. It is an undeniable fact that this movement has always been one-way, with more and more historically Flemish regions being ‘frenchified’. I’m not just talking of a change in language in these areas but also a change in culture. This process continues to this day with more and more regions in Flanders developing large Walloonian communities which resolutely refuse to integrate in their Flemish surroundings and instead slowly convert more of Flanders into Walloonia. The reality is that this is not happening the other way round. There is no give and take here. Many Flemish people put this borg-like take over down to a Walloonian conspiracy but I don’t buy that. I’m pretty sure it just comes down to the Walloonian feeling of superiority that I mentioned before. Walloonians genuinely believe that French is a superior language and they refuse to lower themselves to speaking Flemish, regardless of the fact that they are living in Flanders. Regardless of the cause though, the undeniable reality that parts of Flanders are being taken over slowly and constantly results in many Flemish people feeling that their culture and identity are under threat. Combine that with the aforementioned chip on their shoulder for past oppressions and you start to understand why so many Flemish people have so little time for Walloonians.

At this stage you’re probably wondering if this essay will have anything at all to do with its title, I promise it will but before I can get to that I need to do just a little more scene-setting. The last thing we need to factor in is money. Historically Walloonia was where the money was, the Flemish were just farmers after-all, while the Walloonians were the industrialists and had coal mines to fund their endeavors. My how things have changed! Flanders now has a thriving economy while Walloonia is being crushed under the weight of a massive depression and an 18% unemployment rate. Remember how I said the Walloonians had a very socialist state, well, the welfare money for all those people has to come from somewhere. Since the Walloonian economy is in tatters, and almost half of the people who do have work are not working for commercial organisations but for the government, the money can’t be coming from Walloonia. At this stage you’ve probably guessed where it’s coming from, yup, Flanders. An absolute torrent of money is flowing from the thriving Flemish economy into the unsustainable Walloonian economy and the Flemish people are getting very fed-up with this. The Walloonians jokingly said that the flow of money only comes to about the price of a pint of beer for each person in Flanders each day, but the far right Flemish parties have found a more dramatic way of expressing the volume of the flow of money from Flanders to Waloonia, they say it equates to the price of a large family car for each family in Flanders every three years! However you choose to describe the flow of money, two things are certain, the flow is real, and the flow is large.

Historically Belgium had it’s own currency, the Belgian Frank. This was a fairly small and vulnerable currency which was very sensitive to any political crises. This focused minds and helped resolve crises relatively quickly. Now with the Euro that’s all history. Political problems in Belgium don’t affect the strength of the Euro and hence have a much smaller effect on the Belgian economy. Finally, before the Euro an independent Flanders was less viable because it would have to have it’s own currency which would be even more vulnerable than the Belgian Frank. In short, the Belgian Frank was a strong unifying force, with the introduction of the Euro that force vanished.

As you may have guessed by now, Belgium is no stranger to political crises. In the past they were always resolved fairly quickly and through a combination of fudge and bureaucracy. Regardless of whether or not it’s true, the Flemish feel that, historically, they were always the ones who compromised the most while the Walloonians always seem to have gotten their way. I have a feeling they have a point but that could well be my Flemish bias showing itself. Each time the Flemish have compromised in the past it was to save Belgium and it was always the main-stream Flemish parties who did the compromising under pressure from the Belgian royal court and industry leaders. In the past the compromises were always about ideological things, now that it’s about money none of the Flemish parties are prepared to compromise. From the extreme right through to the main-stream pro-Belgian parties all the Flemish parties agree that things can’t go on like they are. Flemish money cannot continue to pour into an obviously flawed Waloonian system. This is why no Belgian Federal government could be formed for about six months after the elections last June. Even now there is only an interim government and the real sticking points have not been dealt with yet. The interim government is not a resolution of the crisis, just a postponement. 2008 will be a tough year in Belgian politics.

All though all Flemish parties agree that something has to be done, there is no consensus on what exactly that something is. The moderate Flemish parties are calling for constitutional reform to give Flanders more autonomy within the Belgian federal state. The extreme Flemish parties are calling for an independent Flanders. An independent Flanders is just not realistic at the moment, however, every day that passes without a Walloonian concession on constitutional reform makes it less unlikely. At the moment the Walloonians have reluctantly agreed to talk about talks about reform.

While all this is going on the far right Flemish Nationalist party, Vlaams Belang, is having a field day. They were once considered extremists but each day the crisis continues their insistence that Belgium is ungovernable gains weight. Their argument is simple, Belgium is a made up country, there is no such thing as a Belgian identity and it’s high time Flanders went it alone as an independent member of the European Union. At the start of this article I said that the day Belgium came into being there was no such thing as a Belgian identity, and that was indeed true. However, there was one thing all the people’s of the new country had in common, both communities were predominantly catholic and this Catholicism set them apart from their neighbors to the north and to the east. A common religion is not enough to give a sense of cohesion though, but almost two hundred years have passed since then so surely that’s enough time for some form of common identity to form? It’s certainly true that there are some things which the Walloonians and the Flemish have in common, but they are all minor things. A love of Mayonnaise on chips, an affinity for good Chocolate and good beer, and a penchant for bureaucracy are not sufficient to forge a real identity. After almost two hundred years there is still no such thing as a Belgian people.

Based on that conclusion it’s tempting to write Belgium’s epitaph and predict the breakup of the country within a decade. The far right Flemish parties would love that. However, I don’t see it happening. What I see is Flanders gaining more and more autonomy within Belgium until Flanders and Walloonia are completely independent entities within a Belgian federal state. An example of such a nation is modern day Germany. So, I do think Belgium has a future, though it will be a very different Belgium to the one that was founded in 1830. It won’t be a single nation but a federation of two, or perhaps even four, independent states. If you’re wondering why four the answer is simple, Brussels was historically a Flemish city but it has now forged an identity of its own. It’s an international city that doesn’t belong in either Flanders or Walloonia anymore. As for the potential fourth state, there are also some German speaking regions in Belgium which it acquired in the aftermath of the World Wars. At the moment these regions are happy enough to go along with the Walloonian agenda, however, that could change if greater independence was on offer. One thing is for sure though, what ever future Belgium will have it will be riddled with layers and layers of bureaucracy!