I posted the other day about similarities between Iraq today and Yugoslavia 15 years ago, and how I hope (certainly naively) that Iraq will go the way of Czechoslovakia more than Yugoslavia. The other major split-state crisis in the world, of course, is Israel/Palestine, but now it turns out (h/t Volokh Conspiracy) that another potential separation may occur in Belgium, of all places.
“We are two different nations, an artificial state created as a buffer between big powers, and we have nothing in common except a king, chocolate and beer,” said Filip Dewinter, the leader of Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Bloc, the extreme-right, xenophobic Flemish party, in an interview. “It’s ‘bye-bye, Belgium’ time.”
Radical Flemish separatists like Mr. Dewinter want to slice the country horizontally along ethnic and economic lines: to the north, their beloved Flanders — where Dutch (known locally as Flemish) is spoken and money is increasingly made — and to the south, French-speaking Wallonia, where a kind of provincial snobbery was once polished to a fine sheen and where today old factories dominate the gray landscape.
“There are two extremes, some screaming that Belgium will last forever and others saying that we are standing at the edge of a ravine,” said Caroline Sägesser, a Belgian political analyst at Crisp, a socio-political research organization in Brussels. “I don’t believe Belgium is about to split up right now. But in my lifetime? I’d be surprised if I were to die in Belgium.”
With the headquarters of both NATO and the European Union in Brussels, the crisis is not limited to this country because it could embolden other European separatist movements, among them the Basques, the Lombards and the Catalans.
Since the kingdom of Belgium was created as an obstacle to French expansionism in 1830, it has struggled for cohesion. Anyone who has spoken French in a Flemish city quickly gets a sense of the mutual hostility that is a part of daily life here. The current crisis dates from June 10, when the Flemish Christian Democrats, who demand greater autonomy for Flanders, came in first with one-fifth of the seats in Parliament.
Turns out there are ten languages spoken in Belgium, but the vast majority speak either Dutch or French (slightly more speak Dutch). I’m one of those geeks who finds the Ethnologue fascinating–the USA has 238 languages listed. Not all of those languages are exactly equal: English has 210 million speakers in the U.S., while Eyak apparently has one (who is 89 years old, lives in Alaska, and should probably be writing everything down and/or offering classes–although I wonder if she would have any takers).
Back to my original point, though–the trend in the world for some time has been for distinct ethnic and/or national group to want to form their own countries. It has happened in places like East Timor and the aforementioned Czechoslovakia. There are often rumblings about independence in Quebec and Puerto Rico. It’s hard for people born in the U.S. to understand this, I think, because (except perhaps for Minutemen types) the basic idea of being “American” is constantly being redefined. The Flemish people were Flemish long before “Belgium” existed, and the same is true for Kurds and other groups in Iraq and other countries. We are in way over our heads, is all I’m saying.