Daniel Hannan is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the European Union is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free.
You can’t stay neutral forever. Most foreigners, when they think of Belgium at all, regard that country’s political wrangles as gnomic. The disputes between Flemish and Francophone politicians are abstruse at the best of times; and the current argument, which centres on whether to sub-partition an electoral division known as Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV), makes the Schleswig-Holstein question look straightforward.
These rows undeniably have a funny side, too. Belgium recently broke the record for the longest period any country has gone without a government, prompting students around the country to strip in protest. Some feminists have urged, Lysistrata-like, that politicians’ wives should refuse to have sex with their husbands until a new government is formed.
The easy attitude to strike, therefore – and one taken by many Belgians, as well as by almost every foreigner – is wry disdain. Yet, the more one looks into the question, the more that position seems facile. Apart from anything else, the euro-zone crisis is spreading. Without a government capable of reducing the budget, Belgium could eventually find itself in the same position as Ireland.
The essential facts are these. The last Belgian general election, held on 13 June 2010, was won convincingly by a Flemish autonomist party, the N-VA, which wants a gradual evolution towards an independent Flanders. Its leader, Bart De Wever, is the most popular politician in the country, a quiz show maestro and an Anglophile, who cites Edmund Burke andTheodore Dalrymple among his influences. His party’s policy strikes the outside observer as remarkably moderate: he wants Flanders to assume more control over its internal affairs – a process which might, in time, lead to full statehood.
His rival politicians, whose livelihoods depend on the Belgian state, can barely bring themselves to talk to him. In particular, they loathe his proposals for fiscal autonomy, arguing that these might lead to – choc, horreur – tax competition. De Wever has been more than patient with his detractors, offering compromise after compromise. When his final offer was rejected, he responded, magnificently, in Latin: “Acta est fabula!”
Underlying the dispute is the determination of a class of salaried Belgian officials to preserve the state which employs them. Belgium is not a nation in any meaningful sense. Two peoples live side by side, reading two sets of newspapers, watching two sets of TV stations, voting for two sets of political parties. Successive governments have sought to preserve the present dispensation through subsidies, public works and the swelling of the state payroll, but there is still no such thing as Belgian patriotism. Belgium, in short, is the EU in miniature.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve become enormously fond of the country where I’ve worked for the past twelve years, and I’ve come to number many of its inhabitants among my friends. I don’t see myself as siding with Flanders against Wallonia – indeed, I’ve argued before that Wallonia might well be the chief beneficiary of a break-up - but as siding with democracy against a nomenklatura.
The future of Belgium, as of any territory, ought to be determined by the people who live there. If the Flemish want independence, fine. If they want to join the Dutch in a Groot-Nederland, veel geluk. If the Walloons opt for union with France (or “rattachisme”), bon courage. Ultimately, every nation must decide its future. In this case, however, voters very plainly have decided their future: they did so at last year’s election. It’s just that some of their politicians, like so many Eurocrats, won’t listen.