Nothing plucky about breaking up Belgium

Historians in the News

The largest party to come out of the 13 June elections in Belgium is the New Flemish Alliance, which wants to get rid of Belgium. Its strategy, in the words of its leader, Bart De Wever, is to consign the Belgian state to "evolutionary evaporation". This matters to all of Europe, wrote Simon Jenkins. As the headline puts it: "Plucky Belgium is leading the way. Today Flanders, tomorrow Scotland." Across the continent, "the craving for lower tier self-government refuses to die". And, as state-wide solidarity between regions dwindles, so may Europe-wide solidarity.

Jenkins's piece questions the pious truths of "euregionalism". He has a point. Did anyone, even in the dewy-eyed days of Freddy Heineken's 2002 "Eurotopia", really think rich regions would extricate themselves from states only to get re-embroiled in the EU? If Flemings stop bailing out Walloons, why would they rush to assist Greeks?.

Jenkins's Euroscepticism leads him to define all of this as a bold step forward. It is, of course, anything but. As the great Tony Judt argued more than a decade ago in his essay "Is There A Belgium?", the slow implosion of the Belgian state is indeed indicative of what happens on the wider European stage. But Judt did not define this as a good thing. The division of Belgium happened against the backdrop of the larger crisis of the state, and that was nothing to wax gleeful about: "In progressively dismantling and disabling the unitary state in order to buy off its internal critics, Belgians may have made a Faustian bargain," he wrote, warning that citizenries cast aside "a sense of cohesion and common purpose" at their own peril....

Meanwhile, few Flemish autonomists want to get rid of Brussels altogether. Likewise, splitting the Belgian state down the middle is no option. So – whither? One could think of strengthening the regions while defining a new role for Belgium, a polity that predated Flanders and Wallonia, after all (Jenkins's brief account of Belgian history since 1830 is deplorably inaccurate.) One could stop taking the division of public culture as a given – see the opinions voiced on the discussion forum "Rethinking Belgium", by among others, De Wever's elder brother, Bruno, a professor of history, or if you know Dutch, the most recent comment on Flanders and Belgium by the brilliant Flemish writer Tom Lanoye.

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