Friday, 28 September 2007

The lessons of a "praline divorce"

Will Belgium divide? As it potters on without a government over 100 days since elections on June 10, the Economist for one thinks it should. With the Flemish half of the country edging towards a majority in favour of independence (the idea of Belgium commands much greater support in the Francophone Walloon south), it is at least worth giving them a vote on the matter, assuming, of course, that a government could ever be formed on a platform that promised them one. By not holding a referendum, the country is denied a chance to put the debate to one side and stop it infecting the entire governing process. A vote for unity would re-energise attempts to govern the whole effectively, perhaps precipitating the introduction of a nationwide constituency and thus the creation of parties with pan-Belgian appeal. A vote for separation would free the political energies required to hold together an unhappy union for more productive purposes.

Whatever happens to Belgium, and with thorny issues such as the status of Brussels and the national debt to resolve it is unlikely to dissolve itself just yet, one of the weakest arguments for artificially keeping the country together is the blow to the idea of respecting cultural diversity, and the concomitant encouragement of violent separatism, that division would supposedly represent. Yet there are manifold examples across Europe and the world of diverse peoples harmoniously co-existing, not least because the 'nation' itself is an invention masking a plurality of cultural difference, with Switzerland and its three dominant language groups is perhaps the archetype. Artificially preserving a unified Belgium simply to provide a lesson in bridging the language barrier is to suppose that the peoples of Europe have barely spoken to each other since the second world war, yet here we stand after over half a century of economic co-operation and fifteen years of union.

The primary effect abroad of a peaceful break up, moreover, would not be to bolster violent separatism, but to instead suggest that the surest path to independence lies within the democratic process. The break up of Czechoslovakia, held together as it was for so long by Soviet military power, would, despite its undoubted successes, pale as a model of peaceful dissolution next to the calm divorce of the stablest of countries long at the heart of European integration. For the poorer Walloons to let the Flemish half of the country go would demonstrate a political maturity that many larger, more prosperous peoples seemingly lack. The lesson of a Belgian dissolution for the British, Spanish and Serbian ruling elites, among many others, is that self-confident peoples do not perpetuate unpopular union without good reason. The issue of Scottish, Basque or Kosovan independence dominates the political discourse of each entity to the detriment of secular policy and debate. Belgium's diversity is clearly at the root of its current paralysis. We may or may not have reached the stage where a majority of Flemish back the break up of Belgium. But it is time to give them a say.