Alex Massie

The Belgian Example

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Whither Belgium? Again. Ian Buruma frets that the break-up of Belgium would be A Bad Thing. As is generally the case with such articles, concrete arguments for this proposition are notably absent. Thus, Buruma:

So the fate of Belgium should interest all Europeans, especially those who wish the Union well. For what is happening in Belgium now could end up happening on a continental scale.

Why, for example, should the prosperous Germans continue to have their tax money pooled to assist the Greeks or the Portuguese? It is difficult to sustain any democratic system, whether on a national or European scale, without a sense of solidarity. It helps if this is based on something deeper than shared interests: a language, a sense of common history, pride in cultural achievements. The European identity is still far from being solid.

Perhaps the citizens of Belgium do not have enough in common any more, and Flemish and Walloons would be better off being divorced. But one hopes not. Divorces are never painless. And ethnic nationalism unleashes emotions that are almost always undesirable.

We know what happened when the twin pulls of blood and soil determined European politics before. Without having intended it, the EU now seems to be encouraging the very forces that postwar European unity was designed to contain.

But, as I have suggested before, this gets it the wrong way round. Tensions between Flemings and Walloons are the consequence of european success, not failure. They are only possible because of the post Cold War shake-up and the success of the EU as a pan-continental project. Peace and prosperity have consequences of their own.

Equally, one consequence of greater centralisation in Brussels is a growing desire for autonomy amongst what one might term Europe's "stateless nations". That being the case, it's surely not a great surprise that some of the old nation state capitals are being squeezed. In one sense it's a case of local borders and differences mattering more, but that's within a context in which such borders and differences actually matter less.

And is this really such a terrible thing? Does it matter if, say, Italy were to fragment into two or three or four pieces? (Unlikely, but you never know). Or Spain? (Also fairly unlikely). Or Britain? (Less unlikely). Would Europe, or the "European Idea" be doomed if Bavaria became an independent country? It's hard to see how this would automatically be the case.

It seems perfectly possible that there are areas in which a political confederation mustering some 300 million people would be the most appropriate area for collaborative action and other areas in which smaller entities might be better placed to act. If that means there's less need for a nation state of 40-70 million people then so be it. I can't quite see how this is going to cause the sky to fall, unless one thinks it likely that Wallonia might go to war with the Flemish provinces to win Brussels or that Scotland and England are likely to resume cross-border raiding.

Indeed, one can foresee a possible future for Europe in which Brussels accrues more power and becomes, in some respects at least, a European Washington while the 30 or 40 (or more?) nations that make up the Union become rather like the 50 states of the great American political union. Now, I would hope that Europe would learn from the American mistakes and ensure that more, not less, power was retained at a local level but that will require a degree of vigilance since, as in Washington, bureacrats in Brussels like to accumulate, not delegate, power and responsibility.

Equally, one would hope, in this putative and perhaps unlikely future, that Brussels would realise that there are some things it cannot do well. In this too one would hope that it would learn from the American example. One reason I'm sceptical about both candidates for the Presidency is that I'm increasingly persuaded that the job of being President is an impossible one. That's as it should be, in many ways, of course. No one man should have that much power and idea of national solutions for a continent of 300 million people seems an oxymoronic proposition. Perhaps the US has become too big, too complex to be governed by a small group of people cloistered in Washington? If so, then good: the logical answer would be to return power to the states, granting them a greater degree of de facto independence from the centre.

To take this further - and to move into increasingly speculative territory - would the sky fall if, say, Texas or Vermont or California secceded from the Union? Or if British Columbia, Washington State and Oregon formed a new Republic of their own? Perhaps. But also, perhaps not? Sure, there might be regrets and, yes, something might be lost. But something else might be gained.

Which is to say that though such change would obviously be unsettling, many of these countries are young affairs in the first place. And, for that matter, if independence is a good thing for Estonians or Kosovars, then why is it so frightening if the Flems or Walloons or Scots also want a slice of that cake for themselves?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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