Belgium Divided

Sarah Laitner has an interesting piece in today’s Financial Times about the Balkanization of Belgium.

Belgium Divided Map Belgium, divided between Flanders, its wealthy Dutch-speaking north, and francophone Wallonia in the south, has chugged along without a new federal government for a record 165 days. Since elections in June, the bickering parties in a centre-right would-be coalition have failed to form an administration.

The main dispute is over calls by the Flemish majority for more self-rule. The wrangling across the language divide has renewed concerns that the country might break up along its linguistic fault lines.

Who cares? So far, the impasse has barely affected ordinary Belgians. To foreigners who lampoon the country and pass through it to reach its bigger neighbours, the scrap is arcane. The fact that Yves Leterme, prime minister designate, last year branded Belgium an accident of history and a facetious citizen tried recently to sell the country on Ebay only added to a sense of farce.

But the travails highlight fears that a tradition of compromise underpinning Belgium’s complex political system is fraying. In parts of the EU, the public identifies more and more with its region. As a result, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have secured more powers within the UK and new authorities have been conferred to Spanish, Italian and French local levels. Montenegro declared independence last year and the next addition to Europe’s list of micro-states may be Kosovo.

A Belgian official says: “In a lot of EU member states there is alienation towards the Union and national governments, because people think that the decision-making has become too complex.” He adds: “We will have a general movement in countries, giving more power to local and regional authorities. In that way, Belgium is a laboratory for what’s to come.”

Belgium, which provides the European Union with its capital, has survived while other patchwork countries such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union have bitten the dust. However, Caroline Sägesser, analyst at Crisp, a Brussels-based centre for sociopolitical research, says: “Government-forming talks are often lengthy in Belgium. But the fact that these negotiations are so long shows that it is becoming increasingly difficult to reach a compromise after each federal election.”

Much more in the piece, which I commend to you.

What’s particularly interesting is that this is happening in the place where Europe’s two great institutions, the EU and NATO, make their home. The reality, though, is that the move toward “Europe” makes “Belgium” much less necessary as a construct.

“Balkanization” is generally considered a bad thing, since countries that are too small have difficulty sustaining themselves. But there’s not much reason for culturally and linguistically divided regions to share local sovereignty while delegating economic, foreign affairs, and military sovereignty to multinational entities.

Belgian Beers Get acquainted with Belgian beers like (from left) Caporal,
Tripel Karmeliet, Kwak, Duvel, Biere Du Boucanier, Maredsous and Chimay. (Presumably, this will have no impact on the production of superb blonde and Wit beers. Otherwise, I’ll have to reconsider my position.)

via OTB News

Second image courtesy FT Foodies Club.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    The nation of Belgium holds a special place in my heart as I lived there shortly during the late 80s. Since I lived in Wallonia, I’m more partial to the works of the Peres Trappistes, like Chimay.

  2. Anderson says:

    Just wanted to comment in general that I enjoy the less-heavily-blogged, foreign-policy posts that we’ve seen in, I think, greater number lately.

    I may not be alone in being less likely to post a comment for a post that’s interesting but doesn’t have a polemical comment thread, & just didn’t want the value of those posts to be gauged by that criterion.

    Thanks, JJ!

  3. Grewgills says:

    I have to second DC Loser. It is the Trappiste ales that must be saved. If you like the Chimays try the Rocheforts IMO they are even better. Dark, sweet, and super tasty.

  4. Christopher says:

    There was an auction? I missed it!! Is it too late to bid on Belgium?

  5. Richard Gardner says:

    For the Trappist ales, I like Koenigshoeven, formerly La Trappe. I am not an Orval fan. And there are some great Abbey ales too. But my view of Belgium is that both sides make great, often unique beers, and the beers and food are what make it a country/culture that is unique.

  6. dutchgirl says:

    While EU policy and the new push to pass an EU constitution has caused concern especially in small countries, the problems in Belgium appear more internal. It is likely that the government formation would be difficult even without the EU because of the nature of Belgium’s political parties. Flanderers vote for nationalistic fellow Flanderers, while Wallionians do the same. I see this more as the result of the linguistic split in a country that is not truly bi-lingual. Children growing up in border towns of Flanders/Wallonia go to schools teaching in ‘their’ language. They don’t play together because they don’t speak the same language. Political parties don’t play together for the same reason.

    Well, I wish Belgium luck but if it doesn’t work out, rumor has it that Balkenende will welkom Flanderen to the Dutch fold.