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Old 09-21-2007, 03:28 PM   #1
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Calls for a Breakup in Belgium?

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Calls for a Breakup Grow Ever Louder in Belgium

By ELAINE SCIOLINO
The New York Times, Sept. 21


BRUSSELS, Sept. 16 — Belgium has given the world Audrey Hepburn, René Magritte, the saxophone and deep-fried potato slices that somehow are called French. But the back story of this flat, Maryland-size country of 10.4 million is of a bad marriage writ large — two nationalities living together that cannot stand each other. Now, more than three months after a general election, Belgium has failed to create a government, producing a crisis so profound that it has led to a flood of warnings, predictions, even promises that the country is about to disappear. “We are two different nations, an artificial state created as a buffer between big powers, and we have nothing in common except a king, chocolate and beer,” said Filip Dewinter, the leader of Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Bloc, the extreme-right, xenophobic Flemish party, in an interview. “It’s ‘bye-bye, Belgium’ time.”

Radical Flemish separatists like Mr. Dewinter want to slice the country horizontally along ethnic and economic lines: to the north, their beloved Flanders — where Dutch (known locally as Flemish) is spoken and money is increasingly made — and to the south, French-speaking Wallonia, where a kind of provincial snobbery was once polished to a fine sheen and where today old factories dominate the gray landscape.

“There are two extremes, some screaming that Belgium will last forever and others saying that we are standing at the edge of a ravine,” said Caroline Sägesser, a Belgian political analyst at Crisp, a socio-political research organization in Brussels. “I don’t believe Belgium is about to split up right now. But in my lifetime? I’d be surprised if I were to die in Belgium.”

With the headquarters of both NATO and the European Union in Brussels, the crisis is not limited to this country because it could embolden other European separatist movements, among them the Basques, the Lombards and the Catalans.

Since the kingdom of Belgium was created as an obstacle to French expansionism in 1830, it has struggled for cohesion. Anyone who has spoken French in a Flemish city quickly gets a sense of the mutual hostility that is a part of daily life here. The current crisis dates from June 10, when the Flemish Christian Democrats, who demand greater autonomy for Flanders, came in first with one-fifth of the seats in Parliament. Yves Leterme, the party leader, would have become prime minister if he had been able to put together a coalition government. But he was rejected by French speakers because of his contempt for them — an oddity since his own father is a French speaker. He further alienated them, and even some moderate Flemish leaders, on Belgium’s national holiday, July 21, when he appeared unable — or unwilling — to sing Belgium’s national anthem.

Belgium’s mild-mannered, 73-year-old king, Albert II, has struggled to mediate, even though under the Constitution he has no power other than to appoint ministers and rubber-stamp laws passed by Parliament. He has welcomed a parade of politicians and elder statesmen to the Belvedere palace in Brussels, successively appointing four political leaders to resolve the crisis. All have failed.

On one level, there is normalcy and calm here. The country is governed largely by a patchwork of regional bureaucracies, so trains run on time, mail is delivered, garbage is collected, the police keep order. Officials from the former government — including former Prime Minister Guy Verhhofstadt, who is ethnically Flemish — report for work every day and continue to collect salaries. The former government is allowed to pay bills, carry out previously decided policies and make urgent decisions on peace and security. Earlier this month, for example, the governing Council of Ministers approved the deployment of 80 to 100 peacekeeping troops to Chad and a six-month extension for 400 Belgian peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon under United Nations mandates. But a new government will be needed to approve a budget for next year.

Certainly, there are reasons Belgium is likely to stay together, at least in the short term. Brussels, the country’s overwhelmingly French-speaking capital, is in Flanders and historically was a Flemish-speaking city. There would be overwhelming local and international resistance to turning Brussels into the capital of a country called Flanders. The economies of the two regions are inextricably intertwined, and separation would be a fiscal nightmare. Then there is the issue of the national debt (90% of Belgium’s gross domestic product) and how to divide it equitably.

But there is also deep resentment in Flanders that its much healthier economy must subsidize the French-speaking south, where unemployment is double that of the north. A poll by the private Field Research Institute released on Tuesday indicated that 66% of the inhabitants of Flanders believe that the country will split up “sooner or later,” and 46% favor such a division. The poll, which was conducted by telephone, interviewed 1000 people.

French speakers, meanwhile, favor the status quo. “Ladies and gentlemen, everything’s fine!” exclaimed Mayor Jacques Étienne of Namur, the Walloon capital, at the annual Walloon festival last Saturday. Acknowledging that talk of a “divorce” had returned, he reminded the audience that this was a day to celebrate, saying, “We have to, if possible, forget about our personal worries and the anxieties of our time.”

Belgium has suffered through previous political crises and threats of partition. But a number of political analysts believe this one is different. The turning point is widely believed to have been last December when RTBF, a French-language public television channel, broadcast a hoax on the breakup of Belgium. The two-hour live television report showed images of cheering, flag-waving Flemish nationalists and crowds of French-speaking Walloons preparing to leave, while also reporting that the king had fled the country. Panicked viewers called the station, and the prime minister’s office condemned the program as irresponsible and tasteless. But for the first time, in the public imagination, the possibility of a breakup seemed real.

Contributing to the difficulty in forming a new government now is the fact that all 11 parties in the national Parliament are local, not national, parties. The country has eight regional or language-based parliaments.

Oddly, there is no panic just now, just exasperation and a hint of embarrassment. “We must not worry too much,” said Baudouin Bruggeman, a 55-year-old schoolteacher, as he sipped Champagne at the festival in Namur. “Belgium has survived on compromise since 1830. Everyone puffs himself up in this banana republic. You have to remember that this is Magritte country, the country of surrealism. Anything can happen.”
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Old 09-21-2007, 03:57 PM   #2
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i really should read more about this before i respond, but i lived in Belgium (lived, worked, paid taxes, etc.) and the linguistic/cultural divide astonished me. it struck me as European provincialism at its absolute worst.

[q]“We are two different nations, an artificial state created as a buffer between big powers, and we have nothing in common except a king, chocolate and beer”[/q]

i mean, honestly, get over it. and this only speaks to the need to create a sense of "European Identity" around which people who seem to spend their days marveling at their own cultural and lingustic uniqueness can find some commonalities. hopefully, the continued economic interdependence of Europe -- as demonstrated by Belgium's economic and political success, if not social success -- can point the way forward. it seems to my outsider-ish eyes that this issue is critical not just for Belgium, but for Europe. will it be forward to a multi-linguistic, economically co-dependent, expansive understanding of a continental identity, or will it be back to the past?
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Old 09-21-2007, 04:41 PM   #3
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That's a very interesting development, andI think Irvine is right, it's a bit of a micro level of what might happen, andwhat happens, with the macro level being the EU.

Like we had the case with Norway in the other thread, Belgium is a country, although contrary to Norway part of the EU, that doesn't get noticed that much outside the country. Almost forgotten.

90% debt is huge, and the Maastricht Treaty only allows for 60%.

I don't think this cultural identity in Europe will come through in my lifetime, but it might start with my children's generation.
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Old 09-21-2007, 04:48 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally posted by Vincent Vega
I don't think this cultural identity in Europe will come through in my lifetime, but it might start with my children's generation.
I think you're overly realistic. We are probably at least 2 generations away from even a modicum of a common identity. Maybe I'm wrong, but having lived in both Western and Eastern Europe, I see relatively few common threads that could result in a common identity as quickly as our children's generation.
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Old 09-21-2007, 05:33 PM   #5
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Yeah, you are probably right, I'm hopeful. But the divide sadly is huge, as is the pride.


Instead of my children's generation I rather should have said the generation after my death, or probably the one after that, i.e. in around 80 years or so.
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Old 09-22-2007, 07:58 AM   #6
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Concerning cultural identity I can recommend this little flash film:
Link
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Old 09-22-2007, 05:27 PM   #7
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i have always been baffled by the lack of a common European cultural identity. any non-European who spends time in Europe could be dropped off in just about any village, town, or city -- in any country -- and find the central square, market, coffee shop, hotels, public transport, etc. just how different are you all from each other, really?

yes, yes, i know that the two worst wars in history were fought over such things. i'm just saying that, as an outsider, it's very easy to see these common threads that bind the majority of european countries together at least on a macro level. and it's all so lovely, to boot.
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Old 09-22-2007, 06:04 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine511
i have always been baffled by the lack of a common European cultural identity. any non-European who spends time in Europe could be dropped off in just about any village, town, or city -- in any country -- and find the central square, market, coffee shop, hotels, public transport, etc. just how different are you all from each other, really?
Could you say that there's a "common North American identity"? Sure, Canada and the United States can get along, but what about Mexico and Central America? Is there such a thing as a "common Asian identity"?

I mean, really, we are talking about European nations that grew separately enough that, while dominated by the Romance and Germanic language families, for instance, they have diverged wildly to the point of being wholly unintelligible between each other in the same family. And the only reason the same people in an individual nation speak the same language is because all the regional languages have often being legislated into extinction.

In other words, this should illustrate the fact that it's been difficult to carve a common identity even within a single European nation-state, let alone throughout the entire continent.
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Old 09-22-2007, 06:25 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine511
i have always been baffled by the lack of a common European cultural identity. any non-European who spends time in Europe could be dropped off in just about any village, town, or city -- in any country -- and find the central square, market, coffee shop, hotels, public transport, etc. just how different are you all from each other, really?

yes, yes, i know that the two worst wars in history were fought over such things. i'm just saying that, as an outsider, it's very easy to see these common threads that bind the majority of european countries together at least on a macro level. and it's all so lovely, to boot.
It's a bit simplistic to see it as such, the only time there has been a sort of common European identity was under the Roman Empire, that was loose at best...the history of Europe is much longer than the states, and there is a hell of a lot of baggage being carried around...and the things you point out that bind us are pretty much standard for anywhere in the world these days

The people of Europe do not come from all the same stock (as neither do the people in the US), and is everything so harmonious between people in the US?

Germany and Italy have only existed for the past 150 years...as Melon says, it shows the difficulties there have been in carving out a national identity...a common European one, is still quite a long way off, especially if the likes of Turkey are admitted...It's just not something easily solved by 'getting over it'.
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Old 09-22-2007, 06:37 PM   #10
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Old 09-22-2007, 06:44 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine511
i have always been baffled by the lack of a common European cultural identity. any non-European who spends time in Europe could be dropped off in just about any village, town, or city -- in any country -- and find the central square, market, coffee shop, hotels, public transport, etc. just how different are you all from each other, really?
Um, very.

Considerably more different than the most different Canadian and American are. And I say that having spent roughly half my life on either continent.

If you think a village in Bosnia is that similar to one in Sweden...well it really isn't, not at all to be honest.
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Old 09-23-2007, 12:12 AM   #12
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I agree totally with anitram. I was wondering if I'd missed a whole bunch on Europe when I thought the mutual land mass and common economy hasn't actually failed if it hasn't dissolved borders - and then, really, why dissolve borders? I don't know if I personally can ever understand the other side of the coin that the rest of the world lives, as I have spent all my years on an island. It's no exaggeration that Australians think it's absolutely brilliant 'the rest of you' can country hop in mere hours, or less. People commute to other countries for work, in some cases! That's great. But it is just the surface. I'm not advocating security fences around borders at all, but certainly not letting go of your language and individual cultural self. I don't see any benefit in that at all.
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Old 09-23-2007, 06:36 AM   #13
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first of all, the original article is nothing new
this issue has been brought up forever in Belgium

it mostly has to do with Flanders being economically way ahead of Wallonia which has always caused friction

it's the same in Italy really where there's a similar (though perhaps a bit less outspoken) difference between the north and the south of the country

as for a European identity
I think both people in the north and the south of Belgium have less problems identifying with being European than accepting that they're part of the same country

I don't think the obvious differences over here will stop us from being 1 Europe in many areas in the foreseeable future
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Old 09-23-2007, 02:33 PM   #14
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Quote:
Originally posted by melon


Could you say that there's a "common North American identity"? Sure, Canada and the United States can get along, but what about Mexico and Central America? Is there such a thing as a "common Asian identity"?



if we're going by population and land mass, i think we can say that there's a Canadian/US identity that's similar. Canadians and Americans have quite an easy time living in one another's countries, and the whole "nation of immigrants/mosaic of cultures/melting pot" goes over well in both places, however imperfectly, and however differently applied in each country.






Quote:
In other words, this should illustrate the fact that it's been difficult to carve a common identity even within a single European nation-state, let alone throughout the entire continent.
and this has been Europe's problem. i'm just encouraging them to work on it, and i think this highlights the importance of forging a common European identity.
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Old 09-23-2007, 02:39 PM   #15
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Originally posted by LJT
The people of Europe do not come from all the same stock (as neither do the people in the US), and is everything so harmonious between people in the US?


by comparison, absolutely.

don't forget, we did fight a civil war 150 years ago -- which is positively modern history by European standards -- and, despite some significant cultural issues, the North and the South have no problems belonging to the same union.

but this underscores my point exactly -- there are massive regional differences in the US, massive. people from LA are far more removed from residents of rural Mississippi than are, say, Londoners from Madridians (however you spell it).

i think it's realizing that, yes, Europeans are from different stock, but not so different, and certainly not so different that you can't buck up and work together for mutual economic benefit and increased geopolitical power -- whatever happened to an entire continent united in shared opposition to W. Bush?


Quote:
Germany and Italy have only existed for the past 150 years...as Melon says, it shows the difficulties there have been in carving out a national identity...a common European one, is still quite a long way off, especially if the likes of Turkey are admitted...It's just not something easily solved by 'getting over it'.
i agree that my "getting over it" comment was simplistic and intentionally flip -- but it gets to the heart of the matter: just how different are Europeans, and just why does it matter so much?

being honest -- and, admittedly, anecdotal -- here, living and working in an ex-patriate community, probably half of whom were from the UK and Ireland, i heard things said about other European countries, and the citizens themselves, that you'd never, ever hear about members of a different race, because then it'd be called racism (i.e., "my husband just doesn't like Swedes").

that, in my very humble opinion, is what needs some getting over.
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