Why Belgium matters (no, seriously)

iStockphoto.com When the murmurs first started that Belgium’s political deadlock could lead to a split between the country’s French-speaking and Flemish speaking groups, we, like nearly everyone else, treated it as a joke. But Belgium has been without a functioning national government for over 150 days now. Initiative after initiative to bring the two sides ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
598141_071115_belgium_05.jpg
598141_071115_belgium_05.jpg

iStockphoto.com

When the murmurs first started that Belgium's political deadlock could lead to a split between the country's French-speaking and Flemish speaking groups, we, like nearly everyone else, treated it as a joke.

But Belgium has been without a functioning national government for over 150 days now. Initiative after initiative to bring the two sides together has failed and it's starting to seem less funny. Granted, there are no Wallonian death squads roaming the Flemish countryside and there are certainly more pressing problems in the world today, but as The Guardian's Jon Henley points out, the Belgian crisis is more significant than it might appear:

iStockphoto.com

When the murmurs first started that Belgium’s political deadlock could lead to a split between the country’s French-speaking and Flemish speaking groups, we, like nearly everyone else, treated it as a joke.

But Belgium has been without a functioning national government for over 150 days now. Initiative after initiative to bring the two sides together has failed and it’s starting to seem less funny. Granted, there are no Wallonian death squads roaming the Flemish countryside and there are certainly more pressing problems in the world today, but as The Guardian‘s Jon Henley points out, the Belgian crisis is more significant than it might appear:

Should we feel remotely concerned by this? If you dislike unfeasibly potent beer, naff statues of permanently peeing boys, mayonnaise with your chips, and Tintin, maybe you will not. If, on the other hand, you feel a vague sentimental attachment to the idea of a country whose very existence, in the absence of anything resembling a national language, a national culture or much more than a century-and-a half of national history, depends on the virtues of goodwill, understanding and compromise, then you should.

This is supposed to be what the European Union was all about—an attempt to move past the cultural and linguistic differences that had caused the continent centuries of bloodshed and create a new pan-European identity based on economic cooperation and political compromise. It’s an approach that has worked well in Northern Ireland and may yet be the best hope for the Balkans. (Note: I’m not comparing Belgium to either of these places.)

Brussels makes perfect sense as a headquarters for the European venture because Belgium is itself the result of a political compromise. It was created in 1831 largely at the behest of the British, who wanted to contain the Netherlands (funny thought, huh?) and maintain a buffer between France and Germany. Belgium is routinely described as “an accident of history” even by its own leaders, but that should be seen as a strength, not a weakness. As FP contributor Mark Leonard argues in Why Europe Will Rule the 21st Century, Europe’s strength comes from the fact that it is not a nation but a “network that is bound together by laws and regulations,” a revolutionary development in political history. The Flemish-Walloon split is an ugly ghost of Europe’s past that, if it comes to pass, would put the lie to Europe’s supposed post-nationalist enlightenment. This is probably why Euro-skeptics like Paul Belien of the Brussels Journal seem so anxious for it to happen.

Belgium may indeed be held together only by “the king, the football team, and a few beers” as would-be prime minister Yves Leterme has said, but I’ll take that over a country held together by race and religion any day. Bonne chance and veel geluk to those working to keep the place together.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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