September 12, 2007 / 1:26 PM / 10 years ago

What if there were no Belgium?

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Should Belgium break up? Would anyone in the rest of the world notice? Should they care?

<p>People carry umbrellas in the colours of the Belgian flag, while waiting to greet the Belgian royal family outside the Notre Dame de Laeken church in Brussels February 17, 2006. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir</p>

These are some of the questions being raised in a media frenzy both in and outside the country as a political impasse has fanned the flames of separatism in the Dutch-speaking north.

More than three months after national elections, political leaders have failed to form a government, stymied by age-old rivalries between the Dutch and French speaking communities.

France’s Liberation splashed “What if Belgium splits...” on its front page last week while The Economist called for a “praline divorce” -- presumably a Belgian variant of the “velvet divorce” that split Czechoslovakia peacefully 15 years ago -- saying Belgium had outlived its purpose.

Seen by many as an unhappy marriage between the Anglo-Saxon north and Latin south of Europe, Belgium has often been the butt of jokes from its French and Dutch neighbours.

An old parlour game in which players have to name 10 famous Belgians leaves many stumped after just two or three.

But political scientists say the nation of 10.5 million is a model of peaceful co-existence, as well as the source of some ubiquitous inventions such as the saxophone and bakelite.

“Belgium is an interesting experiment in governing together without bloodshed. It’s something that might teach other places in the world like Northern Ireland or Cyprus,” said Kris Deschouwer, political scientist at Brussels Free University.

While the two sides like to tease each other, with Dutch speakers from the affluent north often describing their southern Walloon fellow citizens as lazy, violence is extremely rare.

“The Flemish movement has not been violent. It is no ETA,” said Jean-Yves Camus, political scientist and research fellow at the Institute for International Relations and Strategy in Paris, referring to Basque separatist guerrillas in Spain.

“Often other groups are using terrorism and are not backed by their people.”

DOMINO EFFECT?

Some commentators say a split could have a domino effect with other separatist groups in Europe claiming independence.

“If Belgium breaks up then many would follow. This could be seen as part of the end of the nation state,” said Carl Devos, professor at the University of Ghent.

He said Spain, where Catalonia’s parliament has declared the region a nation within Spain, and Britain, where the Scottish National Party recently became the biggest party in Scotland’s parliament, were obvious candidates.

Political analysts say Belgium is an example of how the devolution of power to regions and supranational institutions such as the European Union is superseding the nation state.

“You can be a citizen of the world and Flemish at the same time,” said Camus.

If the country were to split, it could well create more problems than it would solve.

“If you think it through, splitting up a country is harder than forming a coalition government,” said Deschouwer. “Split it up how? Who, for example, will pay the huge public debt?”

Belgium’s public debt amounted to 87 percent of gross domestic product in 2006.

The political impasse largely centres on who pays for what. Flanders, the dominant economic power, complains it has to subsidise the economically weak Wallonia and wants more public services decentralised.

Another question: what would happen to Brussels? The headquarters of the European Union is a bilingual region with an 80 percent French-speaking population inside Flanders.

Even the head of the Flemish NVA party, which wants eventual independence for the region, said he could not see a solution.

“There is actually little that unites us,” said Bart De Wever. “I would say if there is one thing, it’s our capital Brussels ... Nobody wants to lose Brussels.”

The only politician to call for a split so far is Filip Dewinter, head of the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest). He told the Flemish parliament the nation should go for a “velvet divorce”.

A poll by public broadcaster VRT showed 40 percent of the Flemish -- but only 8 percent of the French-speaking Wallonia region -- want the country to split.

But many people seem underwhelmed by the political impasse, with close to 70 percent saying in a survey in La Derniere Heure that they did not see it as a political crisis. Previous governments have taken as long as six months to form.

“All this is just politics. It’s no good,” said Brussels resident Alain Van Hemelryck.

“People get along -- Flemish, Walloons, it’s all the same. We are human beings on the face of earth. But politicians do not understand that. This is our problem.”

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