Belgium Looks Ahead

The author has been careful to emphasize the difference between Belgium and what is now increasingly referred to in Europe as “Brussels.” The former is the country and its people, and “Brussels” is a term often used for the huge controlling bureaucracy that is the European Union (EU). This powerful entity is not to the liking of all Europeans. Belgium, however—­being at its heart—­is now virtually impossible to imagine without it. As a result of increased integration within the EU, and its growing membership, what future will there be for Belgium with Brussels as the power capital of Europe?

The EU has grown enormously in recent years. It was created by six founding states in 1957 and now consists of 27 member countries. There have been five enlargements, with the largest occurring in 2004, when 10 states joined. Most recently, on January 1, 2007, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU. A number of other countries that once formed part of Eastern Europe's Soviet bloc also have applied for membership. So, too, has Turkey, which is principally an Islamic country and one whose EU membership application is a source of much controversy.

The rush by all of these countries to join the EU is clearly because they all see the enormous economic benefits of membership. Poorer countries, such as Ireland, which joined in 1973, have prospered enormously. Since joining, the difference between what Ireland paid in and what the EU has paid out has been about €34 billion euros (approximately US$42 billion). This money was spent on marketing Ireland as the ideal European business location, and on promoting Dublin as the most youthful, vibrant European city. The economic transformation of Ireland has to be seen to be believed, and many new EU member countries doubtlessly anticipate similar advantages.

However, those European nations with more powerful and established economies, such as France, Germany, and Britain, are aware that, despite increased commerce, it is largely they who are funding such economic revival in other parts of the EU. Anti-­EU sentiment has grown in recent years. Several EU countries even have pursued policies aimed at terminating EU membership, or at least at reducing the demands and the intrusive requirements that membership imposes.

In 2005, voters in France and the Netherlands rejected terms of a new EU constitution that was presented to them for ratification. There were similar indications of discontent from voters in other countries, such as Britain, which were also established EU members. When these matters were put to the test in a referendum, those for and against these EU rules were fairly evenly balanced. Some governments, such as that of Britain, held back from offering the electorate a referendum on the EU despite having made election pledges to do so. If the European Union did start to fragment, it is clear that this would have a marked effect on the future of Belgium.

Without the presence of the EU in Brussels, one can only speculate about whether the country of Belgium itself would separate into independent Flemish-­speaking and French-speaking states. There is indeed a strong Flemish nationalist movement in Belgium that has an independent Flanders as its aim. Vlaams Belang (VB; in English, Flemish Interest) is the political party that supports Flemish independence and the placement of strict limits on non-­European and non-­Christian immigration. This party insists that immigrants need to adopt and adapt to Western culture. VB rejects multiculturalism, although it accepts a multiethnic society that would exclude Islam. Although the party describes its current policies as those of a traditional conservative party, many observers describe them as far right, and some members have been accused of being Nazi sympathizers. In any case, VB showed strong results in the 2006 municipal elections in Flanders, apart from Antwerp. Like the CD&V party, it enjoyed a massive increase of votes, nearly doubling the number of VB council members from 439 to about 800.

One may well ask: Is the division of Belgium into separate independent states a real possibility sometime in the near future? Despite those who would wish for such a division, there are many Belgians who strongly oppose anything other than national unity. In 1993, Belgium's King Baudouin died after reigning for 42 years. His death was unexpected and sent much of Belgium into a period of deep mourning. He was succeeded by his younger brother, who became King Albert II.

After his father, Leopold III, abdicated in 1951, Baudouin brought stability (although not harmony) to a country gripped by the struggle between Dutch-­speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. At the time of Baudouin's death, Belgium had begun to implement a farreaching federalization that made the maintenance of Belgian unity questionable. The wave of mourning that marked the passing of Baudouin brought Flemings and Walloons together in support of the monarchy.

There certainly was no support for a designated deputy who shouted in favor of a European republic before Albert took his oath. This call for a republic during the royal investiture is a Belgian tradition. Some republicans had anticipated that, early in the new millennium, there would be a rush to full separation into independent states. It became evident, however, that the Belgians were committed to the dynasty and preservation of the country.

The general election of 2007, however, has caused this vexing problem of national fragmentation to arise once again. Six months after the election, Yves Leterme, a Flemish Christian Democrat whose party had triumphed in June, abandoned his second attempt to form an administration, and King Albert accepted his request to be relieved of the coalition-forming task. Leterme is, however, a controversial figure who once branded Belgium as an accident of history and joked that the country's French speakers were too stupid to learn Dutch. Even so, this lack of national government and the failure of Flemish and Walloon politicians to reach a compromise do indeed raise the question of whether the country should be split into an independent Flanders and an independent Wallonia. If this were to happen, Brussels would become a kind of Washington, D.C., for the European Union, and Belgium as such would cease to exist. Is such a scenario possible? We can only wait and see.