In April 2010, Eric Zemmour, French journalist, summed up Belgium’s political situation – dominated by the resignation of Yves Leterme’ government (centre-right) – by this statement: “if Belgium collapses, Europe might collapse too”.
Two years after, this statement still seems to echo, just after the local elections and the separatists’ breakthrough in Flanders, especially their leader’s one, Bart de Wever, in Antwerp. In a column for De Volkstrant, a Dutch daily, the historian Thomas von der Dunk shares the same analysis as Eric Zemmour and even goes further, considering that Europe is going to fail because the Belgian model (which it is directly inspired from) failed.
EU – Belgium, same destiny? There are some similarities between the two entities indeed. Several communities live in a same area where the principle of solidarity applies, a principle which has been questioned for years and undermined by the nationalism and regionalism. In the case of Belgium, the fiscal transfers between Flemish and Francophone people are pointed out by some groups and political leaders (such as the NV-A, the Flemish separatist party). Within the EU, the Eurozone crisis showed the limits of the North-South solidarity, as some people such as Germans or Finnish demand more and more guarantees from the States most in difficulty, in particular Greece.
Moreover, the nationalist movements grow stronger and louder. In Belgium, as in the rest of the EU, the national issue has become a political weapon to question a system and better defend its interests. In Flanders, as in Catalonia, Lombardy, Euskadi (Basque Country) or in Scotland, the fiscal autonomy issue is put forward to wave the political independence’s one, as way of blackmailing.
The EU seems to experience the same destiny as Belgium: according to analysts such as Zemmour and von der Dunk, we observe the failure of a model denying the regional realities and particularities to favour more integration and solidarity in Europe. Belgium is a kind of laboratory for a Union which, refusing to acknowledge national identities and aspirations, might be contested in the future. For the Dutch historian, “if the Flemish parties failed to convince their electorate of the advantages of the solidarity between Flemish and Wallon people, how solidarity between Flemish and Greek people might be possible?”
The persistence of the nationalist issue within the EU is an important signal for a Europe in crisis, which is struggling to be re-invented and reformed. This is the same thing for a Belgium which is always in evolution and struggles to be stabilised. Nonetheless, nationalism is more regarded as a way of pressure than an instrument to reach an objective. As I wrote before, nationalism is used as a political weapon to get important concessions: see, for example, the recent struggle between Mariano Rajoy’s Spanish government and the nationalist Catalonian government, about a new fiscal policy transfer. The opposition between Barcelona and Madrid ended up by the holding of early elections (planned for the next November) in Catalonia, looking like a referendum about the future political status of this Spanish province.
So, it is necessary to nuance von der Dunk’s statements, even if they are still relevant. Indeed, all is going to depend on the capacity of Belgium and the EU to be reinvented and reinvent a collective project, not forgetting an essential objective: ensuring an area of peace and stability, which is realised but remains questioned by recurrent nationalist rises. Facing the crisis and its consequences, the European Union must be able to give answers, answers which require the Members States. It is not for nothing that Elio di Rupo, the current Belgian PM, wanted to deal with these issues and his Italian homologue, Mario Monti, proposed an ad hoc informal summit on this subject, at the end of the latest European Council. As Béatrice Delvaux recently wrote in Le Soir – a francophone Belgian daily – Europe is a wall against populism (and against nationalism), it is one of its raisons d’être and it is on this principle that the Founding Fathers imagined the European integration sixty years ago. Faced with a phenomenon undermining their internal cohesion, Members States must reaffirm this position, Belgium ahead.