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No Love Lost: Is Belgium About to Break in Two?

5 minute read
Leo Cendrowicz / Brussels

Many Wimbledon spectators watching Belgium’s Kim Clijsters’ three-set, fourth-round victory over her compatriot Justine Henin on Monday would have thought of how lucky one small country could be to produce two stunningly successful tennis stars. But lucky is not what Belgium feels right now. And even that sports rivalry between the Belgian stars embodies the current political fracas that has exposed the division between the country’s Dutch and French speakers: Clijsters’ family is from the Dutch-speaking half, Henin’s from the French.

Indeed, this is a moment of truth for the country straddling the dividing line between Europe’s Germanic and Latin cultures. Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking southern region, has struggled to recover economically from a postwar industrial decline, and its proponents argue that Dutch-speaking Flanders should show more solidarity in helping it through. But the Flemish, who see themselves as more entrepreneurial and outward-looking, label Wallonia as sponging and feckless.

(See Justine Henin’s decision to retire in 2008.)

The split personality of the country emerged in a befuddling election earlier this month, which left the country with no viable government. The biggest party in the Belgian Parliament is now the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which seeks independence for Flanders, while the largest party in Wallonia is the Socialist Party (PS), which wants a stronger central government. Their respective leaders, the N-VA’s Bart De Wever and the PS’s Elio Di Rupo, are tentatively negotiating a coalition, but it is hard to see their common ground. A working coalition isn’t even likely until October, at the earliest.

(See Belgium’s befuddling election.)

In the meantime, the economy is sputtering, and the country’s debt is one of the largest in Europe (currently at 99% of GDP, it is lower only than the debts of Greece and Italy). Then there is the grim irony of Belgium this week assuming the presidency of the troubled European Union for the next six months. The E.U. is committed to the idea of an “ever closer union” among the peoples of Europe, but its main institutions are based in Brussels, the capital of a country whose Dutch and French speakers are perpetually squabbling.

Yves Leterme, currently Belgium’s caretaker Prime Minister, said four years ago that the country was an “accident of history” and amounted to nothing more than “the King, the national football team and certain brands of beer.” Needless to say, Belgium’s once proud football squad did not qualify for this year’s World Cup in South Africa.

While some dreamy-eyed federalists see Belgium as a postnational state and a microcosm of the E.U. itself, others predict the kind of divorce that split the old Czechoslovakia. Scenarios of dissolving the current country are already being played out. Flemish separatists talk of avoiding a Kosovo situation, where the Balkan nation’s declaration of independence failed to secure widespread international recognition. In Wallonia, polls have suggested voters would seek to join France if the country was divided (on the other side of the border, polls show the French would gladly accept them). “The election has shown Belgium as a country of two communities representing two very different outlooks,” says Lieven De Winter, a politics professor at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL). “It’s a blow to the E.U. model and the idea that diverse culture and peoples can work together.”

So, how long can Belgium continue to reconcile its conflicting constituents? For some, the very fact that Belgium exists is proof that its people want it to stay intact. It declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, well before the modern states of Germany and Italy were constituted. And, despite countless predictions that it would dissolve, it remains. For all the cultural, linguistic and economic schisms between the French and Dutch speakers, they rarely count high among everyday concerns for Belgians. “Our quarrels are usually exaggerated by politicians,” says former Belgian Prime Minister Mark Eyskens. “For the man on the street, there are rarely language problems.”

Indeed, he says that if there is one defining characteristic of Belgians — Flemish and Walloons — it is their pragmatism. They are renowned for their bargaining spirit and their ability to forge complex solutions that more or less meet everyone’s concerns — a quality known as the “Belgian compromise.” “We will argue, but blood is never shed,” Eyskens says. “The paradox of Bart De Wever is that despite being a separatist, he will now negotiate a reform of the state. And if he succeeds, he will restore confidence in Belgium as a country.”

Outward signs of Belgian unity may be few. But next week, as part of the country’s celebration of the start of its E.U. presidency, there will be one eye-catching event to suggest that Belgium is more than coping with the challenges ahead. At the King Baudouin stadium in Brussels, Belgium will aim to break the world attendance record for a tennis match. The stars of the event will be — who else? — Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.

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