Even in a border-free Europe, everyone wants a homeland.
NOT just Belgium, but (supposedly) the entire European Union sighed with relief this week when a new Belgian government got to work—ending nine months of squabbling among the political parties. To Euro-enthusiasts in Brussels, their host country’s failure to form a government after last June’s election was alarming. The argument is that Belgium matters because it is a model for Europe, with a complex federal system (the country boasts six governments and parliaments) designed to share power between three regions and three linguistic communities (Dutch-, French- and German-speakers). And if small, wealthy Belgium cannot make federalism work, how can the EU?
In truth, this is a circular argument. So what if Belgium has institutions similar to those that a federal EU might use? Being an analogy, if readers will forgive the phrase, is not the same thing as being the same thing. What really matters about fractious, multinational Belgium is that its system of government shows up a painful paradox for the EU: that compromise is needed if competing nationalities are to gain from co-operation, but that too much compromise is toxic to democracy.
A prudent Euro-federalist would resist comparisons with Belgium’s rotten institutions, described by one Belgian senator as a “particracy” in which power is derived only tenuously from votes cast by the people. All Belgian federal governments are coalitions that must contain parties from both the French- and Dutch-speaking communities, who lead more or less separate lives. Some compromise is fair enough, you might think: otherwise the majority Dutch-speakers could always outvote the minority who speak French (this is certainly how Francophones present matters). But the elevation of compromise to a moral necessity has proved fatal to democratic accountability.
Last June’s election shows this. It sent two clear “kick the bums out” messages. Among Flemish parties, the mushily free-market ruling Liberals lost to the mushily conservative Christian Democrats. Among French-speakers, the Socialists were given a drubbing after a string of corruption scandals. Yet after nine months of horse-trading, both defeated parties are in the new five-party coalition (this boasts 22 ministerial posts, including five deputy prime ministers). Even this is provisional. If the new government does not surrender more powers to the regions by July, Flemish separatists in the coalition could walk out, triggering a new crisis that edges Belgium a step closer to partition. Doubtless a new compromise will then be found, in another deal behind closed doors. As ever, the voters will have little power to sanction or reward their rulers for such antics.
Brussels types fret that such squabbling undermines Europe’s boast to have moved beyond the grudges and resentments of ethnic nationalism. But here too the reality may be more complicated. An essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs makes the incendiary suggestion that the EU has kept the peace for 60 years thanks to nationalism, not despite it. The author, Jerry Muller of the Catholic University of America, argues that the brutal genocides and forced population shifts of the 20th century helped to make peace possible. With a few exceptions (he cites Belgium as one), Europe’s ethnic and state boundaries now match (ie, most Germans live in Germany, Greece is dominated by Greeks and so on). That has removed a big reason for fighting. Thus the post-war peace may not mark a defeat for ethnic nationalism, but rather demonstrates its “success”. A more recent example of such success, just recognised by most EU countries, is Kosovo.
An opposite view is taken by Guy Verhofstadt, Belgium’s prime minister until last week. Mr Verhofstadt once wrote a pamphlet calling for a “United States of Europe” and now plans a second book arguing that Europe is naturally cosmopolitan, and that ethno-national divisions are alien to Europe’s “soul” (although he too recognised Kosovo). He is fascinated by the late 19th century, when Germans were scattered across central Europe, and Jews enriched life all over the continent. He venerates the example of Rustchuk, a city on the border between Bulgaria and Romania whose residents once spoke Ladino (a Sephardic dialect of Spanish), Turkish, Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian and German. Not any more, Mr Verhofstadt laments, before expressing the hope that a border-free EU may bring cosmopolitan Europe back to life, and end the 20th century obsession with creating “monocultural islands”.
Multiculturalism rules OK
Both men should cheer up. Professor Muller is too cynical about the reasons for European peace. German contrition played a vital role, as did genuine horror at the evils done in nationalism’s name. Meanwhile Europe is a lot more cosmopolitan than Mr Verhofstadt fears (now he is out of office, he should jump on the Brussels metro and see for himself).
But you can see why a Belgian moderate frets about hardliners. Every week brings a fresh example of ethno-linguistic pettiness. The latest is a row over a local council in Flanders that wants to ban toddlers from its playgrounds if they do not understand Dutch (in fairness, French-speakers can be maddening about language, too). At the European level, Belgium’s reputation also suffers. All 27 EU members were recently asked for projects to make 2008 a “European Year of Intercultural Dialogue”, celebrating cultural and linguistic diversity. The result was 26 national schemes plus three from Belgium, where diversity may be celebrated, but only so long as it is done equally in French, Dutch and German.
In other words, Belgium’s linguistic communities pay a high price for sticking together, resorting to fudges that range from the silly to the destructive. Put like that, you can see Belgium’s new government not as a relief, but as an awful warning. A political union hatched together by a fractious elite, and answerable only to itself, is not a model for anybody to follow.