Brussels’ End

“The hour of Europe has dawned,” declared pompously Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jacques Poos in May 1991, as he led the negotiations that would begin the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. Sixteen years hence, Yugoslavia’s mutilated corpse is still haunting Europe, this time in Mr. Poos’ front yard.

Luxembourg’s neighbor to the west, Belgium, has been without a government for over 100 days. Tensions between the majority Flemings and minority Walloons have reached an impasse, and there is open talk of the country’s dissolution. Politically, Belgium is beginning to look like Bosnia in 1991, before it plunged into brutal civil war.

The irony, of course, is that Belgium is the headquarters of both the European Union (Brussels), and NATO (Mons). Thus the fountainhead of “Euro-Atlantic integrations,” pitched to post-Communist countries as the panacea for all their ills, can hardly keep itself integrated any more. If Belgium, a model for artificial states everywhere for over 170 years, cannot stay together, what fate does that portend for the EU? Most assuredly a grim one.

One Land, Two Peoples

Belgium was established in 1831 by the British, following a Francophone rebellion in what was then southern Netherlands. The Dutch-speaking Flemings and the French-speaking Walloons have been ruled by a German dynasty (cousins of the British royals) ever since, but their cohabitation has always been restive at best.

The most recent Belgian crisis began in June, when following the general elections no party was able to form a government. According to the country’s constitution, a government must be composed of equal parts Flemings and Walloons; since the Flemings are some 60% of the population, and French-speaking Walloons make up 30%, it is clear that no government can be established without Walloon approval. The gap in policies and beliefs between the major Fleming and Walloon parties is so wide, however, they have been unable to reach any sort of agreement for over three months now.

Flemish politicians are riding the wave of popular discontent with what most Flemings perceive as Francophone oppression. Flanders contributes 70% of the country’s GDP, but the Walloons consume 60% of it in welfare and subsidies. While Fleming parties are largely conservative, Francophone politicians are mostly left-liberal, and often make alliances with Muslim immigrants – which is another bone of contention in Belgium.

A protest against the Islamization of Europe, scheduled for September 11, was the only political demonstration in recent history actually banned by Brussels mayor Freddy Thielemans. Brussels police savagely attacked the protesters. Many of the demonstrators were from Flanders, and were set upon by Francophone riot police. Arguably, the brutality with which the Brussels authorities treated the protesters has further inflamed ethnic tensions in Belgium.

All this has led to Flemish politicians openly considering the dissolution of Belgium. Maps have already been drawn, covering just about every possibility, from two independent states to Flanders joining the Netherlands while Wallonia joins France.

Troubles on the Horizon

Belgium is not the only Western European country dealing with ethnic/regional issues. Spain has had a particularly rough time as well, with the Basques and the Catalans in particular demanding more cultural, political and linguistic autonomy. Recent disputes about the proper display of the Spanish national flag (in relation to regional flags) and the lyrics to the national anthem has once again elevated tensions between the government in Madrid and the autonomy-demanding regions.

Things are not going so well on the British isles either. The current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is Scottish, as are many other Labor cabinet members. His predecessor, Tony Blair, established parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; England, however, has no parliament of its own. The one at Westminster has members from all over the UK – meaning that Scottish MPs have direct input in decisions affecting England, but English MPs have limited or no influence in Scottish affairs.

As Scottish nationalists lobby for independence from the UK, English nationalists are increasingly resentful of this situation, also known as the “West Lothian Question.”

It is a situation most resembling that of Serbia in 1987, when Slobodan Milosevic rose to power on the wave of popular discontent with the constitution that gave Serbian provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo power over Serbian affairs, while making them virtually independent of Belgrade.

The Balkans Threat

It is therefore ironic that the government in London supports the separatists in Kosovo, most likely the first to follow the U.S. in recognizing their unilateral declaration of independence. That Washington intends to do so was announced by the New York Times this week, quoting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and an unnamed “European diplomat.”

According to the anonymous diplomat, once the arbitrary deadline of December 10 arrives, the U.S. will recognize an independent Kosovo and “the Europeans, as far as they can remain united, will follow, too” The Albanian separatists don’t need to negotiate, only run out the clock.

But how united can Europe remain? Formerly championed only by Washington and London, the independence cause has now been taken up by France’s Sarkozy, and his foreign minister (and onetime viceroy of Kosovo) Bernard Kouchner. Several European countries – Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia in particular – have been opposed to the independence of Kosovo, mindful of possible conflicts of their own. Although dissenting voices inside the EU were suppressed earlier this year by threats from Brussels and Washington, the failure of the Empire to impose Kosovo’s independence through the UN may have changed things.

She’s Annoyed, He’s Broke

France’s cozying up to the U.S. is also causing troubles with Germany. Ever since the Treaty of Paris established the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, Western Europe has revolved around a Franco-German axis. However, with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy to French presidency, relations between Paris and Berlin have become significantly cooler. In mid-September, German magazine Der Spiegel reported on a series of surprises Sarkozy has thrown at the German leadership, claiming that the “hyperactive” president “has the tendency to approach sensitive diplomatic issues with all the finesse of an Energizer bunny,” which flusters his German counterparts.

“Merkel, [Foreign Minister Frank-Walter] Steinmeier and German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück have all been surprised, stymied, annoyed and flabbergasted time and time again by his proposals,” says Der Spiegel, citing as the most recent Sarkozy’s offer of nuclear weapons to Germany, which the Germans rejected straight away. From style to substance, disagreements between Paris and Berlin are multiplying.

Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared this week during a visit to Corsica that he was “at the head of a state that is in a position of bankruptcy.” He was responding to a demand by Corsican farmers for more government subsidies. The exasperated PM explained that France hasn’t had a balanced budget in 25 years, and is about to present a 2008 budget with a €41.5billion deficit.

Leaving the Sinking Ship

Weighed down by welfare statism, cultural Marxism, decline of traditional culture and the tides of Muslim immigrants, Europe is imploding. With the slow death of old identities such as British or French, communities that consider themselves distinct – Flemings, Basques, Catalans, Corsicans and Scots, to name just a few – are seeking statehood.

This may not happen for a while yet, or it might happen tomorrow. It is hard to tell. But all things remaining equal, it is inevitable. If Washington does go ahead and force the recognition of Kosovo, that will provide a precedent for any who wish to follow; then all there is left is the threshold at which separatism will move from speculation to reality.

There are many possible scenarios from there, two of which are very likely. One would be a “Sovietization” of the EU, with the newly separated states remaining inside the Union, much as ethnic “republics” were established by the Communists in the Soviet Union. The bureaucracy would stay in Brussels, bloat some more, and continue to attempt managing the continent until the EU eventually follows its Soviet exemplar. (Ironically, the introduction of the Euro may actually be promoting political Balkanization!) The second option is potentially more violent, with the new states refusing to join the Union and prompting its wholesale breakup. Attempting to preserve the Union by force will most likely fail, and be exceptionally bloody.

It is unwise to ignore or deny these possibilities, just as it was to ignore the 1990 portents of impending bloodshed in Yugoslavia, or the 2003 warnings concerning Iraq. The fate of Belgium may yet decide whether Europe can find a path of peace and liberty, or descend into the darkness of war.

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Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.