Does The World Need Belgium?


It’s none of my business, but reading about the surge in support for the Flemish separatist party in Belgium I feel pretty sympathetic to their cause. The specific case of Belgium turns out not to have most of the problems that you normally associate with national dissolution. For one thing, there’s already a well-defined boundary between Flanders and Wallonia. For another, thanks to the European Union the two successor states would continue to use the same currency, goods and people would continue to flow freely across the border, and in general life would continue exactly as before. The EU even provides a solution to the otherwise-sticky question of what to do with Brussels, a nominally bilingual but mostly French-speaking city geographically located in the French zone—you could turn it into a DC-style special European Capital Region or something.

Indeed, the whole nationalist dispute turns out to have a lot to do with money rather than language and culture. The Flemish-speaking part of Belgium is richer than the French-speaking part, so there are large net transfers from Flanders to Wallonia. Flemish people don’t like this, French-speakers like it fine. Under the circumstances, I’m actually slightly surprised that any Flemish people don’t vote for the NVA. This seems like a terrible deal for them with no real upside. Scott Sumner tries to make the case that even the Walloons would be better off:

Here the argument is a bit tougher, but I’ll try to make it using the analogy of Czechoslovakia. Before the split-up, the Slovaks represented the smaller and less prosperous part of Czechoslovakia. Being further east, their instincts were probably more statist. After the breakup they did flounder around for a few years, but then got their act together and instituted some important neoliberal reforms. And I think it is fair to say that the reforms were successful. Obviously Slovakia still has lots of problems, but their business-friendly tax regime did attract lots of investment from multinational car companies. So tough love can work.

That seems pretty speculative and utopian to me. It’s in Wallonia’s interests right now to adopt prosperity-inducing policies, and cutting them off from the Flemish teat doesn’t really change that. Slovakia has done well as an independent nation, but so have most post-communist Central European countries so it’s hard to see causation here. The main thing I would in favor of separation is that this seems to me to be a case where binationalism is creating nationalist rancor that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Nationalist rancor is, in my view, a bad thing and I’m normally skeptical of separatism on those grounds. But in this instance it doesn’t actually seem as if Flemings and Walloons have any major grievances against one another, it’s just that the effort to construct a perfectly fair and balanced brand of binationalism has created a politics that consists almost entirely of inter-communal bickering. If you did away with it, then both countries’ politics would focus on “regular” policy issues and I doubt you’d see much in the way of disgruntlement.