pageok
pageok
pageok
The Belgian "Breakup" and the Future of Ethnic Federalism:

Both the New York Times and some European observers are predicting that Belgium may soon break up. This circumstance, combined with the persistence of longstanding secession movements in Quebec, Scotland, and elsewhere, have persuaded some, including our own David Bernstein, to doubt the viability of federalist solutions to the problem of ethnic conflict.

Belgium has a long history history of tension between the majority of Flemish speakers (concentrated in the north) and the French-speaking Walloon minority (most of whom live in the south). It is certainly possible that the country will break up soon. However, there are reasons to doubt both the likelihood of breakup and the claim that such an event demonstrates the failure of federalism.

It is far from clear that Belgium really will split up. The country has weathered ethnic tensions and threats of secession for over 170 years. The record suggests that the current crisis, triggered by a coalition power struggle in parliament, may well blow over as many previous ones have.

Even if it does not, a peaceful secession today by either the south or the north would not invalidate the successes of federalism in keeping ethnic conflict in check. After all, a combination of federalist decentralization and powersharing kept Belgium together for 170 years with a relative minimum of intergroup violence. Flemish and French-speaking Belgians may not like each other much (though the New York Times is surely wrong to claim that they "cannot stand each other"), but they have coexisted successfully for many decades. During that time, the country achieved a high level of political and economic development. The same is true in Canada, which has longstanding issues with its own secession movement, and even more so in Switzerland, whose federalist system has successfully managed conflicts between four different ethnic groups for centuries. Ethnic federalism is no panacea and won't work everywhere; David is probably right to suggest that it wouldn't work under current conditions in Israel/Palestine. But, overall, it has been a great success in Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, and a number of other countries. By allowing each group to have control of those regions of the country where it is in the majority, while respecting basic minority rights, it prevents the kind of zero-sum power struggle between groups that is likely to occur in an ethnically divided society where all the power is in the hands of the central government.

However, the Belgian example is a warning signal on one important issue: Much of the secessionist impulse by Flemish Belgians stems from "deep resentment in Flanders that its much healthier economy must subsidize the French-speaking south, where unemployment is double that of the north." Federal transfers between different regional governments create a zero-sum game between regions and stimulate resentment in regions whose inhabitants believe they are being fleeced for the benefit of parts of the country dominated by other ethnic group. They also reduce the incentive of regional governments in poorer regions to adopt pro-growth policies likely to improve their economic fortunes. These problems arise even in federal systems that are not divided on ethnic lines (as John McGinnis and I explain here). But they are heightened when ethnic grievances come into play.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The Belgian "Breakup" and the Future of Ethnic Federalism:
  2. The Single-State Solution:
A. Zarkov (mail):
The unprecedented influx of Muslims into Belgium puts an entirely new twist on the conflict between Flanders and Wallonia. The Flemish also appreciate that this influx dilutes their vote and they want further immigration stopped. If Flanders can separate then Wallonia will itself quickly disintegrate from it's own internal conflicts into at least three pieces. Belgium can only stay intact through continued use of undemocratic and thuggish policies by the current governing Labour Party. Look at what happened when VB tried stage a demonstration. Brussels mayor Freddie Thielemans banned it and sent in riot police from Liege in Wallonia to rough up and arrest the demonstrators targeting VB party members. The police grabbed Frank Vanhecke, VB party leader and a member of the European Parliament by the balls and hauled him off as you can see from this picture.

The momentum for separation in Flanders is growing. See this Reuters article: Majority of Flemish Think Belgium Will Split.

Two-thirds of the Flemish community from the northern Dutch-speaking region of Belgium think the country will sooner or later split, a poll by Belgian daily Het Laatste Nieuws showed on Tuesday.
9.22.2007 7:15am
R. Richard Schweitzer (mail):
At some academic levels, but little elsewhere, attention is being given to examining the forces that have created "nations;" consolidated (to varying degrees)their peoples - and now appear to be dissipating.

For a period, the studies of Nationalism, particularly as a factor in generating hostilities amongst peoples, probably the principal bane of the 20th century, were extensive.

Unlike the United States, which is probably the only culture in the world that did not arise from tribalism and chauvinism (brief rise of the latter being erased by population mobility), Europe, in particular, has been in a constant state of flux. Boundaries as the definitions of nations are historically recent, and fluid. The currently ongoing widespread movements of diverse peoples is one of cultural, not "national" impact.

Except for a very few regions, similar to the U.S., the artificial constructs of nations will be slowly eroded by the fading importance of territorial origins. This has begun in France, has a major impact in the Netherlands, as well as beginnings in Germany.

R. Richard Schweitzer
s24rrs@aol.com
9.22.2007 7:19am
dearieme:
" a number of other countries": I distrust people who write " a number of ..". If they know the number, why don't they tell us? If they don't know the number, why not say "several"? Could it be because they know that zero is a number? Or is it that they are paid by the number of words they write?
Anyway: Yugoslavia. Or the USA in around 1860.
9.22.2007 7:38am
loki13 (mail):

Federal transfers between different regional governments create a zero-sum game between regions and stimulate resentment in regions whose inhabitants believe they are being fleeced for the benefit of parts of the country dominated by other ethnic group.


Applying this to the current Federalism proposals for Iraq:

There are three ethnic areas:
Shia: South &Central- Lots o' oil
Kurd: North- Lots o' oil
Sunni: West- No oil

The desire is for some sort of oil sharing agreement at the national level, which would, of course, be a Federal Transfer from the Shia and Kurd areas to the Sunni area.

Applying Prof. Somin's analysis, and considering the already-present tribal and religious hostilities, this does not bode well for a long-term Federal solution to Iraq.
9.22.2007 10:04am
neurodoc:
Would the former Soviet Union count as an example "federalism"? How about Czechoslovakia?
9.22.2007 10:37am
Guest231:
I'm still waiting for the South to break off. I'm tired of the conservatives in that part of the country screwing it up for the rest of us.
9.22.2007 11:02am
Eli Rabett (www):
Methinks that the interesting idea here is that the EU allows greater expression of linguistic/ethnic differentiation in Europe. Today, the Walloons and Flemish can enjoy the advantages of a nation state AND those of a small community. Look for similar to happen in Spain next (it is already underway).
9.22.2007 12:07pm
Affe (mail) (www):
Back in the early 90's, a few years after the fall of the communist regime, I was visiting relatives in Poland, and had some long talks with an uncle. He was quite the regionalist (Silesian) and had some distinct thoughts in favor of the formation of a "Europe of Regions". The best part was listening to him talk about those "meddling outsiders" from Warsaw... note that he was emphatically NOT in favor of secession and union with Germany - his emphasis was on the mixed and fairly distinct bi-ethnic heritage of that part of the country.

Since most countries in Europe seem to have very distinct regional cultures, it will be interesting if what's going on with Belgium turns out to be a trend or simply an excess of grumbling... Germany and Italy as united nation-states are quite recent creations, after all.
9.22.2007 1:12pm
Randy R. (mail):
I remember reading a book a long long time ago (or an article?) that argued a novel cause of WWI and WWII. It stated that all ther other european powers were able to establish colonies around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Britian, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and so on. But because Germany and Italy didn't unite until late, they lost out -- no colonies for them! (The situation was similar with Japan, having only recently opened up with the Meiji Restoration).

So is it any surprise that these three countries united to acquire colonies by force? It's interesting, since this theory sees WWII as the culmination of two or three centuries of history.
9.22.2007 2:27pm
Annonymous Coward (mail):
The point is substantially correct but


in Switzerland, whose federalist system has successfully managed conflicts between four different ethnic groups for centuries


ignores some granularity in the management including fairly recent Cantonal reorganization - pretty much abject surrender to Napoleon's ideas for the country and earlier classic fights between different economic interests leading to lunch together on the battlefield when the lowlands had wheat for bread and the highlands had grazing for milk and cheese.

There is no Utopia.
9.22.2007 3:35pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Anonymous Coward-

There is no Utopia.

That's no excuse for tolerating tyranny, especially that based on racism, ethnosupremacy, exploitation, etc. (I'm not saying that is what is going on in Belgium, just in general.)
9.22.2007 5:43pm
Randy R. (mail):
In reading the article, I was struck by the fact that Wallonia used to be the wealthy side, and Flanders the poor one, because Wallonia was the industrial part. Then, with modern times, it switched, and Wallonia is a sort of rust belt area, and Flanders, the high tech moneyed side.

Questions: Did Wallonia support the country economicially in the past, with Flanders being the sloth? If so, why didn't Belgium break up then? And wouldn't that make Flanders just a wee bit ungrateful? Times change: What if the economies flip again, and Wallonia rich, and Flanders poor?

More: This is a lot like in our country -- we have a rust belt that suffered (and is still suffering) in our country, and a south that benefited from it. Now the south is losing much of that to Asia. Did we handle the situation better? Or even differently?
9.22.2007 5:51pm
MDJD2B (mail):

Questions: Did Wallonia support the country economicially in the past, with Flanders being the sloth? If so, why didn't Belgium break up then? And wouldn't that make Flanders just a wee bit ungrateful?


Not if the Walloons supported the Flemish prior to the memory of most Flemish. There has to be something of a "statute of limitations" on gratitude.
9.22.2007 10:54pm
Peter Wimsey:
While I don't particularly believe that Belgium is going to break up, if it does break up it will only be because the resulting mini-Belgiums could find a home in the federal-ish EU. So I don't really think that a Belgian split would mean the demise of ethnic federalism, since the resulting countries would be immediately (I assume) part of a larger multi-ethnic federation.
9.22.2007 11:35pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
One old-line industry Wallonia still has is the arms company Fabrique National. They produced several guns designed by John Browning, who did so much business with them that he learned French, and eventually passed away in Liege.
9.23.2007 12:31am
Aleks:
Re: Unlike the United States, which is probably the only culture in the world that did not arise from tribalism and chauvinism

Um, Canada? Australia? New Zealand?

Re: But because Germany and Italy didn't unite until late, they lost out -- no colonies for them!

The Germans and Italians did have colonies in Africa (while the Austro-Hungarian Empire had none, though did of course have imperial provinces closer to home; ditto for Russia). Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania and (I think) Benin were under German rule (along with part of Papua New Guinea and some other Pacific islands), while the Italians controlled Libya and part of Somalia. Belgiunm by the way has only been a country since 1830. Before that it was part of the Netherlands, and previous to that an Austrian province.
9.23.2007 1:09am
A. Zarkov (mail):
"So I don't really think that a Belgian split would mean the demise of ethnic federalism, since the resulting countries would be immediately (I assume) part of a larger multi-ethnic federation."

Not at all obvious. The EU is being shoved down the collective throats of a reluctant Europe. Voters in the UK, Holland, France and Switzerland have rejected the European Constitution several times, yet the EU bureaucrats persist. The people of the European nations don't want massive Muslim immigration either, but that is also shoved down their throats and opposition to it has been criminalized in several European countries such as Belgium and Sweden. Laws against "racism" and "xenophobia" make it illegal for a citizen to say something like "I don't think Muslim immigration is a good idea."

The European situation is somewhat similar to the efforts here to create a North American super-state with open boarders. Twice (last summer) the Bush Administration with help of Congressional Democrats and the Republican leadership tried to ram an amnesty bill through the Senate. Each time the bill triggered a massive negative reaction from the voters. Undaunted they are trying again to get it through by attaching bills to a DOD appropriation again triggering massive reaction.
9.23.2007 7:04am
Robert West (mail) (www):
Belgium is a historical anomaly. Its existence as a seperate entity traces to the Dutch Revolt: while the Dutch won the war, the southern provinces remained in Spanish possession. Possession was transferred to the Austrians as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession, and it remained in Austrian hands until the Napoleonic Wars, after which it was (briefly) reunited with the Netherlands.

Had the Dutch been more successful in their revolt, Belgium would never have come into being.
9.23.2007 3:27pm