Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Future of Belgium

The latest election has produced a separatist party winning the plurality of seats.  Given the enduring crisis, perhaps we should be less surprised.  Nor should we be surprised by the schadenfreude appearing on the internet.

Peter Vermeersch has a good analysis on the new blog-site of the Association for the Study of Nationalities.  The first new challenge is how does a separatist party perhaps govern as part of a coalition?  In Canada, the Bloc Quebecois has never been inside of government, and the one recent attempt to include it in a coalition just perpetuated the Conservative minority government.  Many Canadians found a Liberal/NDP alliance with the Bloc to be anathema.

Given how my recent book focused on how nationalisms can have multiple meanings and that we need to take the content of each one seriously, I am, perversely perhaps, pleased by the Flemish separatist effort's re-formulation:
The N-VA has managed to make people forget the old, vague, romantic and not particularly mobilizing notion of full Flemish independence and reframe its nationalism as a moderate political demand for autonomy. The party employed a number of metaphors to communicate this message. “We don’t want a revolution, just evolution”, said N-VA leader Bart De Wever repeatedly. We do not want to split Belgium, we will just let it “evaporate”, was another slogan. This discourse was also meant to eclipse the dark sides of the Flemish movement’s heritage, in particular its association with collaboration during the Second World War.
The funny thing, getting back to the Quebec comparison, is that the Bloc (the Quebec separatist party at the national level) and the Parti Quebecois (the one at the provincial level) are mostly emphasizing the old framing: language in danger, separatism as the solution.

Vermeersch goes on to suggest the relevance of Belgium for the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and I would stretch that to include Canada/Quebec as well.  The more dysfunctional other bilingual countries are, the more motivated those who are already separatist may become.
[Belgium] has been used to show how linguistic tensions (and therefore also ethnic or national ones) can be kept in check by a carefully crafted constitutional setup that makes room for compromise, autonomy, and power-sharing mechanisms. But if it turns out that the Belgian constitutional setup has only unleashed more nationalism and more competition between linguistically defined political groups it might lose its role as an institutional model.
To be clear, I don't think Belgium's potential disintegration will cause other countries to fall apart (I have long argued against contagion arguments), but it may limit the ability for folks to suggest and pass institutional solutions in the future when the poster child is, well, sick.

The post concludes by addressing the Flemish party's appeals to a stronger EU, and this feeds into larger debates about whether European Integration empowers separatist movements and weakens central governments.  If the Flemish know that they would remain in an EU even if they are not part of Belgium, does that encourage them?  If much of the regulation is done in the other part of Brussels (EU HQ, not Belgium's government), then perhaps being in Belgium matters less. 

This all bears more watching, and now we have a blog where scholars can assess the nationalities developments of the day.


Joe Stonehouse said...

Please do not give the Quebec separatist movement any ideas to modernize their platform. I am trying very hard to justify staying in Quebec once I complete my education... it is not going very well.

Unknown said...

This might imply that by a similar diffusion mechanism, Kosovo's independence might empower groups.

Joe Stonehouse said...

I was going to comment on this, but Prof. Saideman already made the point that I was going to briefly mention. Domestic factors are the primary cause for concern with regards to separatist movements. I do not think that the Parti Quebecois is concerned with whether or not the international community will accept their bid for independence - an important precedent created by Kosovo. What matters is the struggle at home to get a clear majority in support of their political movement, and of course avoiding the federal government secretly spending hundreds of millions of dollars to 'persuade' Quebec voters. On that note, I think that was money well spent.