The Big Question: Is Belgium on the brink of breaking apart, and would it matter if it did?

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Why are we asking this now?

Three months after national elections, Belgium still has no government, only a caretaker administration. Attempts to agree a coalition have tumbled into a widening chasm of distrust between the country's two main language communities, the Dutch-speakers (roughly 60 per cent) and the French-speakers (roughly 40 per cent).

The core issue is the perennial thorn-bush of Belgian politics: the future of Belgium itself. Even the relatively moderate, mainstream Dutch-speaking, or Flemish, political parties want the country's loose, federal structure to be unravelled further. French-speaking parties believe that this would hasten the end of the Kingdom of Belgium after 177 years.

The immediate problem is one of personality and trust. For 30 years, Belgium has had a procession of Dutch-speaking prime ministers who could – just about – command the respect of both communities. Despite the efforts of the head of state, King Albert, no such person has emerged to resolve the new crisis.

Is this just another false alarm?

A "quickie" divorce of Belgium into two separate, sovereign states is unlikely. If nothing else, the country is pinned together by the conundrum of Brussels, a mostly French-speaking city which stands (just) within the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country. In the longer run, a sour but peaceful separation, on the Czech and Slovak model, can no longer be discounted. In a recent opinion poll, 43 per cent of Dutch-speakers said they would prefer to live in an independent state.

Why this seemingly endless argument?

Belgium is a country divided historically, linguistically, culturally and economically. It straddles the fault-line between northern (Germanic) and southern (Latin) ethnic and cultural sub-continents in Europe. The French-speakers in Brussels and the southern half of the country were once social and political top-dogs and sought to impose their language and culture on the mostly rural north. Until the 1950s, the south also had most of the country's wealth-producing industry.

Since the 1970s the economy of the Dutch-speaking north has boomed and the economy of the French-speaking south has suffered the fate of heavy industrial Britain and France. (Imagine the north-south economic and social divide in England, reinforced by the fact that people either side of the Trent speak different languages. Add chips and mayonnaise and chocolate and 400 kinds of beer, and you have a cartoon version of Belgium.)

After endless constitutional tinkering, Belgium has been divided six ways into the regions of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels and parallel "governments" for the three not quite overlapping "language communities" (Dutch, French and a small minority of German-speakers). With what remains of the national, or federal, government, that makes seven different parliaments and administrations to govern a country of 10m people.

The Flemish regional and language governments and parliaments have, in fact, been merged into one, making only six sets of Belgian legislators and bureaucrats. Arguably, this merger has already created the embryo of a separate Flemish state. Such Byzantine structures mean that French and Dutch-speaking Belgians now live almost entirely back-to-back lives. All the country's institutions, from political parties to the media to the Red Cross, are segregated on linguistic lines. Only the monarchy, the football team, the diplomatic service, the national courts and the military are still fully Belgian.

What's caused this crisis?

Many Flemings have complained for years that they would be much wealthier if they did not have to lug around the "bag of stones" which is the Walloon economy. Unemployment in Flanders is 9.3 per cent. Unemployment in Wallonia is 17.6 per cent. In Brussels, with its heavy immigrant populations, it is 22 per cent. Something like 15 per cent of the income of Wallonia comes from "subsidies" from the taxes of the Flemish-speaking north.

Most of Flemish politics leans to the right (and parts of it very far to the right). Most of Walloon politics leans to the Left (and some of it very far to the Left). After carving several national coalitions out of such unlikely material, the liberal Flemish Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstad, was the big loser in the elections three months ago.

The great winner was Yves Leterme, head of the Flemish Christian Democrat party (CD and V). He had campaigned for renewed shrinkage of the Belgian state and for more fiscal and economic autonomy for Flanders. Mr Leterme wants to give the Flanders and Wallonia and Brussels "regional" governments more power over taxation, social security, economic policy, justice, immigration and nationality.

The main French-speaking parties – especially Joelle Milquet, head of the centrists CDH party (ex-Christian Democrats) – have refused these demands. Mme Milquet has infuriated even moderate Flemings by making demands of her own. She wants a majority French-speaking part of the outer Brussels suburbs transferred from Flanders to Wallonia. This would connect Brussels geographically to Wallonia and open up the possibility of the French-speakers "capturing" Brussels in some future split in the country.

Are there any hidden agendas?

The political scandal surrounding the Dutroux paedophile murders in Wallonia has reinforced Flemish prejudices against a supposedly corrupt and lazy south of the country. The continued success of the overtly xenophobic and anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang party in Flanders has reinforced Walloon prejudices against a supposedly authoritarian and fascist-leaning north. Support for some Flemings for Nazism during the German occupation was another factor in the collapse of "community" relations after the war.

Could Belgium split amicably?

To the credit of all Belgians, their everlasting quarrel had rarely provoked violence. Most politicians and commentators, on both sides of the language barrier, believe that another sullen, temporary solution will be found in the coming weeks. In the longer term, much depends on the economic tensions that are pulling the country apart. Flanders is booming today but is producing few babies and is short of labour. Wallonia has a younger population than the north and a much higher birth-rate. The Wallonian economy is finally beginning to recover from the shocks of the 1970s and 1980s. The two halves of the country may yet learn that they need one another.

Should other nations care what happens?

Yes. We fought the First World War to preserve the neutrality and identity of Belgium. A strong Belgium is still important to Britain and to the EU. It is a great irony – beloved of Europhobes – that Belgium, one of the greatest advocates of a federal Europe, cannot make sense of its own federal system. In truth, the two sets of arguments are rather different.

So is Belgium falling apart?


* There is no new government in sight despite three months of negotiations since national elections

* 43 per cent of people in the wealthier Dutch-speaking north of the country want a separate state

* The existing balkanised political system means that Flemish and Walloon Belgians are already de facto separate nations


* Politicians on both sides of the language barrier expect that a deal will be reached – eventually

* 70 per cent of all Belgians and a crushing majority of French-speakers oppose a split

* The economically struggling, French-speaking south is beginning to recover, which could ease tensions