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King of a divided country: Belgium must find another path to the unity Baudouin offered, says Jonathan Eyal

WITH KING BAUDOUIN, the Belgians at the weekend buried an entire generation of leaders, people who instinctively believed that reason, moderation and vision must triumph. Albert II, his successor due to be sworn today, inherits a transformed state, a country that epitomises everything both good and bad on the European continent.

The mixture of widespread grief and introspection that engulfed the country after Baudouin's sudden death was surprising for everyone, including the Belgians themselves. Hundreds of thousands jammed into the palace square to pay their respects. They arrived as Flemings and Walloons, deeply divided along linguistic and historic lines. Most left the palace sobbing, momentarily united as Belgians. For a country in which even the smallest linguistic dispute topples governments, these were momentous events indeed.

It would be wrong to dismiss such an outpouring of emotion as hype, sentimental nonsense with little practical value. The Belgian monarchy was neither packaged as a fairy tale nor sold as a soap opera. Painfully shy and withdrawn, Baudouin made relatively few speeches during his reign. His private life, although tragic, was not particularly interesting; his wider family's conduct was hardly a paragon of virtue, but rarely dominated Europe's glossy publications. Yet, for most of his citizens, this is hardly the point.

Belgium had 36 governments in 48 post-war years. Resembling Italy's experience, more than one in 10 of all Belgians at the last election voted for extremist parties of various hues, but the same rag-bag coalition continues to rule them as though nothing had happened. By diligently concentrating on his core constitutional functions, Baudouin ultimately became the true arbiter of moral authority.

What is quickly becoming a Baudouin cult in Belgium holds important lessons for an entire continent. Monarchies may be derided as outdated concepts, intrinsic denials of democratic values, institutions occupied by individuals ridiculously dressed up as Christmas trees. In fact, it is precisely a mixture of elected and unelected rulers that gives European democracies both stability and historic legitimacy.

No less then half of the European Community's states today are monarchies, a proportion that will be maintained even if the current Efta countries are admitted. Furthermore, out of the six republican members of the Community, only three elect their presidents by universal suffrage, and in only one (France) does the head of state hold real executive powers.

More importantly, many of these presidents gain their greatest popularity when they oppose the deeds of elected politicians, rather than merely rubber-stamping their decisions. Germany's head of state chided all the political parties for their paralysis; Ireland's president had the courage of raising hitherto taboo subjects, while her Portuguese counterpart last week rejected a law denying the right of political asylum. In Italy, it is precisely the unelected judges who are held in high esteem for daring to break up a corrupt system; and everywhere in Europe, incompetent politicians, not monarchs, are now the main providers of an irrelevant circus. Intellectually, the right of one family to rule for perpetuity may seem bizarre; in the right historic circumstances, however, the institution continues to be relevant.

Yet, despite Baudouin's achievements, Belgium is still considered a fading political entity, rather than a nation. French- speaking Walloons are linguistically indistinguishable from France, as are the Dutch-speaking Flemings from the Netherlands. In fact, the idea that Belgium is an artificial creation is only a reflection of Europe's wider nationalist movements, rather than Belgium's historic realities.

For 35 years, before independence in 1830, the Belgians were ruled first by the French and then by the Dutch, but were uncomfortable with both. The Belgians were, and perhaps still are, a nation; the country's problem is that notions of nationalism are never static. Walloons and Flemings originally chose to forget their linguistic differences and live in one country last century in as much as Serbs and Croats initially chose to forget religious differences on Europe's other extremity this century. The problem is that the reasons for yesterday's marriage also provide the grounds for today's divorce.

Opinion polls suggest that nine out of 10 Belgians regard jobs and political corruption as their main problems. The politicians, however, concentrate on the intricacies of nationalism. New constitutional amendments were signed by Baudouin weeks before his death, transforming Belgium into a federal state in which Wallonia, Flanders and the mainly French- speaking capital of Brussels would exercise great autonomy. Politicians congratulated themselves on accommodating nationalist pressure, while maintaining the unity of the state. The result may well be precisely the opposite.

Since the inception of Belgium, Walloons, although in a minority, dominated both the country's economic and cultural life. The roles have been reversed. Wallonia is saddled with a rust belt of decaying industries, while Flanders, hitherto regarded as a region of small shopkeepers, is forging ahead. An elaborate system of pork-barrel politics intended to disguise this transformation has paralysed most decision-making; the country's social security system devours almost a quarter of gross domestic product; and Belgium has one of the highest government debts in the Western world. If pension obligations are included, the government's current debt amounts to 170 per cent of GDP.

Belgium's federal arrangements explicitly envisage that the Flemish majority would relinquish its rule at the national level, in return for unity. But unity for what purpose? Fewer and fewer Flemings are prepared to subsidise the ranks of unemployed in Wallonia. Furthermore, economic and linguistic divides are strengthened by political disputes: Wallonia remains a fiefdom of the socialists, while Flanders is increasingly dominated by right-wingers. Even the glue of the monarchy may no longer be enough.

The European Community is presented as the only mechanism for obviating nationalist disputes. In fact, the EC is merely replacing one form of nationalism with another. Community officials speak of 'standing up' to the Americans and Japanese, as if this was a required baptism of fire; Jacques Delors considers Britain as a Trojan horse partly because London encourages Japanese investment. Yet this officially induced European nationalism is merely deepening existing historic divisions within member states, without putting anything concrete in its place.

Belgians fervently believe in 'Europe': they host most of the Community's institutions and are happy to assume that what their own national bureaucrats in Brussels have persistently failed to achieve, another set of bureaucrats in the same city would somehow perform for them.

For many Flemings and Walloons, nationalism now goes hand in hand with a desire for European union. Even the extreme Vlaams Blok party in Flanders is pro-European, while wanting to kick all other 'foreigners' out at the same time. In reality, European-wide nationalism remains an artificial creation. It is also dangerous, for it is a nebulous concept that, at least for the moment, demands no sacrifice. However, as the Flemings may well discover, any meaningful European union would entail a massive transfer of resources from the richer to the poorer nations, precisely what Flanders' rabble- rousers now strenuously oppose at home. The result may well be neither European unity, nor Belgian unity.

With a fine touch of historic irony, Baudouin died just when Belgium held the presidency of the Community, and on the very day when EC finance ministers buried the exchange rate mechanism. One of the curious results of the ERM's collapse was that the monetary arrangements that operated between the Benelux countries for decades were also torn asunder. Thus, while the king was revered in his death, his country's foreign policy assumptions were falling apart.

Baudouin believed in Europe, but held his vision together at the same time. His successor will have to concentrate on his nation first, without the benefit of many European myths. It will not be easy.

The writer is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

(Photograph omitted)