Last week’s big story in Europe was a hoax “news” broadcast on Wednesday evening reporting the break-up of Belgium.

RTBF, the public broadcaster in the southern, French-speaking half of the country reported that the Dutch-speaking north had declared independence, leading to great consternation and even panic among viewers.

Back in 1938, of course, Orson Welles demonstrated that you can create panic even by playing on completely unrealistic fears, when a radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds convinced many people that martians had landed in New Jersey.

A spokesman for the Belgian prime minister described Wednesday’s broadcast as “very bad Orson Welles, in very poor taste”.

But believing in Flemish independence is of a somewhat different order from believing in a martian invasion. Belgium is an accident of history: its northern border represents only the line that the Spanish armies held at the end of the Dutch war of independence. Logically, northern Belgium (Flanders) should be part of the Netherlands, while the southern half (Wallonia) should be part of France.

Logic, however, does not always rule in international affairs, and clearly many Belgians have developed a very strong attachment to their artificial country – hence the strong reaction to the hoax. The head of RTBF, Jean-Paul Philippot, admitted the following day that “the impact of the broadcast was greater than expected”.

Nonetheless, the tide of globalisation is tending to break apart such artificial countries. The existence of the EU reassures people that independence need not mean isolation, and is a contributing factor to independence movements in such places as Catalonia and Scotland.

Belgium’s federal arrangements are due to be renegotiated next year, and it is quite possible that wealthier, more populous Flanders will ultimately decide that keeping Belgium together costs more than it is worth.

If that happens, RTBF might get to run some of last week’s footage as real news.

Peter Fray

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