Just on three-and-a-half years ago, a Belgian television station created a major stir by running a hoax news program reporting that Flanders, the Dutch-speaking half of Belgium, had declared its independence. This week, life moved a little closer to imitating art, as Sunday’s general election in Belgium gave a plurality to the Flemish separatist party, New Flemish Alliance.

This doesn’t mean Belgium is about to disappear from the map, or even that the nationalists will necessarily end up in government: there will be 12 parties represented in the new parliament (seven Dutch and five French), and putting together a majority coalition will take considerable time (official results here). But it does suggest that the nationalist, or ethno-linguistic issue has come to overshadow everything else in Belgium, and the country will remain politically deadlocked until it is somehow sorted out.

Looking at the map in the cold light of logic, there is no reason why Belgium should exist. There is nothing natural about its boundaries: the northern boundary (with the Netherlands) is the line held by the Spanish armies at the end of the Dutch war of independence in the 17th century; the southern boundary (with France) is the limit of French expansion in the 18th century. It would make sense for the north to join the Netherlands and the south to join France.

The past 20 years have unwound several of Europe’s more artificial territorial arrangements. The Flemings point particularly to Czechoslovakia, which in 1993 separated peacefully into its constituent parts. Czechs and Slovaks, moreover, are at least closely related, with languages that are more or less mutually comprehensible; French and Dutch sit on opposite sides of one of Europe’s major cultural divides.

But Czechoslovakia, like Yugoslavia, was a recent creation, whereas Belgium has been a distinct entity for 400 years. There could hardly be a more striking reminder of how deep ethnic differences run, and how central they are to people’s identity.

So far, separatism is mostly confined to the north. The French speakers, or Walloons, of the south — who represent only 40% of the country, but who for many years ran it as their own and relegated the Flemings to second-class status — still cling to the notion of a united Belgium and show no obvious desire for either  independence or union with France.

But although the union may be patched together for a few more years, its long-term future looks decidedly grim.

This might all seem remote from Australian concerns, but it should actually be required study for our politicians and diplomats, who assume that soothing words and mutual assurance treaties can paper over separatist movements in our region. Hence they hope the world will forget about the Papuans of West Papua, the Malays of southern Thailand, the Melanesians of Bougainville, and many others.

But if prosperous, democratic Belgium still displays its ethnic fault lines after four centuries, it’s unlikely that the drive for national self-determination will be quite so easily halted.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey