Friday, 21 September 2007

The European Secession Problem - How Belgium Broke Brussels.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

“We have no quarrel with America. We all know NATO is the strongest military machine in the world. We simply want them to stop being so busy with our country and worry about their own problems.” - Slobodan Milošević
The European Union does not have a centralised press or media. It's such a bizarrely obvious fact about our multi-national entity that the implications of politics without media intrusion is often missed. National level medias continue to lobby the EU about issues of interest to their own societies (from CAP spending to The Euro to African Immigration) but there is no central forum for discussion, meaning that a lot of the spit and bile of day to day politics (there will never be an EU Dangerous Dogs Act, and The Catholic Church has yet to make any headway in convincing the EU to care about abortion) does not occur. On the flip side it means the whole entity is somewhat less accountable, and issues that are of pan-EU implications can fall completely by the way side until they hit crisis point (as happened on The Constitution, when the elite completely misunderstood that it was supposed to be representing the people).

Today's case in point is a political beachhead taking place in Belgium, a deadlock that is increasingly looking likely to end in a messy divor
ce between Belgium's constituent units of Flanders and Wallonia. This issue is so high profile its managed to obtain one middle-page article in The Guardian, one in The Observer and nothing on BBC News Online, not quite what you'd expect of the first precedent of secession within the EU. Because even the roughest investigation will show that secession is the one European issue most likely to end up in an almighty mess, with blood and teeth mixed with the broken beer-bottles and Zyklon B.

Firstly, lets step back and look at the European continent as a whole. A quick glance at a map will demonstrate that Europe has more countries per unit area than any comparable landmass in the world. In total area it's roughly the size of China, but an unusually fractious history has led Europe to be divided into 48 nation states, with 7 language families. Within these nation states it is the norm for them to be formed of an assemblage of countries and regions with varying degree of autonomy and histories of independence - from Transdnieta in Moldova to Catalonia in Spain, Europeans dislike their neighbours. Above this now stands the European Union, an unprecedented assemblage of nation states which follows many of the functions of government.

Secession is a messy business, because it revolv
es around visceral identity issues on the one hand, and the hard hand of real politik and economics on the other. So that in Europe we've seen long drawn out wars of secession such as those in Northern Ireland, Basque Region and Corsica, velvet divorce as happened in Czechoslovakia (still messy, since only 40% of Slovaks ever favoured divorce, even after their government declared independence), to the incomparable train-wreck that started in Yugoslavia. The division of infrastructure and resources, placement of population, and the mess of politics cause countless pragmatic problems, and when secession starts rolling the implications are difficult to predict. On this basis alone, the EU should be paying close attention to what is going on under its metaphorical nose, but certainly when the events are in part its responsibility.

Increasingly The EU has taken on the main functions of central government that regions require in order to go about their business. With the case of modern Ireland as an example: if the EU is going to bootstrap your country's infrastructure, guarantee your currency and offer you defensive security, do you really need centralised administration in Paris/London/Berlin/Rome? All of the collective measures that were previously the main reason for states to join together as unions, are weakened by the generalised existence of the EU. The problem being shown in Belgium and to a lesser extent Scotland (where the SNP now form a minority government, and are unlikely to be toppled by the Westminster holding Labour Party before they somehow wrangle a referendum on independence) is that once this issue meets the ballot box, it becomes incredibly difficult to resolve.

Map of Belgium: Flanders is in pale grey, Wallonia dark.

Belgium, composed of Flemish speaking Flanders and French speaking Wallonia has always been subject to accusations of being a made-up nation (but then this is not unusual). Flanders is financially more wealthy and demographically more numerous, Wallonia is historically more upper-class but has fallen on harder times for the last half century. With the linguistic divide in place the constitution was erected to require a coalition between both regions interests. Never an easy solution, and it has fallen apart dramatically for the last 100 days, after an Election handed a majority to the Flanders based Christian Democrat Nationalist (CD&V) party. The CD&V refuse to form a coalition with the pro-union, French-speaking MR party unless they agree to a referendum on the secession question. Any further elections are likely to lead to a greater majority for Flemish nationalists, so at present the country sits without a government. Each day that passes throws the divisions into
sharper relief. The only big brake on divorce is the question of what to do with Brussels - this is a French speaking city, pivotally important to EU politics and the Belgian economy, and sits firmly in Flanders's territory. Neither side can afford to give it up.

If Flanders eventually secedes, The EU will be in the bizarre position of having its capital in a country that is potentially no longer part of The Union. But more than the pragmatic questions of what the EU does about Belgium, the way The Union chooses to deal with secession will have implications for the stability of every other EU country with a nationalist region. This precedent is sure to be watched with interest by Catalonia and Scotland. The question
s that need to be answered are numerous: will the seceding country be able to remain within The EU? If not will the seceding country be allowed to accede back into the Union and on what terms? If not, will seceding countries be able to rapidly obtain favourable trading agreements such as currently exist with Norway, Switzerland and Iceland (members of the European Economic Area) or will they be treated as pariahs like the Balkan nations? These issues are pivotal, and were a focus of much debate in the recent Scottish Parliament Elections that led to a minority government by an explicitly nationalist party. So far the EU has carefully avoided giving the Scots any answers (Westminster would not approve) bar a few hints, but this will become impossible after the first precedent. It is not out of the question to say that events in Brussels are going to dictate whether The United Kingdom will exist in 20 years.

To make some guesses about these questions, I think the secessionists are being wildly optimistic about their treatment by the EU. The
assumption must be that the EU will treat the rump of the country as a member, and that the seceding entity will have to apply for membership. Since the rump country will have a veto on this decision, their ability to rejoin the Union will be entirely at the mercy of the country they have divorced. Already Greece has threatened to veto Macedonian membership of the EU because they disapprove of their name, is it likely that Madrid will tolerate Catalonia joining the EU (or even Flanders, with the implications this has for Catalan politics)? Further, it cannot be in the EU's interest to become an entity with an ever increasing number of veto-wielding members - this makes the entire unit harder to manage. Thus, much like France or Britain themselves, the EU is likely to be instinctively antagonistic towards seceding regions. The only alternative would be to become a more federal system with less use of the veto, since countries would become less able to protect their own interests alone. If Flanders and Wallonia undergo the messy divorce that is looking increasingly inevitable, the EU will have to engage in these discussions while working out what to do about its own relationship with Brussels.

To my mind, the current events in Belgium (or, if they avoid this divorce, Scotland) are likely to dictate whether the EU evolves into a more centralised union of 50+ micro-states, or continues to compose a union of large, veto wielding nations who are international players on their own terms. It is almost inevitable that with the EU guaranteeing the standard of living within The Union, that The Union will have to resolve what to do about seceding units that wish to retain its protection. And of course, if this country-spl
intering occurs, what will happen if the (arguably unstable) whole house of cards begins to collapse?

Please mr BBC, can you please tell us what's going on in Belgium?


Major Gripe said...

Very interesting analysis. Not necessarily true that the EU wouldn't welcome a larger number of smaller members though - that would go a long way to eroding central governments' power and therefore allow the Eurocrats to deepen and broaden their remit to govern throughout the union. Something to fear, if you ask me, and I don't even have a problem with straight bananas.

David Lindsay said...

No British or Spanish Prime Minister would ever permit either Flanders or Wallonia, as a secession from an existing member-state, to join the EU, because of the precedent that that would set in relation to Scotland, Catalonia or the Basque Country.

Yet, even though everyone knows this, we are still facing the quite plausible impending dissolution of a country whose capital has a direct rail link to central London and contains the headquarters of the EU, and whose Royal House is even called Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Latins (nay, very Francophones) might declare UDI at any moment. Is it conceivable that France and Francophone Africa might recognise such a declaration? Is it conceivable that they might not!

And they might very well be joined by Italy, Spain, Portugal, and every country where either Spanish or Portuguese is spoken. Meanwhile, UDI in Wallonia would light the touchpaper for UDI in Quebec.

Or Teutons might declare UDI at any moment. Ever since the incorporation of the Catholic South, there has been a certain inevitability about the eventual annexation of Flanders to the Netherlands should Belgium ever fall apart, even if that would have to be on some sort of federal basis now.

Could Germany stay out? She could not, and ever since she disastrously recognised Croatia and Slovenia in some cack-handed attempt to restopre Austria-Hungary, it has been clear that has no desire to stay out of such matters.

Not least, the eastern-most part of Wallonia is German-speaking, and was part of the Kingdom of Prussia until the Treaty of Versailles. Think on.

And then, if this all kicked off, there is increasingly divided and unhappy Switzerland...

At the present time, is there any crisis in Europe more significant than this one? Are there very many in the whole world? And look how very close to Britain it all is.

However, I can't think of anywhere on earth that would recognise Scottish, Catalan or Basque independence. Except, perhaps, secessionist Flanders or secessionist Wallonia.

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Hmm, Interesting stuff David (and Happy Birthday).

I'm not sure I agree with you about recognition tho, since it rarely seems to matter. Turkish Cyprus has been getting by without recognition for 30+ years. What is more important is effective boundaries, and Scottish secession would lead to an almighty Cod-War over the continental shelf.

It's all fascinating stuff... And in a demonstration that Secession is never as clean cut as you think, here's the latest terrorist atrocity over in Kosovo.

Also, you think Quebec would even notice?

David Lindsay said...

Oh, if Wallonia declared UDI, then Quebec would certainly notice, not least because France would make sure of it.

Turkish Cyprus has Turkey, as Rhodesia had South Africa, and as Wallonia or Quebec would have France, and as Flanders would have The Netherlands and probably Germany. Whereas Scotland, Catalonia or the Basque Country would have nowhere.

Michael said...

Flanders merged into the Netherlands, Wallonia merged into France, and Brussels established as an EU Federal District. Voilà!