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Saturday, December 22, 2007

The best position today is to be a small country within a large economic entity and trading area

Op-Ed Columnist A Surreal State By ROGER COHEN NYT: December 17, 2007
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Belgium’s favorite Surrealist son, René Magritte, is famous for his painting of an apple on which he wrote: “This is not an apple.” He did the same for a pipe. Today he might aptly produce a rendering of his native land and inscribe on it: “This is not a country.”
It looks like a prosperous one, with its lace and chocolate stores, and beautiful Bruges, and its glassy sprawl of European Union institutions, and its very own tennis champion, Justine Henin.
But for more than a half-year Belgium has been unable to form a government because its 10.4 million citizens can’t decide what the state is for.
In their grumpy way, Belgians — a majority Dutch-speaking, many French-speaking and a few German-speaking — have been posing a delicate question: does postmodern Europe, where even tiny states feel secure, really need a medium-small nation cobbled together in 1830 whose various communities dislike one another?
Moreover, does a country whose economy is largely run by European central bankers in control of the euro really need a government?
Gerrit Six, a teacher, suggested Belgian obsolescence when he put the country, complete with its busy king and ballooning debt, up for sale on eBay. It drew bids of close to $15 million. That was on day 100 of the political crisis. Belgium is now close to day 200. Italian politics suddenly look stable.
Little Belgium has become too conflicted to rule. It has three regions, three language communities that are not congruent with the regions, a smattering of local parliaments, a mainly French-speaking capital (Brussels) lodged in Dutch-speaking Flanders, a strong current of Flemish nationalism and an uneasy history.
Forming a government against this backdrop of federalism run amok has proved beyond the powers of good King Albert and an outgoing prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, who has redefined “outgoing” by staying. Magritte would have painted him and noted: this is not a departing leader. Surrealism is having a Belgian field day.
In the French-language daily Le Soir, Olivier Mouton opined last week that “On every front, we shoot, detest and accuse each other.” Yet the streets have been quiet since the elections back on June 10. The hour of hyperbole has sounded.
Behind it lurks the fact that Flanders wants its day. Dutch-speakers, long underdogs in a country without a Flemish university until 1922, are tired of subsidizing their now poorer French-speaking cousins. A successful anti-immigrant and separatist party, Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), is the odious expression of a wider desire to go it alone.
Flemish demands for greater decentralization and control (most recently over French-speaking schools in the Brussels periphery) have raised distrust to a poisonous level. “I am pretty sure Belgium will split eventually,” Caroline Sagesser, a political scientist, told me.
If it holds together, it will be because Brussels, with 10 percent of the population and 20 percent of gross domestic product, is too mixed to unravel. Like Baghdad, like Sarajevo, the capital is improbable but unyielding glue. Unlike them, it has avoided bloodshed. It also houses a modern marvel, the E.U. — and there’s the nub.
The 27-nation Union has banished war from the Continent and marginalized danger. Belgium fissures even as E.U. leaders sign the Treaty of Lisbon that will ultimately yield an E.U. president who can run things for up to five years (and so become identifiable), a foreign minister and a workable decision-making process. E.U. security makes Belgian instability harmless.
“The best position today is to be a small country within a large economic entity and trading area,” Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister told me. “That’s why we want an independent Scotland within the E.U.”
Flanders? Scotland? Brussels as Singapore-like city state? Wallonia? Kosovo? The map of Europe is not fixed. But I suspect its overall stability is. I am attached to Belgium — two of my children were born here — and I’d favor its preservation, but I can’t say it’s necessary within an overarching E.U.
As for a Belgian government, it would be nice to have one, but not essential. There’s no Belgian franc to go wobbly. There’s no monetary policy to set. There’s scarcely a country to govern, given how far European integration on the one hand and national devolution on the other have gone.
This is the 21st-century world the United States will face: a mysterious Europe with a more identifiable phone number living its postmodern version of paradise as its nation states get less meaningful or dissolve; and a rising Russia and China hurtling the other way, toward 19th-century-style nationalism, militarism and assertiveness.
Such dissonance will require American flexibility and imagination, enough to understand that the essence of the Belgian crisis is: this is not a crisis.

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