Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Stop picking on Belgium - or not

Two weeks ago, The Economist ran an editorial saying it might be time to do away with Belgium. They argued that Belgium had had a good run; they gave the world "Magritte, Simenon, Tintin, the saxophone and a lot of chocolate" in their years on the stage; and that 177 years, as countries go, isn't anything to be ashamed of, especially when Germany keeps trying to annex you (The Economist failed to mention that Belgium was created after repeated attempts by the French to annex it). Now, like Czechoslovakia, it might be a good time for them to retire while they are ahead of the game, whatever game that is.

Yesterday, Ebay had to stop an attempt by a Belgian journalist to auction the country off, whole or in parts. The spirited bidding had reached ten million Euros before the plug was pulled. The AFP story on the auction didn't quote any of the bidders, so we don't know if they were German or not.

The latter story explains why everyone suddenly seems to have it out for Belgium.
The spoof sale was offered while Belgium is mired in a political crisis which has led to discussion over the country's future as a federal state.

Tuesday marks 100 days since the country's general election with no sign of a coalition government being formed by the political parties in Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

There are many observations one could make about this situation. I'm sure many anarchists, federalists and libertarians will want to point out that the parts of the country are doing just fine without a central government. It's a valid point.

When the European Union finally started to become a reality fifteen years ago, after two centuries of talk, I wondered what kind of future the classical European nation-state had in a larger federation. A graduate school friend of mine had a wonderful wallmap of the various micro-nations in Europe that got me wondering about this.

In the nineteenth century, certain large nationalities in Europe organized themselves as countries based on the sovereignty of an ethnic group--a nation--rather than in countries based on the sovereignty of a monarch. It took a century or so to sort this out, and for a time their were countries that used both definitions, depending which was the more convenient at the time. By the early twentieth century, the nation-state idea was supreme. Even though most modern countries are not true nation-states, the idea that the will of the people matters has become unavoidable. The days when the president of Mexico could sell a province to pay a few bills has long passed.

A quick digression: Americans tend to elide the concepts of citizenship and nationality (or country and nation) into one, while in most of the world the two are seperate. Citizenship describes your legal status as a rights holding member of a country. Nation describes your self-identification as part of a historical community defined by some ethnic characteristic, usually language, but sometimes religion, geography, or some combination. For those having trouble making the distinction, think of Central Europe in the 1930s; German speakers in Poland and Czechoslovakia were part of the German nation but Polish or Czech by citizenship. If Hitler went on the radio and was said to be "speaking to the German nation" it would have been understood that he was speaking to the population of Germany as well as the German speaking populations in Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Central European countries. In a more modern example, there is no Iraqi nation; there is a Kurdish nation in Iraq and an Arab nation (at least). Finally, for those who still speak Stalinist Marxism, I do not accept the distinction between nation and nationality and use the two words as near synonyms.

Moving along: Due to the predatory nature of European politics in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, the nation-state was considered as an option only open to large nationalities. For centuries, possibly millennia, Bismark, Darwin, or Nietzsche were born or before the before the terms "realpolitik", "Social Darwinism", or "will to power" were coined, international affairs were governed by a cynical abdication to power and violence. The neo-conservatives represent a retreat to these traditional values. Regardless of their right to do so, small countries were seen as incapable of existing. The same was true for small nations. As the nation-state ideal evolved, the concensus wisdom was that the only future for small nations lay in assimilating into their larger neighbors, or in federating with other small nations.

This idea that some places are to small to be countries continues today even though the security justification no longer is as valid (at least in Europe). This then is my question, what value do the large countries of Europe offer to their minority populations? Yugoslavia only existed as long as the small nations within it were threatened by Germany and the Soviet Union. Once the Warsaw Pact dissolved, Yugoslavia's days were measured in weeks. Does Spain within Europe offer any value to Catalonia, that a direct relationship with Europe couldn't fill better? Or Bavaria to Germany? Or Scotland to the United Kingdom? Or Corsica to France? These territories have some provincial autonomy in their mother countries, but is a three level federalism really necessary. Why not eliminate the middleman and make each territory a full member on the European Union. Some in Scotland have already started muttering in this direction.

When areas that already have some autonomy claim their place in the sun, the next step will be for those tiny nations who have been trampled for centuries to claim their place. This might be the best chance for the Lusatian Sorbs, the West Frisians, the Bretons, Basques, Sammi, Kashubains, Szeklers, and Arumans to preserve their identities. This week, National Geographic released a study on the fate of small languages worldwide. For years experts have predicted that half of the languages spoken worldwide will go extinct this century. One of the best justifications for this kind of administrative balkanization would be to save endangered cultures.

If France and Germany are finally behaving themselves, what is the point of Belgium? I'm not saying that I think Belgium should go. But I think the question should be asked. Maybe there is a very good reason to hold Belgium together having to do with chocolate. After all, an efficient and just management of the means of chocolate production is far more important than any piddlining national asperations.

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