You probably don't realize it, but we are living in an unprecedented historical moment. For the first time, Belgium has managed to be interesting without getting invaded by Germany or abusing an African colony.
What's so interesting? In short: Belgium is coming apart at the seams. For roughly 120 days, its 11 political parties have been unable to form a national government because the Dutch-speaking regions want greater autonomy, or even outright independence.
Primarily split between Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons, Belgium was formed as a constitutional monarchy where the non-French speakers were mostly treated as second-class citizens. Even today, 177 years later, there are no national figures or national political parties. Each party represents its own ethnic, linguistic or regional enclave. But, although the Flemish majority is somewhat more prosperous, the Walloons have a perceived stranglehold on Belgian politics. One is tempted to joke that it's an Iraq with better weather and waffles.
But it isn't a mini-Iraq, and not just because they're not killing one another. It's more like a mini-European Union. In fact, that's the one thing everyone can agree on.
No country is more invested in the EU experiment than Belgium, whose capital, Brussels, is also the capital of the EU. If Belgium falls to sectarianism, what does that say about prospects for making Europe into a super-Belgium?
Belgium is a "laboratory," says Joelle Milquet, the leader of the French-speaking Humanist Democratic Center party and a defender of both a united Belgium and EU. "If 10 million people in a developed country do not manage to build a collective project," she told Britain's Telegraph newspaper, "that would signal the bankruptcy of what one tries to build at the European and even international level." Paul Belien, a Flemish writer who favors an independent Flanders, agrees. "For me, the Belgian and EU flags are basically the same. They are a denial of identity."
But here's the hilarious irony of all this: The European Union is in effect subsidizing nationalism in Belgium and across the Continent. As the EU assumes more of the responsibilities of states -- regulations, the economy, currency, possibly even defense -- the cost of independence becomes lower.
Look at Scotland. The Scots are moving, perhaps inexorably, toward national independence from Britain. A referendum on breaking away is scheduled for 2010 and seems likely to pass. And why not? Scotland didn't formally become part of Britain until 1707, when it caved in to English threats to its trade and the free movement of people across the border. Now, thanks to the EU, such threats are illegal. And it's hardly likely that England would declare war on secessionist Scotland.
A similar process is underway in Kosovo, which wants to break from Serbia (the U.S. backs that idea) and get EU candidacy like Croatia and Macedonia. The Basques in Spain aren't far behind. In the past, ethnic enclaves probably couldn't make it on their own. But now the EU provides a safety net.
The catch-22 is delightful. By scaling back the job description of a nation-state to a few ceremonial duties, ethnic minorities see fewer risks and a lot more rewards in breaking away. Countries such as Slovakia get to trade on their votes in the EU and the U.N. They get their own anthems and sports teams and to teach their own language and culture. It's like a McDonald's franchise. Sure, you man the register and keep the bathrooms clean, but the folks at corporate HQ do the heavy lifting. That's why the Basques, Scots and Flemings are looking to open their own franchises. The question is whether the nationalist hunger of such McNations can be satisfied by just the symbolism of autonomy.
This points to why I take so much pleasure in the troubles in Brussels. The EU always made the most sense to Belgians, who have a very weak national identity. The myth was that everyone felt the same way.
Indeed, the EU project has always been predicated on self-serving myths. Another is the idea that with greater "understanding" comes greater peace and comity. The Walloons and the Flemings understand each other; they just don't like each other very much.
But what I really like about the Belgian crisis is that it puts a dent in the myth that Europe represents some enlightened new model exportable to the rest of the globe. After World War II and the Holocaust, a generation of diplomats and intellectuals predicted that nationality, religion and culture would matter less in the New Europe. But wishing didn't make it so. Obviously, nobody wants the bloody nationalism of early 20th century Europe. But it's nonetheless gratifying that the even on the EU's Brussels campus, life resists the blueprints of the bureaucrats.