WORLD -- November 19, 2010 at 6:15 PM ET
Secession in ... Belgium?
Imagine if the leaders of the Confederacy had appeared on South Carolina Public Television in late 1860 to lay out plans for seceding from the Union and attacking Fort Sumpter.
A peaceful version of that scenario may be playing out in the beleaguered European nation of Belgium, long beset by division between its nearly 6 million Flemish (Dutch) speakers and 4 million French speakers. (German is the third official language for a small German-speaking minority).
On Sunday, the public television network in Flanders will broadcast a 45-minute special program during which 12 professors (followed by a panel of local politicians) will outline how Belgium could be divided into two separate Dutch and French speaking countries. They will take on such issues as control of the army, the future of the monarchy, social security payments, a massive national debt and the most contentious issue of all -- control of the capital Brussels, which also serves as the headquarters of the European Union.
For many Belgians, the timing of the broadcast could not be worse. The country has been without a government since June elections led to the victory of a Flemish nationalist party committed to gradual dissolution. And the mix of television broadcasts and Belgian unity have been a sore point since the French network four years ago aired a spoof of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" -- called "Bye Bye Belgium" -- dramatically portraying the end of the nation. As with that famous radio broadcast, many viewers in Belgium thought they were viewing the real thing, until 50 minutes in when the fiction was revealed.
Belgium, patched together by European diplomats in 1830 after centuries of dynastic warfare over its territories, has been drifting into separate nations since the early 1970s, said Greet de Keyser, Washington correspondent for the VRT network that is broadcasting Sunday's special. Rather than becoming one multilingual nation like Switzerland or even Canada, its Flemish speakers in the north are less and less likely to speak fluent French and its French speakers in Wallonia in the South rarely learn Dutch. (English is becoming increasingly the second language for both groups.) Political parties and media no longer reach beyond linguistic lines.
But as de Keyser said, "I have to explain to people (in the U.S.) that people are not shooting at each other."
Unlike Czechoslovakia, which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the early 1990s, "We cannot go to the United Nations and ask to become two countries," de Keyser said. The problem, she explained, is Brussels, a mostly French speaking city of 1.1 million located in Flanders. Unraveling the political power and wealth of the capital and its suburbs is just about impossible, she said. One possible outcome described by others is that prosperous Flanders would become a separate country while economically depressed Wallonia might be absorbed into France.
"I don't think the country is going to come apart in the coming months," de Keyser said. "It is bad, but not that bad."
But then again, it could get worse. European newspapers are full of speculation that King Albert II, one of the few symbols of national unity, may abdicate in favor of his son.