As Belgium goes, so goes the EU?

Photo: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

On Sunday, Belgians voted in their third parliamentary election in two years, from which the New Flemish Alliance party emerged victorious. Given the striking success of a party that advocates the gradual dissolution of the country, the viability of Belgium as a united nation is now very much in question.

Despite the diminutive size of the country – roughly the size of Maryland with a population of 10.7 million divided between Dutch speakers in the North and French speaking Wallonians in the south – Belgium has played an increasingly large role in European politics, with Brussels taking on special significance as the capital of the European Union and the headquarters of international organizations like NATO.

For many, this election’s outcome only exacerbates growing anxiety on a continent rocked by multiple separatist movements and economic turmoil. Belgium’s debt-to-GDP ratio is set to rise above 100 percent within the next year, and is behind only those of Greece and Italy. Consider also the growing volatility in the eurozone in the wake of the Greek debt crisis: The prospect of divisive political battles playing out in Brussels while Belgium assumes presidency of the EU this July has left many onlookers jittery. As Ilana Bet-El writes in The Guardian, Belgium is actually a microcosm of the EU, and as such, much of its internal political turmoil mirrors the larger challenges facing the larger union.

So what’s next for a country divided along linguistic lines but united by a world capital?

The Economist’s Charlemagne notebook takes a grim view of the recent turn of events, and declares that the end is near for the country. In a preview to the elections, the blog concludes that Belgium’s failure to bridge its north-south divide mirrors the challenges facing the northern and Mediterranean member states of the EU, most dramatically exemplified in the still-unfolding Greek debt crisis.

John Palmer of The Guardian takes a more measured tone in his response to the election results. “Reports of the impending death of Belgium are much exaggerated.” Despite the success of the separatist party, Palmer reminds us that, “those Flemings who want a complete break-up of Belgium … remain a minority.” For Palmer, the Belgian art of compromise must prevail once electoral passions subside.

FiveThirtyEight.com’s Renard Sexton looks beyond the language divide, and dissects the class issues at play in this country. Primarily, the wealthier Flanders region now subsidizes the francophone Wallonia – reversing the historic power dynamic between these two competing regions. For Sexton, the Flemish separatists’ victory is more emblematic of the larger “recognition that the status quo is not a sustainable choice,” and that “this next government must make the hard choices.”

 
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