September 08, 2007

Belgium and The Lessons for Stravaraland

The following appeared in The Economist, Sep 6th 2007. It probably echoes the views of most Belgians. Now, if they, after 2 centuries of relative peacefulness feel like that, why would the Cypriots want to create a tight federation of the type enivisaged by the Annan Plan? (Yes Mr Palmas, the Annan plan was a bizonal, bicommunal federation...).

Time to call it a day.

Sep 6th, 2007
From The Economist print edition:
Sometimes it is right for a country to recognise that its job is done

A RECENT glance at the Low Countries revealed that, nearly three months after its latest general election, Belgium was still without a new government. It may have acquired one by now. But, if so, will anyone notice? And, if not, will anyone mind? Even the Belgians appear indifferent. And what they think of the government they may well think of the country. If Belgium did not already exist, would anyone nowadays take the trouble to invent it?

Such questions could be asked of many countries. Belgium's problem, if such it is, is that they are being asked by the inhabitants themselves. True, in opinion polls most Belgians say they want to keep the show on the road. But when they vote, as they did on June 10th, they do so along linguistic lines, the French-speaking Walloons in the south for French-speaking parties, the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north for Dutch-speaking parties. The two groups do not get on—hence the inability to form a government. They lead parallel lives, largely in ignorance of each other. They do, however, think they know themselves: when a French-language television programme was interrupted last December with a spoof news flash announcing that the Flemish parliament had declared independence, the king had fled and Belgium had dissolved, it was widely believed.

No wonder. The prime minister designate thinks Belgians have nothing in common except “the king, the football team, some beers”, and he describes their country as an “accident of history”. In truth, it isn't. When it was created in 1831, it served more than one purpose. It relieved its people of various discriminatory practices imposed on them by their Dutch rulers. And it suited Britain and France to have a new, neutral state rather than a source of instability that might, so soon after the Napoleonic wars, set off more turbulence in Europe.

The upshot was neither an unmitigated success nor an unmitigated failure. Belgium industrialised fast; grabbed a large part of Africa and ruled it particularly rapaciously; was itself invaded and occupied by Germany, not once but twice; and then cleverly secured the headquarters of what is now the European Union. Along the way it produced Magritte, Simenon, Tintin, the saxophone and a lot of chocolate. Also frites. No doubt more good things can come out of the swathe of territory once occupied by a tribe known to the Romans as the Belgae. For that, though, they do not need Belgium: they can emerge just as readily from two or three new mini-states, or perhaps from an enlarged France and Netherlands.

Brussels can devote itself to becoming the bureaucratic capital of Europe. It no longer enjoys the heady atmosphere of liberty that swirled outside its opera house in 1830, intoxicating the demonstrators whose protests set the Belgians on the road to independence. The air today is more fetid. With freedom now taken for granted, the old animosities are ill suppressed. Rancour is ever-present and the country has become a freak of nature, a state in which power is so devolved that government is an abhorred vacuum. In short, Belgium has served its purpose. A praline divorce is in order.

Belgians need not feel too sad. Countries come and go. And perhaps a way can be found to keep the king, if he is still wanted. Since he has never had a country—he has always just been king of the Belgians—he will not miss Belgium. Maybe he can rule a new-old country called Gaul. But king of the Gauloises doesn't sound quite right, does it?


Blogger nousimos kappa said...

So are we all voting Tassos now?................What the hell, long live the Ethnarch!

09 September, 2007 21:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the Economist article. Very interesting as it raises the question of whether or not 'homogeneneity' along nationalist/racial/religious lines is necessary for a nation's success. One has to look no further than across the sea to Lebanon to see an example of an ethnically fragmented state which doesn't 'work'. However, there are examples of states where non-homogeneity did not lead to failure. Singapore is one such state, even though there are historical reasons which helped create a Singaporean identity on top of the individual ethnic Chinese/Malay/Indian identities. Also look no further than the USA to see an example of a prosperous state which is not based on ethnicity/religion/race, even though it is probably one of the most religious and ethnically ‘conscious’ state in the Western world. I don't believe that national homogeneity is a necessary or even a sufficient condition to create a prosperous state, but there has to be some commonality of purpose in the electorate/populace. It's easy to mock the Belgians, but their standard of living is excellent. Their children attend excellent quality schools, life expectancy is very high, health provision is very good - despite regional disparities between the Walloons and the Flemings. The disparities - mind you - in some cases are actually not as acute as regional variations you get in places like England. For instance, if you have a heart attack in certain parts of England you are up to three times more likely to die than on other parts of England... and this has nothing to do with ethnicity/race/religion. Blaming social/developmental issues on the lack of a homogeneous state, specifically lack of uniformity of race/religion etc is the easy way out.

In Cyprus, our main problem is not that there are Greek and Turkish Cypriots - this has been a fact for at least a few centuries. The issue is the unwillingness of politicians to engage in resolving issues and hiding behind the εθνικό ζήτημα as if this offers an excuse not to attend to all the other problems. The reason is very simple. We have developed - on both sides - a segment of society whose raison d'etre is the status quo - the perpetuation of the αγώνας - which of course will lead us nowhere. Once the Κυπριακό πρόβλημα is solved, there is no longer a need for many of the familiar faces which have been gracing the pages of our newspapers for the past 30-40 years. But coming back to the issue of the prognosis for Cyprus, the reality is that the chances of Greek and Turkish Cypriots living peacefully side by side even in a bi-zonal confederal state are slim. The reason is that we spent the past 30-40 years blaming eachother rather than truly having a ‘taster’ as to how it would be to live side by side (whichever the flavour of the ‘solution’). Had this been tested and if the electorate on both sides had a chance to live it they would have probably opted for a ‘solution’ which in the long-term is more stable (very much like what happened when the ‘borders’ were opened up – initially everyone was curious, but after a while only people with a specific interest or business care enough to cross to the other side). My heart tells me that I would like to believe that we can live side by side with the other side, but my head tells me that it ain’t gonna happen. The most realistic prospect is de fact partition with some land being handed back – at best Varosha and Morfou, at worst just Varosha. Once you have two states that have arm’s length relations with eachother but whose people have no fear of their safety, then you can start having these confidence-building measures that our politicians have been advertising but doing nothing about for the past few decades. The problem with this approach is that it totally goes against all principles and policies that every successive government of the Republic of Cyprus has followed since 1974. We claimed the moral high ground (that we were ‘wronged’) in the hope of returning to the status quo pro 1974 – and some of us knew all along that the chances of that happening were slim. It would take a very brave politician indeed to stand up and say the unthinkable – let’s divide our small country, recognise eachother’s ‘sovereignty’, start trading/interacting to reduce suspicions, let’s get rid of the political class on each side and put people who can actually start solving problems (education, healthcare, immigration, policing/crime etc), start cooperating on matters of common interest (e.g. terrorism, border control). I don’t want to see partition – but this is what it is today. I can see the moral argument that says “don’t recognise something which is wrong” – but cutting our noses to spite our faces is also wrong. Retaining the current status quo will only make things worse in my view as the world will slowly but surely recognise the north, but not before having direct trade/relations – which will mean an ultimate partition with no land handed back and with the bad blood and enmity continuing to fester between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

By the way, keep up the excellent blog!

10 September, 2007 14:52  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, anonymous. You may be interested in a similar recent discussion (in greek) in the proedrikes blog. One of the points I made in that discussion is the same one you put forth in this sentence:

"Once you have two states that have arm’s length relations with eachother but whose people have no fear of their safety, then you can start having these confidence-building measures that our politicians have been advertising but doing nothing about for the past few decades."

10 September, 2007 17:40  

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