In last week's Belgian elections, the secessionist New Flemish Alliance emerged as the largest party in Parliament; if the group achieves its agenda, Flanders will soon be independent of Belgium, though not of Brussels. The Guardian's Simon Jenkins defends the separatists ("There is no reason why an independent Flanders should not be as resilient as Slovakia, Slovenia, Ireland or the Baltic states. Bigness is no guarantee of prosperity, usually the opposite.") and suggests that there's a lesson here for the European Union:
During the election Wallonia's socialist leader, Elio di Rupo, ignored Europe's economic crisis by calling for ever more transfers from Flanders, for higher state spending on health and pensions and for price controls on food. Belgium is thus a microcosm of the EU, a treaty state in which political entities claim resources by territorial negotiation. The result was inevitable. Just as German taxpayers are finally fed up with subsidising Greek pensioners, so Flemings are fed up with subsidising Walloons….
The crisis in the euro was the widely predicted result of the EU's leaders running faster economically than they could ever walk politically. At first they thought they could even out the performance of nations by transferring huge sums from rich to poor. This infuriated the rich and enslaved the poor in dependency. The move from what was a free-trade union to what is touted as a "fiscal-transfer union" has gone beyond what is tolerable to the disparate European electorates who must foot the bill….
The Single European Act of 1986 appears to have been a sort of psychological boundary, beyond which political unity should not have strayed. Go too far, as did the Lisbon treaty, and the threads would snap. Europe would lose touch with its component countries, and they would lose touch with their subnational identities. In extremis, they would face break-up, as have Spain, Austria and now Belgium. The history of enforced European union has, after all, been a long parade of catastrophic dictatorship.
When a country—let alone a continent—lacks the bonds of a collective nationhood it is no longer a country, merely a state. Nations forged in war do not necessarily survive peace. Belgium may retain the trappings of sovereignty, a monarch, an army, a customs union and (perhaps) a football team. But taxes and cross-subsidies will only be acceptable within self-governing communities with a shared sense of co-responsibility, not across whole continents.
Ignoring this maxim is what is sorely testing the eurozone and is breaking Belgium.
Bonus links: Paul Belien suggests that an independent Wallonia may split up as well. And Strange Maps recalls Leopold Kohr's proposal for a federation of European "little states." Curiously, Kohr's map doesn't break up Belgium.