NEWS

Will Belgium Go the Way of Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia?

By John Barham, senior editor

Belgium is a small country that is host to the European Union and NATO as well as being the European headquarters of many multinationals and international organizations. Reports in the international media say Belgium’s disintegration is gathering momentum, a view business and security executives in Brussels think is alarmist. It is three months since Belgium’s national elections, but its politicians still haven’t formed a government that includes representatives from its two divided communities.

Belgium’s future matters because trouble at the heart of Europe could threaten the EU’s stability. It could become harder to operate businesses and international organizations there.

Belgium is about the same size as Maryland, but has a population 10.4 million that is divided between the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south. Even when – or, if – a new administration is formed it probably won’t last long because regional elections are due in two years.

The north wants more autonomy and an even weaker central government. The south wants to protect its communities that surround Brussels, the mainly French-speaking capital, which itself lies just inside the Dutch-speaking north.

Belgium’s two halves went their separate ways long ago. Government is already strongly decentralized. The Belgians are ethnically and culturally homogenous, but language has created a powerful social barrier. There is little contact between the two communities.

Recent European history shows there are two ways to split up a country. The peaceful and consensual “velvet divorce” that dismembered Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in January 1993 is the best way to go. The two countries have become members in good standing of the EU and NATO.

There is a risk that the division of Belgium would not proceed so smoothly and follow the Yugoslavian model. A possible flashpoint would be over the status of Brussels and its suburbs.

Belgians doubt either scenario will ever take place. Werner Cooreman, chief security officer in Belgium for French-owned utility Suez, says, “There is no indication that Belgium will go as far as separation. Belgian companies do not have contingency plans for this.” Like many executives in Belgium, he expects that even if confederation were eventually to lead to separation, this would be more of a “legal and administrative issue. It would not get out of control.”

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