Is it Time to Say “Hi-Diddley-Hey!” to Flanders? (A Few Words on Integration and Secession)

by Chris Borgen

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Coming Anarchy has pointed out this article from The Daily Telegraph about the increasing calls for Flanders to secede from Belgium and how this may be aided by the rise of the EU.

Before getting to the main issue, I just have to note the snarky opening from the article:

The notion that breaking up a country as insignificant as Belgium could lead to anything more appealing in its place may seem far-fetched beyond its shores. But to many of the six million who live in the Dutch-speaking Flanders region, the growing strength of the EU makes it an increasingly attractive option.

“Belgium is too heterogeneous. There is too much diversity and too many different views,” said Jeroen Overmeer, spokesman for Flanders’ Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliante party, separatists who made big gains in this month’s nationwide Belgian elections.

There are too many different views in Belgium for it to survive as a single state!? Anyway, the main issue here is how European integration can also support the disintegration of existing states. Overmeer explains:

“The EU makes it possible for countries such as this one to split up. We believe we are experiencing both globalisation and localisation. Some problems are global, like defence or the environment, and these need to be dealt with by the EU. But at the same time democracy needs to be closer to the people, and that is why we are a regionalist party. The two trends go hand in hand.”

“Regionalization,” in the sense it is being used in the EU, refers to regions within existing states being given increasing autonomy, without complete sovereignty. This is different from secession–splitting off from an existing state. However, in the EU the line between regionalization and secession is getting thinner and thinner:

For some EU officials, the mere possibility [that Flanders could go it alone] is a triumph for the institution.

“Yes, regions could survive alone,” said Hendrik Theunissen, an official in the forward studies unit of the Committee of the Regions, a Brussels institution.

“The EU does not get involved in internal politics in individual countries, but it is a fact that regions are already well embedded in the EU structures. They opened their first offices in Brussels in the 1980s. Now there are more than 300 of them here. The EU pushes towards decentralisation. Experience shows it has been positive.”

As the EU  deepens, it is giving more and more powers to the regions, which empowers them vis-a-vis their national governments. For example, according to Theunissen, the Lisbon Treaty will grant

the EU’s regions, all of which are represented on the Committee of the Regions, new powers to challenge law-makers in the European Court of Justice… “We will have the right to go to court to defend out prerogatives if the European Commission is blatantly ignoring our advice,” he said. “This puts us on the same level as the national parliaments.”

The treaty will also give regions new powers to control the way billions of euros in the EU Cohesion Fund are spent.

This can have far-reaching implications for the future balance of power within the the EU:

Outside Belgium, other EU member states have strong separatist movements, including Spain (both the Basques and those seeking greater autonomy for Catalonia) and Britain (the SNP in Scotland). In Italy the Northern League spent a decade pushing for the creation of an independent “Padania” – to include such northern cities as Milan, Turin and Venice – free from what many saw as the corruption and poverty of the country’s south.

However, it is important to keep in mind that, while these EU initiatives will empower regions in relation to states, these new policies will not make regions sovereign members of the EU:

Some maintain that few national governments will give up their territorial power lightly – and all would, of course, have the right to veto a breakaway region’s application to join the EU as a new member.

Nonetheless, this another example at how the nation-state is being simultaneously challenged from above (the integration of the EU) and below (the empowerment of regions), with each of those challengers (the EU and the regions) each seeking an approximation of statehood.

http://opiniojuris.org/2009/07/07/is-it-time-to-say-hi-diddley-hey-to-flanders-a-few-words-on-integration-and-secession/

9 Responses

  1. I’m curious though about how these regions think they’ll fare at the EU governmental level.  Let’s say Flanders completely splits off into a sovereign state.  How is it going to compete with Poland?  Then again, seeing how it’s currently part of Belgium, perhaps it doesn’t have much to lose in that respect…  But for a region of a larger state, like maybe the Basque region, while it seems like the EU would lessen the need to remain part of its current state in order to survive economically, it doesn’t seem that the EU lessens the region’s need to be part of a bigger state politically.

  2. @Cathy: Actually, just like in the US Senate the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament overrepresent the smaller states.

    Splitting up Belgium would be an enormous legal mess. (They can’t even figure out at the moment how to split up the electoral district of Bruxelles-Halle-Vilvoorde, which is what they’ve been arguing about for the last two years.) It would certainly require an EU treaty of some sort, no matter what the outcome. The default option would be that the successor state would remain in the EU, while the one that secedes is out unless it negotiates entry. However, leaving the EU also requires a treaty, at least at present. (Cf. the 1984 Greenland treaty, which arranged Greenland’s departure from the EU.)

    If Flanders really were to secede, it would require a treaty between the constituent parts of Belgium, and another one between the current Member States of the EU. The latter would then settle how many Council votes, EP seats, ECSC seats, etc. each of the new Member States would have.

    But despite this mess, it is clear that the there is a link between European integration and secession. It is hard to see how the secession of Flanders, Scotland or the Basque region would make a difference on the ground, as long as they stay in the EU. As a result, such ethnic arguments become increasingly irrelevant. (Well, increasingly irrelevant when considered rationally. Unfortunately, such a perspective is rarely deployed.)

  3. I think the reason why disintegration is stimulated by European integration is because these regions realize that they would still benefit from the European umbrella, but that at the same time the can get ahead internally.

    In Belgium the issue is not just about too many different views.  Ideological differences exist regardless and they exist within Flanders as well.  The linguistic diversity often prevails over ideological diversity. The main issue is that the two groups share very little and live side by side.  It’s quite a funny anecdote that the only shared broadcast between the French-speaking and the Dutch-speaking broadcasters is the yearly Miss Belgium contest!  To a large degree, Belgium already consists of two nations within one territory, and for obvious reasons language is a very important factor therein.

  4. It’s quite a funny anecdote that the only shared broadcast between the French-speaking and the Dutch-speaking broadcasters is the yearly Miss Belgium contest!

    How about the Eurovision Song Contest? And the King’s Christmas adress?

    Even more than the UK and Spain, Belgium is an example of how much decentralisation is possible without really making life difficult for anyone. Any difficulties that would otherwise arise as a result of such decentralisation are already prevented by EU harmonisation and mutual recognition law.

  5. I must say as an American I find the whole concept of trying to split  your country into tiny, homogeneous blocks exceedingly strange.

  6. @M. Gross: I agree, although it is important to realise that the conservative American enthusiasm with federalism represents much the same idea. Essentially, the idea there is that if the US can’t be one enormous homogenous block, the next best thing is to let the smaller homogenous blocks that are the states take charge of as many areas of law as possible, so that they may be small, homogenous and conservative.

    The Belgians have a similar history. The first 100 years the country existed, the francophone elite tried to make the entire country as Walloon and as French as they could, and when that failed, they started to split the place up. These days, so much power has been decentralised that no harm seems to be done by the fact that there hasn’t been a fully functioning federal government for more than two years.

  7. There may be some relation in the schools of thought, but there’s been no serious movement to subdivide American states to achieve social homogenization.  Many of the states are extremely heterogeneous (Texas, California, depending on how you want to define a social/political group, almost any of them with the exception of some scarcely populated ones.)

    This trend in Europe is both facilitated by and somewhat counteracted by the EU’s expanding government reach.  While a broader military protection umbrella makes small states more viable, increased power in Brussels (an amusing analogy overlap, if you will) reduces actual local control, making any such gains rather illusionary, in my opinion.

  8. @Martin Holterman: sorry, eurovision and the king’s speech don’t count. 

    The French and the Flemish broadcasters alternate in sending someone to Eurosong, this year it was a French speaking singer and next time Belgium can participate the entrant will be selected by the Flemish broadcaster.  Selection is thus highly regional.  Although you can receive the public broadcasters in the whole country, I doubt that many people watch the one that is not in their language, there are no subtitles for example.

    The King tapes his radio messages in both languages so you hear the same speech, in your own language.

    @M. Gross: I don’t think the issue is really about social homogenization.  As I said in my previous posts, there still remain large ideological differences between parties in each of the regions.  It would be wrong to compare Belgium to a state in the US, like California or Texas, because its history is too different. Since its creation, there have always been two linguistic groups with rather separate lives. These linguistic groups live in territorially distinct areas (with some overlaps, hence the difficulties), although until about the mid-20th century the elites in Flanders were French-speaking.  This is no longer the case.  The opening up of universities to courses in Dutch in the 20th century has contributed to growing a Flemish middle- and upper-class. In the 1970s, the regions and communities were created to exercise specific powers in resp. socio-economic and cultural affairs.  The whole discussion since then is about expanding that list of powers to streamline the governance.  Belgium is thus a peculiar type of a federal state, because of its origin in a unitary state, which is of course exactly the opposite to the US model of federalism.

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