Belgium is one of the most developed western European countries, which has played and still plays an important role in the evolution of the European Union. It was one of the founding members of the EU and its capital, Brussels, hosts the headquarters of EU and NATO institutions.
It may seem curious that in this very country, a symbol of the European Union, the tendency of division between the two majority ethnic groups is so strong that threatens to lead to the breakup of the country itself. Tensions between the Flemish Dutch speaking population, living in the north of the country and the French-speaking Walloons, living in the south have often affected the country’s political stability. A very significant example is the record number of days that Belgium lacked a government (541 days, between April 2010 and December 2011).
The two regions of Belgium, Flanders and Wallonia, are clearly defined, the first occupying the north of the country and the second, the south. Capital Brussels is a special case, a region where both populations have the same status. In the east of the Walloon region, there is also a significant German community.
The Belgium state was created more as a buffer-region between France and the Netherlands. Therefore, a Belgian nation has never really existed in the history. In fact, today, citizens of Belgium do not see themselves as Belgian, but rather Flemish or Walloons.
A possible separation of the European Union host country itself would be a blow to EU and its ideals of unity among different cultures. However, rupture seems inevitable in a more or less close future. The northern part, Flanders, is more economically developed and has a greater level of industrialization. Therefore, the Flemish want to separate from the Walloons, with whom they do not have many cultural affinities. Moreover, in their opinion, the Walloons do not contribute enough to the country’s economic development.
Looking at the situation from another perspective, the lack of national identity could make Belgians adopt a supranational identity, the European one. Thus, they would be among the few who would put the interests of the European Union before national interests and which would support an eventual political union of European states.
There are many possible scenarios concerning the fate of the Belgian regions after separation. Most likely, Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels will constitute themselves into three independent states. An alternative, less likely, is that Flanders will become part of the Netherlands, whereas France will incorporate Walloon. In this case, the bilingual Brussels, Flemish by origin, but nowadays mostly inhabited by French speakers, will remain independent.
There are, however, some reasons why Belgium should not be split. The two Belgian regions already have considerable internal autonomy, whereas, externally, a powerful, united country would better represent their interests. Economically, the high national debt of Belgium makes the idea of separation unfeasible, at least for the moment.
The issue of Brussels is extremely thorny. Given the enormous importance that this city has not only for Belgium but also for the European Union, it is unlikely that any of the parts will be willing to hand over the capital to the other.
The possible separation of Belgium could have major consequences for the future of other European countries, which might follow its example and separate into many different ethnic regions (United Kingdom).