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Published:January 7th, 2008 12:54 EST
Belgian Stability

Belgian Stability

By Benjamin J. Sedlins

Recently, a friend of mine who was planning to visit me in Brussels prefaced her email with the line: "I've heard rumors of a Belgian civil war, and with my luck it'll start while I'm there, so let me give you my dates..." This small, northern European country's efforts to balance its cultural and linguistic divide, its intra-European interests and its policies further abroad have often been tricky, yet in the past several months, journalists have begun to suggest that this balancing act may well be tumbling down because of the inability of the two cultural groups – the Dutch speaking Flemish to the north and the francophone Walloons in the south – to form a real government.

Having lived in Brussels for over four months now, and traveled to several other Belgian cities on both sides of the divide, I must say that I am not seeing the same civil unrest that some claim is threatening the future of Belgium. For anyone living here, the idea of a civil war is preposterous, in a country that has never had a single death because of the ethnic and linguistic divide that has separated the country for over a century.

As a country that is only the size of Maryland, it is true that Belgium is a surprisingly complicated system of regional and federal powers, which are distributed almost haphazardly to the two linguistic communities. But it is the very existence of this system that convinces Belgian academics that the future of Belgium is not coming to a close. Writer and poet Geert van Istendael stated it thus: "Belgians are known for their ability to compromise. We have a system which cannot function without willingness from each side to compromise -- even on the big issues."

Indeed some scholars have even pointed to Belgium as a potential model for Israelis and Palestinians; in both cases there is a need for autonomous regions which allow each group to govern themselves, with special rules set up to ensure that the capital (Brussels, or Jerusalem) is dominated by neither side. Others see Belgium as the next evolutionary stage of the nation-state, with a highly localized system of government based on cultural groups.

Regardless of whether or not Belgium will become a model for other states, it is safe to say that it will remain a stable and prosperous nation for the near future. Recently, Belgian politicians agreed on the formation of an interim government, to deal with issues, which require immediate attention. From here, the aim is still to create a government coalition, which may be several months away. Still, it is sure that in the end, a compromis-à-la-Belge will succeed and life in Belgium will go on.