Spectre of costly divorce haunts Belgium
The deepening political rift between Flemish and francophone parties in Belgium has resurrected the ghost of a costly and complex breakup for the kingdom at the heart of Europe.
The spectre of divorce came back to haunt Belgium last weekend when coalition talks between Flemish nationalists and French-speakers collapsed, leaving the country without a new government three months after elections.
That led several francophone leaders, usually staunch supporters of Belgian union, to evoke an alternative "B Plan" that would see the wealthier Flanders region in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south go their separate ways.
"We can no longer ignore that among a large part of the Flemish population, it's their wish," said French-speaking Socialist Laurette Onkelinx, a potential successor to party chief Elio Di Rupo, who led the failed coalition talks.
"So yes, we have to get ready for the break-up of Belgium. Otherwise we're cooked."
Across the border in France, lawmaker Nicolas Dupont-Aignan even suggested Monday that his country should "get ready to welcome its Walloon and Brussels compatriots."
A split could provoke a political earthquake in the European Union. Belgium, one of the 27-nation bloc's founding members, holds the rotating presidency of the EU until December and Brussels hosts the headquarters of the EU
Belgium, Brussels : Leader of New Flemish Aliance (NVA) Bart De Wever gestures as he addresses the audience in Brussels on 13 June 2010
Its aftershocks could also be felt in other countries such as Spain and Britain, which are facing calls for more autonomy or even independence from countries such as Catalonia and Scotland.
But the idea of a split is rejected by 57 percent of Belgians against 14 percent who favour it, according to a poll published Tuesday by La Libre Belgique newspaper. In Flanders, only 15 percent favour separation.
Dividing the country would also prove costly because of the interdependence between the regions of Flanders, population six million, Wallonia (3.5 million) and Brussels (one million mostly French speakers), experts say.
"The Walloons would lose the most because they are the poorest," said economist Robert Deschamps, although every region would suffer from the consequences of a breakup.
Custody of Brussels would also be a major sticking point in any divorce talks. The Belgian capital is 90-percent francophone but sits within Flanders, so the creation of a Wallonia-Brussels state would not be a certainty.
Flanders would also be reluctant to gift Brussels, Belgium's economic centre, to the francophones.
The financing of Brussels and voting rights in its suburbs were already a source of major disagreements between Flemish nationalists and francophone Socialists in the recent failed negotiations.
Money would also be a sensitive topic in a breakup, especially the question of how to divide a public debt of 330 billion euros (418 billion dollars). And that figure could balloon owing to what would probably be higher interest rates to be imposed on the new states.
Belgium, Brussels : Chamber chairman Patrick Dewael (2L) leaves after a consultation with King Albert II (2R) , on 14 June 14, 2010 at the Royal Castle in Laeken-Laken, Brussels, after the federal elections
Another problem would come with drawing borders around Brussels, as more than 100,000 francophones live in the capital's Flemish-majority suburbs.
Flanders would also need to take steps to join the United Nations, the European Union and the eurozone, a mountain of paperwork that the francophones could avoid if they kept their married name, Belgium.