The Problem with Belgium

There is an old joke about Belgium that goes something like this: 

The problem with Belgium is that there is almost no unity. The Walloons hate the state because it is not French enough. The Flemish hate the state because it is not Dutch enough. The Muslims hate the state because it is not Islamic enough. Only the Jews love Belgium. The only thing that unites the others is they all hate the Jews. 

Like all decent jokes this one has more than a kernel of truth, though I added the part about Muslims -- in its original form it dealt only with the Walloons, the Flemish, and the Jews. But since Muslims now make up 6% of Belgium’s population (much more than Jews at about 0.5%) and their views of the state and Jews mirror that of the other two major groups, the joke still works -- though it is clear that Belgium’s increasingly threatened Jews love it a lot less today. But the jest mostly points to Belgium’s fundamental existential problem, which now threatens to create a failed state in the heart of Western Europe, and therein a sanctuary for the worst radical Islamists.  

I was reminded of the joke and Belgium’s precarious predicament not only because of the recent terror attacks there, but because I’ve been reading Bernard Cornwall’s take on the most famous of many battles to take place in Belgian territory, Waterloo. Belgium was the creation of Waterloo and the Napoleonic struggle that it culminated. Created in 1830, the new state was intended (at the time) to box in France, but Belgium also came to be seen also as a buffer state between France and an increasingly powerful and aggressive Germany. The cobbled together state was divided roughly equally between Dutch-speaking Flemish areas in the north, and French-speaking Walloons in the south, with a few German speakers near that border. 

For a time, it seemed like this arrangement -- regardless of what the people of the new state felt about it -- was beneficial to European peace, though that was largely an illusion. The supposed century of peace between Waterloo and 1914 was actually marked by several European wars, including one between France and Germany (the Franco-Prussian War) though that fight did not involve Belgium. 

Arguably, in the end, the creation of Belgium made things worse. Britain’s guarantee of Belgian neutrality forced it into World War I at the ultimate cost of nearly one million dead, and its empire -- a decision that still provokes debate and rancor today. Britain’s entry into the war guaranteed a costlier and bloodier conflict for all parties and set the stage for World War II. Belgium also became a trap for the British in that war, because the French, concerned about offending the Belgians, left the Maginot Line uncompleted and easily outflanked. French and British forces north and west of the Maginot did not deploy into Belgium before Germany’s May 1940 offensive for fear of violating Belgian neutrality, forcing them to meet Nazi tanks without prepared defenses when they finally rushed forward.  Nonetheless, a competently led and hard fighting French army actually stopped the German panzers cold at the Belgian town of Gembloux, but when the French line collapsed to the south at Sedan the British and French forces in Belgium became trapped, forcing the Dunkirk evacuation. 

After World War II, Belgium’s geopolitical raison d’etre expired. Western powers effectively tried to paper this problem over by making Brussels the headquarters of both the European Union and NATO. In essence, they used Belgium again as a convenient “neutral” headquarters site, while at the same time propping up the Belgian elites in the capital who were and are the primary party with an actual interest in preserving the country.  

The people of Belgium have never been and are not invested in the concept of a Belgian nation. In reality the state is the failed artifact of early 19th-century power politics, and this fundamental weakness makes Belgium today a problematic security risk for the West. Flemish areas speak Dutch and pretend as if the Walloons don’t exist, and vice versa. As a consequence, the Belgian federal authorities are weak, confused and riven by factional and linguistic conflict. 

Still, as Belgium is a wealthy country mostly made up of comfortable bourgeois citizens, it likely could have continued in this way indefinitely. Separatism is mostly discussed in wealthier Flemish areas, but it has been much easier (and in the end probably less expensive) to put up with the status quo than go through the messy -- and possibly violent -- process of separation, which the poorer French-speaking areas do not want since they are subsidized by their unhappy Dutch-speaking countrymen. 

What nobody counted on was a third force made up of unhappy Muslims who now constitute a substantial and exponentially growing minority. Unlike their complacent French and Dutch-speaking neighbors, many Muslims are quite keen to impose their will on their countrymen through societal disruption, political agitation, and violence. Belgium’s weak system of federal and local control which features the abdication of responsibility by authorities in both realms, allowed the growth of practically sovereign ghettos like the Molenbeek area of Brussels that is now at the center of European-based Islamist terror. Successive “mayors” of Molenbeek ignored or encouraged (via fashionable political correctness) Islamic separatism, and/or failed to act when confronted with the reality of violent jihad. 

American and European counter-terrorism officials have reportedly been stunned by the sloth and incompetence of their Belgian counterparts, whom an American official famously likened to children. This is actually too kind, since these Belgian functionaries are certainly not innocent children but grown men and women who consciously have failed to act in a normative and reasonable fashion to protect their nation, in large part because they have no emotional or political interest in doing so. 

Belgium unfortunately is a poor excuse for a country, made up of people who would mostly rather not be Belgian. And yet, just as European powers two centuries ago found it necessary to create Belgium, they (and we) ought to now see it in our mutual immediate interest to preserve the state. Left on its own, Belgium could very possibly become a true failed state as the pressures of radical Islamists fracture the already tenuous Belgian system, turning it into an even more inviting area for Islamist radicals and further weakening European defenses against Islamist takeover.