Friday, December 15, 2006

The Belgium break-up hoax

Some have often joked that the difference between Canada and Belgium is you just have to substitute English for Dutch -- and it's not far off from the truth. The tensions between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia (as well as the small German community which mostly populates the far eastern part of Wallonia but would also like more autonomy) have gone on for years but have been exacerbated for the last two decades, dating back to when the two regions -- plus a third, Brussels, the bilingual capital -- were given extensive autonomy. Not so much because of the grant of autonomy but because economic disparities have grown since then, with the Dutch north getting wealthier and wanting to keep that wealth -- not unlike Alberta wanting a firewall to ensure no equalization payments flow from the province (a misconception since such payments come out of general revenues across Canada). Or the northern part of Italy which wants independence because they're sick and tired of subsizing the less affluent south.

A couple of days ago, the stakes in Belgium were raised much higher than anyone could have imagined. The French language arm of the state broadcaster, RTBF (the Dutch arm is VRT), suddenly announced Flanders had unilaterally declared independence and the King and Queen of the country had fled. TV pictures showed very convincing demonstrations. The diplomatic corps were up in arms wondering to whom they had credentials. 30 minutes into the program, RTBF admitted the whole thing was a hoax. They said they were trying to discuss the very real consequences of secession.

But no one in Belgium is laughing, especially not the Premiers of both Flanders and Wallonia who both condemned it.. Both want a better deal for their regions but have stoppd short of calling for a breakup of the country. Moreover the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, which has a fully open border with Belgium (as do its other neighbours), said playing politics like this wasn't appropriate.

The way this played out must be disconcerting to other potential breakaway movements across Europe. Think of Scotland in the UK, Eusakdi (the Basque Region) of Spain, Corsica in France, or even Aland in Finland. Imagine the panic, for instance, if on the regional BBC newscast in Edinburgh the announcer suddenly announced that Alba had shaken off its oppressors. Who would the Black Watch -- probably the toughest commando unit in all of Europe -- owe its allegiance to? The Queen, or the head of the Scottish National Party?

The lessons for Canada? We get almost complacent about Québec at times, but there is a very strong undercurrent of resentment against Canada in that province and the results of the 1995 referendum -- barely a percentage point saved Canada -- should serve as a reminder that packaged properly, independence could pass. More importantly, a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) is not exactly out of the realm of possibility. After all, the constitution of the Parti Québécois says that they support achieving independence for the province through solely democratic means, but this could be interpreted to mean just winning the National Assembly and not necessarily holding a referendum. Clarity Act or not. To use the same military example, would the Royal 22e Régiment suddenly be willing to stop saluting the Governor General and start owing compliments to -- André Boisclair?

If the CBC ever tried a stunt like this, people would demand heads roll, even the front line reporters not in on the joke. Such a purge wouldn't happen, though, since most Canadians are too complacent about our public broadcaster; not to mention the fact that a foreign invasion hasn't happened since the Fenians tried to "liberate" Canada in 1866 -- which failed, because even most Irish Catholics in Canada were against them. Maybe it's the fact the Belgians saw their country occupied twice in the last century that makes them take a practical joke like the one RTBF pulled the other night so seriously. It might give some radicals in the country some pretty weird ideas.

We can't ignore the sleeping giant and must never ignore it. To ridicule the independence movement in Québec only helps to embolden it. For what it's worth, I don't think the Canadian press considers Belgium enough. It might provide some notes on how to deal what is sometimes the paradox we call Canada.

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