Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Flanders, Wallonie and Euskal Herria

Well, seems like the Belgian political unrest is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many Europeans, mainly those who oppose the right to the self determination of the groups that demand more rights.

So, when people forget that the European Union was to be a commonwealth of peoples, not states, articles like the one I present here are written. Here it is, it was published by Deutsche Welle:

EU Expansion | 08.01.2008

Belgian Woes Mirror Europe's Expansion Challenges

It can appear at times that the EU has forgotten the little things in pursuit of the bigger picture. Working for European unity is all well and good but how can it succeed when members states themselves are divided?

The widening of the Schengen Agreement at the end of 2007 not only opened up more of Europe's borders and welcomed nine more EU countries to the bloc's free movement zone, it also represented another significant step in the European Union's quest for unity and inclusiveness.

As the travel restrictions between countries are eradicated, the EU project gets ever closer to its goal of a European super-state, a collection of countries all deciding on the fate of Europe. However, not everyone shares in the feeling of enthusiasm for such a body. While Schengen means freedom for some, its ultimate objective -- to bring Europe closer together -- represents a threat to others.

Many of those countries who oppose the increase in centralized power that the EU super-state would need to operate efficiently and credibly are concerned about the erosion of sovereignty. Others, like the Czech Republic's President Vaclav Klaus, fear the dilution of culture and identity for those countries absorbed into the new whole.

While the opening of the borders between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in December caused some to muse about a romantic return to a single Czechoslovakia, Klaus warned that such mergers may come with a high price.

"Our identity must be cultivated and protected if we do not want, as so many times in the past, to lose our freedom," he said.

The quest for a United States of Europe also spreads a similar concern among the continent's minorities. The fight for statehood becomes harder for the likes of the Catalans, Basques, Corsicans, Flemings and Walloons when the opponent is no longer just a country but the whole of the European Union.

Quest for autonomy undermines EU unity

In turn, the desire for autonomy grows.

"As their countries lose sovereignty, all such minorities are encouraged to assert their identity through independence and statehood," said Kristine Dekeyser, a political scientist and author on Belgian politics. "In the case of European minorities, given the incentive to increase their demands, their destabilizing actions begin to have a much wider effect. Agitating for independence ultimately puts a strain on the EU's progress towards unity."

The situation concerning the divided Flemings and Walloons of Belgium, one made more poignant by the fact that they live side-by-side in the country which hosts the European seat of power, has been described by some observers as a microcosm of the problems facing the EU in its quest for unity. Some have gone as far as to say that Belgium's crisis today is the EU's crisis tomorrow.

"The argument that some use is: How can you possibly create a unified Europe if you can't even bring a small country like Belgium together?'" said Peter Bursens from the political science faculty at the University of Antwerp. "Both instances have very similar problems, such as the need for more political integration, more cooperation and more trust."

Belgium and Europe share similar challenges

The unwillingness to concede which has been threatening to pull Belgium apart mirrors that which has been dogging the EU since its inception. Both have majority powers which once tolerated the minorities but have since grown tired of supporting and paying for these apparently ungrateful and selfish groups and have advocated at times for a parting of the ways. Both are faced with the challenges of combining centralization and decentralization, identity and solidarity, and creating a forum for very different opinions.

In the Belgian political process, the obstacles stopping the two main groups facing those challenges together appear self-made. Rather than uniting, the Flemish and Walloon parties seem to be drifting further apart. Instead of joining together, free of the constraints of actual borders, minorities in the country are intent on building new barriers to keep them apart.

"In Belgium, it is the Flemish -- and mainly only the regionalists, nationalists and extremists, I must add -- who promote this divide," Bursens said. "They have a strong history of fighting for the right to speak their own language, to have their own policies and governance. They fear encroachment on that from the Walloons in the south. They are also responsible for opposing European integration initiatives. They want to protect all they have achieved."

Embracing diversity can heal the rifts

While the Belgian process slides dangerously close to a separation, the European process is heading towards integration. That, observers believe, is a reason for hope for both the stability of Belgium and the future of Europe.

"People have the wrong idea about Europe, that we should all be one," Bursens said. "That's not the point. Diversity is what Europe is all about; diversity of identity and culture. For all its differences, the EU works because the cost of it not working is too great. The politicians always find a way because there is a will to make it work. The same will happen with Belgium. It has to."

Political scientist Kristine Dekeyser added that Belgium's two separate public spheres could make people think that the country could never stand a chance.

"But people have been making Belgium function for years," she said. "These are not new problems. Europe can learn from this. To turn that well-used question around: How can Europe fail when a country as divisive as Belgium can stay together?"

The author really does not make any sense when he or she claims that the quest for autonomy works against unity, in an Europe without borders, why should it matter?

Just a reminder, if the borders were completely gone tomorrow then the Basque people would not be living in three separate political entities and divided in two different states. More so, they could contribute to the European symphony with their own melody instead of the martial march dictated from Madrid.

Oh yeah, and the Spaniards have embraced diversity by repressing the Basque culture, both by the totalitarian regimes and the democratic governments, one more reason why the claim by Euskal Herria to its self determination is a valid one.

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