Current Affairs Politics

Plucky Little Belgium – Or Why Artificial States Fail

The Irish Times reports on the continued deadlock in Belgium – and why one way or another something is going to give

‘In the metro stations of Brussels they pipe old pop hits for commuters. Songs in English, Spanish and Italian can be heard. They no longer play songs in French, the city’s main language, because Dutch-speakers took umbrage. No battle is too trivial in Belgium’s language wars. If the linguistic schism permeates everything in Belgian life, the divisions are only worsening.’

Meanwhile in Italy the quasi-nationalist/separatist/federalist/regionalist (take your pick) Lega Nord (LN or Northern League) has suffered badly for its association with, Silvio Berlusconi. Heavy losses in recent local elections have brought the party faithful onto the streets and soured their support for the present Italian coalition government. 

‘Sensing that a sex scandal and three corruption trials, as well as an anaemic economy, had dented Berlusconi’s popularity, the League has distanced itself from the prime minister in recent months on several issues, including the war in Libya. But that was not enough to stop a debacle in the local elections, where the centre-right coalition lost control of the financial capital Milan, Berlusconi’s home town, for the first time in nearly 20 years, as well as a string of other cities.

Many in the League complain that by supporting the billionaire media tycoon and taking up cabinet posts in what most still refer to as “Roma Ladrona” (Rome The Big Thief), the party has lost its identity as a northern-based force defending local interests threatened by the central government.

“The League is becoming a party like all the others, dogged by infighting and more interested in the big jobs in Rome than the concrete problems of its traditional voters – workers and small businesses strangled by high taxes,” said Luca Ricolfi, a sociology professor in Turin and Northern League expert.’

While some believe the NL’s project for the (full) federalisation of Italy has taken a fatal blow others see it more as a temporary hiccup, and that a fracture of the Italian state will eventually happen (perhaps made more likely by Berlusconi’s desperation to stay in power and willingness to shake hands with the devil to do so – though any devil brave enough to shake hands with Berlusconi might want to count their fingers afterwards, just to make sure they’re all there).

‘The Italian government tried everything possible to delay, compromise and negate the possibility of Italian people expressing dissent. It wasted €300m (£265m) preventing a high turnout at the ballot for a referendum on three crucial issues. It even passed a decree in the hope of nullifying one of the referendum’s counts. In addition, itattempted to prevent adequate television coverage of the ballot. Yet the referendum held on 12-13 June succeeded.

And Italians have spoken. They said no to the current government’s most controversial policies. They said no to an undemocratic law that placed the prime minister above the law and prevented him from ever coming to trial. They said no to water privatisation and, again, no to nuclear energy.’

In Spain, post regional and local elections in many parts of the country, various victorious nationalist parties are settling into power in city halls up and down Catalonia and Euskadi (the Basque Country). In the latter in particular the strong showing by Bildu, which the Spanish government and some courts desperately tried to ban in a perversion of democracy as good as anything Berlusconi has produced, astonished many overturning much conventional wisdom amongst pundits and commentators.

Spain is already very much a house divided, and legalistic attempts to reinforce the essential integrity of the Spanish state are being resisted by separatist and regional parties alike. Up to now most eyes were on Catalonia’s muscularly, self-confident nationalism but with a resurgence Basque nationalism now back in the ring that may be all about to change.

And so over to Québec where the electoral meltdown of Bloc Québécois (BQ), the federal party of the Québec nationalists which sits in the Canadian parliament, has spilled over into its regional sister party, the Parti Québécois (PQ), which sits in the provincial parliament of Québec only. Some had hoped the separation of Québec nationalist parties into federal (at a Canada level) and local (at a Québec level) would save the latter from the fate of the former. But rather than wait for an election the PQ decided to save anyone else the trouble and staged an internal meltdown of its own.

Hopeful Canadian nationalists (unionists?) are praying that Québec’s independence movement has been crippled for a generation but others are far less sanguine. While a more moderate Quebecois party might emerge from the turbulent seas of La Belle Province, it’s just as possible that a more determined nationalism might be given a chance by Québec’s canny voters. As things stand the NDP party which rained all over BQ’s parade is not exactly lacking in soft nationalists – of the Québécois variety.

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