Belgium sets standard for separatist contagion in Europe

Deep divisions between the Dutch and French-speaking halves of Belgium have helped to set a world record of being more than 400 days without an official government, while the lack of any solution may cause the country to split in two permanently.

­And things look likely to get even worse for Europe at large, which could witness a chain reaction parade of states gaining independence across the continent.

Some wait until they are divorced before planning their next marriage. Not Wallonia – the southern region of Belgium that looks forward to splitting from Flanders, the other part of Belgium.

The country has been without effective government for a record 14 months. French-speaking Walloons in the south and Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north disagree on pretty much everything, from the handling of the economy to the war in Libya. Many analysts see the most likely outcome is that the country will break in two.

As soon as its split with Flanders is complete, the Walloons will look to hook up with France. For richer or poorer, but mainly for richer.

Going it alone when you are a small region is clearly not appealing. While they say political clout is important, the main appeal is money.

“Wallonia is part of France in everything but name. We have the same language, we watch French TV not Belgian. But above all our economy’s controlled by French firms,” argues Claude Thayse, leader of the Walloon Rally.

Polls suggest that half of all Walloons and 60 per cent of French want to be as one.

Presidential frontrunner Marine Le Pen last week said she would wed the southern half of Belgium with France.

President Sarkozy’s ruling party and the opposition are already in talks to tie the knot.

“We have contacts with other parties: the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement – France’s center-right political party) and we have contacts with the socialists and it has been confirmed to us that in case Belgium split up, then Walloon would be welcome in France,” states Laurent Brogniet of the Walloon Rally.

The biggest party in the northern half wants a split too. Experts say Belgium is already divided.

Political analyst Dr Koenraad Elst says “People don’t know anymore about the other half of the country, the Flemish people don’t know who are the popular singers or writers in the French-speaking part and vice versa.”

King Albert fears Belgium’s National Day last week was its last. He added the crisis threatens not just every Belgian, but European integration itself.

“The EU is scared that the divorce of Belgium will spark off the rest of Europe: Catalonia leaving Spain, Scotland leaving Britain etc,” evaluates Pierre Havaux, political correspondent of Le Vif newspaper in Brussels.

“We’ve already seen separatist marches in mixed community towns here turn violent, with guns getting pulled. It takes just one big clash for Brussels to become Sarajevo,” he predicts.

That conflict saw a mass killing not suffered in Europe since World War II. Neighbors turned on each other as Yugoslavia broke up. And the determination of regional identity is not to be underestimated.

French unionists say they have the flag and everything else worked out to become France’s 28th region. All that is left are the details.

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