For a non-Belgian who loves political humor, this story was wonderful indeed.
To sum it up, a report was broadcast over Belgium's French-language radio and television stations (RTBF) last Tuesday that stated that the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium had voted to separate from the rest of the country. Television viewers were greeted with scenes of angry crowds in Antwerp, cars and busses being stopped at the Wallonia (French-speaking)/Flanders (Flemish-speaking) border, politicians discussing the developments and the royal family fleeing the country in a military airplane.
"Whoa," you are saying, "I don't read the news much, but I figure that I would have heard about a European country splitting in half!"
This report, however, was not all that it claimed to be. It was, well, made up. Completely.
This elaborate prank, apparently in the pipeline for two years, was a bit of fun that apparently several Belgian government officials signed on to do and that was engineered to make a point and get a rise out of average Belgians.
Did it work? According to the poll taken, and circumstantial evidence taken by RTBF, 89% of viewers seemed to believe it almost all of the way through the program. That is a lot of people, even for Belgium.
There were the requisite red-faced, indignant responses by other governmental officials and Belgian "talking heads," but it seems that the people, once they realized that it was a joke, laughed and carried on with their business.
Well, what is the bigger lesson to be learned here? In a sense, it is no more than the old admonition to not believe everything you hear. We are so completely dependent on the media, and in most cases far too unquestioning toward what it tells us, that this sort of thing seems plausible.
Add to this the things that people have seen develop live on T.V. (like 9/11), and anything seems possible. Perhaps this was a little shot by some people who work the controls of the media machine to remind people that even they, the masters of media, cannot always be taken at face value. People should know better, but often act as if they don't.
Does this, alternately, say anything about Belgium in particular? In one sense, no, just that Belgians are as dependent and trusting of media in all its forms as people elsewhere. In a less important sense, it is true that there is an active (and vociferous) Flemish separatist movement in Belgium and the relations between the two halves of the country have not always been without problems.
There might have been, therefore, some reason for people to believe that the two halves of the country had decided to separate. Some small reason, for there are considerable roadblocks to such a thing happening.
Just think about it for a moment. Belgium is a constitutional monarchy with some devolved federalism to the two provinces of Flanders and Wallonia. Within the last five years, there have been even more autonomous powers devolved to the linguistic-ethnic groups, powers agreed to by the national assembly and voted upon. For more about the Belgian government (which I know you are dying to read), look here.
What this says is that it would take more than a minority separatist party in the government to effect a constitutional change of this magnitude. Will Belgium ever split into two separate countries? I highly doubt it. It would not be in the best interest of either side to have to establish the infrastructure and international presence to replace that of Belgium.
Historically, Belgium as we know it is really not that old. It was made independent of the Netherlands in 1830, gained a colonial empire through the bloody hands of King Leopold II, was occupied by Germany in both world wars, became a member of NATO and the EU, and has been giving more power to the provinces since the 1970's. For more about recent Belgian history (which you are more excited about than the government), look here.
If the two halves of the country were to split, the major issue would be, as in many breakups, who gets what stuff. In this case, the big question would be "who gets Brussels?" Apart from being the capital of the country, Brussels is the political seat of NATO, the European Commission and the Council of Europe. It would, therefore, come down to what language EU commissioners and bureaucrats would not bother to learn: French or Flemish.
To sum up, it was a funny joke, no-one was hurt (that I know of) and things in Belgium can get back to normal. While there are people who don't want to be Belgian anymore, more still want to keep it all together. A split is not in anyone's interest and is not likely.
The Belgians need to calm down, drink a bunch of the great beer that they brew, and realize that most things on T.V. are just silly and that everyone in Europe is happy to keep balkanization in the Balkans.
Just ask the Serbs.
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