Why Cypriots must follow the Belgians
By Alkan Chaglar
Belgium is often used as an argument by Cypriots opposed to the reunification of their island. It is hard to believe that the heart of the European Union home to its Parliament, Commission, and Presidency, to NATO and of course famous for its tranquility and chocolates can became ammunition for those hell bent on ethnic segregation in Cyprus. But it is not the cheeky Manneken Pis that has offended them but Belgium's internal affairs, which are frequently cited and exaggerated by those against a solution without looking at the whole picture.

Having lived in Belgium for a little over a year, I can say it is a country that I admire and that is excellent in many ways. As a student at the Centre for Federalism at Liege University and at the Law Faculty, I not only sat alongside Belgian students to learn about federalism but had many an opportunity to discuss and experience the advantages and disadvantages of their federation.

Belgium is not very often in the news but when it is the British media often present it rather sensationally as a country about to be torn apart. The same scary headlines of Belgium's discontented Flemish nationalists were echoed in 2001 when I was there warning of imminent separation. Yet Belgium still remains fully in tact. What the media will not report is that the reality is not so sensational, the country is not on the verge of division and the internal problems actually require explanations that would long surpass their word count limit.

While there have always been calls by Flemish nationalists for a separate state and a few calls by a very small minority of French speakers for reattachment to France, the vast majority of Belgians support parties committed to maintaining Belgium's unity. The few separatist parties have never been able to find any coalition partners willing to work with them.
Belgium is home to a powerful federalist many Belgians adore their Royal family, are fiercely proud of their little nation, are remorseful of its imperialist past and feel more Belgian than either Walloon/Francophone or Flemish. You can hardly tell who is a Fleming or Walloon/Francophone, as it's possible and quite normal to find a Fleming with the name Guy Le Bon or a French-speaking Belgian with the rather Germanic name, Zoe Heinesch. Like Cyprus, Belgium through centuries of coexistence and mixing is not that predictable.

Indeed much of the support of the Flemish separatist Vlaams Belang (formerly Vlaams Blok) is not that of hardcore nationalists, there is undoubtedly a minority of extremists but the majority is a protest vote. The voters of Antwerp who vote the party do not hate the Walloons/Francophones; rather they claim to be discontented with the distribution of federal tax revenue, complain of local problems with rising immigration and the failures of traditional parties to deliver promises. Some of their complaints would not be out of place in areas like Barking/Dagenham, East London or other European cities. The differences between Flemish and Francophone political interests, is much more economic than ethnic, reflecting local socio-economic needs.
How the current economic crisis will affect the Vlaams Belang's argument that rich Flanders should stop subsidizing poor Wallonia and thus their ability to pick up votes remains to be seen. History shows the tables always turn around.
But why this party has picked up votes at all does not surprise me. First, historically there has always been a group of Flemings who want their own state though not on the vindictive basis that they cannot get on with Walloons /Francophones. The majority however still does not see it as viable. Second, anybody who has seen Belgian politics in action will soon notice the enormous bureaucracy, which comes with having a complex federal system, which can dazzle the population. Third, like many countries Belgian politics is cursed by an image problem shrouded by the sheer number of men in grey suits. Fourth, Belgians are used to seeing parties form coalitions only to leave and join other parties. There is little difference between the Liberals and Socialists who desperately need to re-market themselves more effectively.

However, it is not all gloom. In fact Belgium is a good model for Cyprus to follow… Belgian Federalism has enabled the country's peaceable cohesion to be maintained. Belgium did not need the UN or others to introduce the idea of federalism; the Belgians decided themselves to adopt this system so that their diverse population could continue to live together as they have done for centuries. In fact the federal system they have today arouses interest throughout the world because it is believed to be a peaceable way of resolving conflicts.
Within this system, Belgians have demonstrated a tremendous ability to disagree, sometimes profoundly disagree but patiently keep their cool and then persevere until they seek agreement. Part and parcel of being highly educated, Belgians have never spilt blood over internal disputes even though for most of 2008 they never actually had a government.

It took 200 days to form a coalition government, but if you were in Brussels, Charleroi or Ghent, life just went on… People worked, came home to eat and sleep, young people met up in cities to go clubbing, holiday makers continued to go to the south of France, workers (regardless of linguistic differences) linked arms to go on strike, environmentalists continued to campaign across communities, hunters continued to hunt wild game in the Ardennes, day-trippers continued to arrive by Eurostar to visit the city, shop keepers continued to sell goods to anybody with money, banks continued to function, local and central government continued to function and the police and courts of law continued to carry out their work.
Belgians do not stop and sulk when internal disagreements begin, they do not sit in coffee shops arguing over politics; instead they get drunk on Jupiler and then argue over football or their mutual dislike of their southern neighbours the French or the Dutch. Looking at the Belgian press, I do not see talk of separatism but talk of the economic crisis, job losses in Brussels and news of the hospitalization of the elderly Queen Paola.

As is common knowledge, a divided Cyprus is not an option for either community. But a solution is never going to be perfect for each community and for every citizen's expectations. We are all different, not just between the communities but within them. Problems will not miraculously end after a solution. There will still be Cypriot separatist and our chosen identities will continue to be diverse. In fact, all this and political disagreements from time to time are completely normal and part of any healthy democracy. The real test however will be whether Cypriots like Belgians can deal with their internal problems by trusting their political institutions and system throughout any crisis, through seeking consensus, reforming / modernizing when they need to, while respecting the rule of law throughout. So let's follow the Belgians…
(Source: Londra Toplum Postasi)