You probably don't realize it, but we are living in an unprecedented historical moment. For the first time, Belgium has managed to be interesting without getting invaded by Germany or abusing an African colony.
What's so interesting? In short: Belgium is coming apart at the seams. For four months, its 11 political parties have been unable to form a national government because the Dutch-speaking regions want greater autonomy, or even outright independence.
Primarily split between Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons, Belgium was formed as a constitutional monarchy where the non-French speakers were mostly treated as second-class citizens. Even today, 177 years later, there are no national figures or national political parties. Each party represents its own ethnic, linguistic or regional enclave. But, although the Flemish majority is somewhat more prosperous, the Walloons have a perceived stranglehold on Belgian politics. One is tempted to joke that it's an Iraq with better weather and waffles.
But it isn't a mini-Iraq, and not just because they're not killing one another. It's more like a mini-European Union. In fact, that's the one thing everyone can agree on.
No country is more invested in the EU experiment than Belgium, whose capital, Brussels, is also the capital of the EU. If Belgium falls to sectarianism, what does that say about prospects for making Europe into a super-Belgium?
Belgium is a "laboratory," says Joelle Milquet, the leader of the French-speaking Humanist Democratic Center party and a defender of both a united Belgium and EU. "If 10 million people in a developed country do not manage to build a collective project," she told Britain's Telegraph newspaper, "that would signal the bankruptcy of what one tries to build at the European and even international level."
Paul Belien, a Flemish writer who favors an independent Flanders, agrees. "For me, the Belgian and EU flags are basically the same," he told the Telegraph. "They are a denial of identity."
But here's the hilarious irony of all this: The European Union is in effect subsidizing nationalism in Belgium and across the Continent. As the EU assumes more of the responsibilities of states - regulations, the economy, currency, possibly even defense - the cost of independence becomes lower.