Paul Belien will surely forgive me for using his well-known expression. It was simply the first thing that crossed my mind when I read the article with the revealing title 'Breaking up is hard to do' in the European Voice a couple of weeks ago.
Author Tim King wonders whether it would be easier for the eurozone to break apart or for Belgium to split up. True, both scenarios are fraught with difficulties. In King's view, both putative break-ups have in common that it is unclear whether there is an exit strategy.
For the eurozone, the costs of a break-up are immense - for the country that leaves the single currency, whose borrowing and debt problems would become worse rather than better, for the remainder of the eurozone, and for the rest of the international economy.
Breaking up Belgium is not much easier. Even if the relatively minor problem of dividing the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde can be resolved (and according to the courts, it will have to be), the position of Brussels is a much greater obstacle.
I do not entirely agree with the author, but that is not the issue here. Further in the article, King is making a much more important point. Although breaking up is indeed in both cases very difficult, King correctly observes that the advocates of Belgian unity cannot argue as convincingly as those wanting to keep the eurozone together that break-up would be economically damaging for everyone. In that regard he explicitly refers to the growing view in Flanders that the Flemish would be 'better off' without Wallonia which is draining Flemish resources and blocking Flemish policies and progress.
This discussion brings King to the main point of his analysis. According to him, common to both break-up debates are fiscal transfers. Both in Belgium and in the eurozone, the social consent in favour of fiscal transfers has broken down.
The wealthier Flemish north of Belgium declares itself fed up with paying the social-security costs of the south, arguing that Wallonia is profligate and wasteful.
In the eurozone, German politicians (on behalf of German taxpayers) declare that they should not have to meet the cost of public servants in Greece retiring in their fifties.
Both entities, Belgium and the European Union, are indeed suffering from the same (Belgian) disease. Completely different nations with completely differing points of view and collective preferences are forced to adopt the same policies in practically every domain. Whatever the outcome of the different democracies in Europe and Belgium may be, ultimately the federal entity, Belgian or European, decides.
Like in Belgium, fiscal transfers in the EU under all kinds of regional aid schemes serve only one official purpose: to bring the poorer parts up to the standards of the wealthier parts. In European newspeak this is termed 'cohesion policy'. Regardless of the actual results, the EU continues to pour (European) taxpayer money - called structural funds - into various regions. To give you an idea: in the Belgian context this means that in the period 2000-2006, Wallonia received 672,4 million euro of European aid in the field of "Objective 1" of the structural funds, and 224,9 million euro in the field of "Objective 2". In the period 2007-2013 Wallonia is receiving 638,3 million euro in the field of regional policy and 449,2 million euro from the European Social Fund.
In an interview in the Metro daily paper on 4 February 2008, the French-speaking liberal politician Gérard Deprez, then Chairman of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament, admitted that the European structural funds had not achieved much result in Wallonia, and that both Wallonia and the European Commission are responsible for this failure. But the effectivity of economic policies or the quality of the decision-making processes do not matter much to policy makers. Money will continue to flow.
Fiscal transfers not only underpin all kinds of European policies - like the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy - but they are now very visible in the eurozone debt crisis which makes this crisis, in King's view, a very sensitive one. Richer (Northern) countries are asked to transfer taxpayer money to a bail-out fund to save poorer (Southern) countries which pursued dubious policies or where the population lived beyond its means, like in Greece. Indeed, this is a very visible illustration of the Belgianisation of Europe. King thinks that in Belgium there will be a trade-off between fiscal transfers and reform, with more responsibilities for the regional governments. Again, I do not agree. Anyway, King's article offers ideas for an interesting discussion.