A long article explaining why Belgium is a perversion and the world would be better off without it
Belgium is an abnormality. It is a state with two major linguistic groups where the Dutch-speaking majority forms the Flemish nation, but where the French-speaking Walloons do not regard themselves as a nation in their own right but rather as a part of the French nation and consequently a national minority within Belgium. If Belgium fitted the normal patterns, it would have developed in either of two directions: Belgium could have become the nation-state of its Flemish majority, or the Flemings and the Walloons could have become subnations of a Belgian nation. Neither is the case.
The Kingdom of Belgium consists of three entirely different peoples with their own languages, cultures and traditions: Dutch-speaking Flemings in the North, French-Speaking Walloons in the South, and a tiny community of Germans in nine Eastern municipalities. The latter were ceded by Germany after the First World War and are administratively attached to Francophone Wallonia.
Apart from the capital Brussels which is bilingual, the Belgians live in clearly distinct unilingual regions. A series of constitutional reforms between 1970 and 1993 transformed Belgium from a centralised unitary state into an officially federal state, with cultural autonomy for its Dutch-, French- and German-speaking linguistic communities and a (limited) form of political and economic autonomy for the regions Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.
Though Belgium is a state, the Belgians do not exist as a nation. “Sire, allow me to tell you the truth, the large and horrifying truth: il n’y a pas de Belges,” the Walloon politician and later cabinet minister Jules Destrée exclaimed in a letter to the Belgian king Albert I in 1912. Belgium’s citizens are either Flemings (6 million), Walloons (3 million) or Germans (70,000). The only place where a feeling of “Belgianness” exists, is in the capital, Brussels (1 million inhabitants). The well-known American columnist William Pfaff writes categorically: “There is a Belgian nation, created by the common historical experience of Catholics in this flat and much-fought-over seaboard land where French and Dutch-Germanic cultures meet.” But Pfaff confuses Belgium with Flanders, which is the Catholic flat and much-fought-over seaboard part of Belgium, with a Dutch-speaking population that for most of Belgium’s history has been expected by the authorities to speak and understand French.
Belgium was established as an independent state by the International Powers in 1831. One of its “fathers,” the French diplomat Talleyrand described the new country as “an artificial construction, consisting of different peoples.” According to his Austrian colleague Dietrichstein, the Belgian nationality was “a political attempt rather than an observable political reality.” Belgium’s nature as an artificially constructed multinational state offers relevant insights into present-day developments in Europe. In 1989, the then Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens called his country the “prototype of Europe.” “The Federal Belgian State,” he said, “is a prefiguration of a Europe of Peoples, united in their organised diversity.” His remarks were an echo of what the Belgian lawyer Léon Hennebicq had written in 1904: “Have we not been called the laboratory of Europe? Indeed, we are a nation under construction. The problem of economic expansion is duplicated perfectly here by the problem of constructing a nationality. Two different languages, different classes without cohesion, a parochial mentality, an adherence to local communities that borders on the most harmful egotism, these are all elements of disunion. Luckily they can be reconciled. The solution is economic expansion, which can make us stronger by uniting us.”
Hennebicq’s words are, in a nutshell, what the project of European unification, which started with the 1957 Treaty of Rome, is all about. Today we are witnessing in the heart of Europe the biggest project ever of state construction and nation building: the efforts to turn the European Union into a federal state. The multilingual, multinational Federal Kingdom of Belgium is often seen as the prototype of such a Federal Europe. Belgium not only shares its capital with the EU, but it acts as a model for the EU in the latter’s efforts to become a state and construct a European nation. This makes it all the more puzzling that the attempts of the Belgian rulers during the past 175 years (1830 to 2005) to turn their artificial state into a genuine state have never been studied by political scientists and historians, not even in Belgium itself.
Perhaps this is due to the lack of an adequate semantic framework for undertaking such a study. Indeed, before we can analyse Belgium as the European model, we will have to define a number of often misunderstood concepts, such as the difference between nations and states, and the terms multilingual and multinational states. We will even need to introduce a new concept to political science, that of the artificial state.
Nations and states: The need for a civic glue
In his 1977 standard work Nations and States, Hugh Seton-Watson defined a state as a “legal and political organisation with the power to require obedience and loyalty from its citizens.” The word nation proved more difficult to define. Seton-Watson, its most eminent student, conceded that he was “unable to provide a definition which both covers all nations and excludes all communities that are not nations.” He proposed the following definition: “A community of people, whose members are bound together by a sense of solidarity, a common culture, a national consciousness.” This is, as Seton-Watson acknowledged, not a “scientific definition.” He added: “All that I can find to say is that a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one. It is not necessary that the whole of the population should so feel, or so behave, and it is not possible to lay down dogmatically a minimum percentage of a population which must be so affected. When a significant group holds this belief, it possesses ‘national consciousness.’”
There is much semantic confusion about states and nations. Relations between states are called international relations instead of “interstate” relations. The “international” organisation known as the United Nations (like its predecessor the League of Nations) is not an organisation of nations, but one of (governments of) states. This confusion between nation and state goes back to the French use of both terms, which originated with the definition given by the Encyclopaedia, compiled as a project of the “Enlightenment” by French Rationalist philosophers in the middle of the 18th century. They stated clearly that “Nation [or rather nation (in French)] denotes the population of a state, regardless of that population’s characteristics and feelings.” Similarly, the French Revolutionaries of 1789 considered the (French) nation to be the expression of the sovereignty of the people living in the (French) state. In French, “nation” and “état” are two words for basically the same thing – the collectivity of all the individuals who possess the legal nationality or citizenship of a state.
By the beginning of the 19th century, a new concept of the term nation evolved in reaction to the French use of the word. This new meaning emerged first in Germany, a country occupied by the French. The new idea was mooted by Johann-Gottfried von Herder and taken up by Johann-Gottlieb Fichte in his 1807 pamphlet Reden an die deutsche Nation (Addresses to the German Nation). As Germany did not constitute a single state and was in fact composed of dozens of politically sovereign states, Fichte defined the German nation as the entity formed by all German-speaking countries, despite their political division. Isaiah Berlin admires Herder with his notion that “a nation is not a state, but a cultural entity of people who speak the same language, live on the same soil, and possess the same habits, a communal past, common memories.” But he criticises Fichte for the twist that he gave to it, “with his paeans to the uncontaminated German language as a vehicle for the uniquely liberating German mission to the world.”
The German (more romanticist) notion of nation has been at least as influential as the French (more rationalist) notion. But it has led to another confusion, namely that between the concepts “multilingual state” and “multinational state.” They are often used as synonyms, which is wrong, because, apart from unilingual uninational states (e.g. Portugal) and multilingual multinational states (e.g. Belgium and Canada), there are also multilingual uninational states (e.g. Switzerland), as well as unilingual multinational states (e.g. Bosnia-Herzegovina).
Given the importance of the French Revolution as the trigger to the Age of Nationalism, an age dominated by the ideology and idolatry of the nation, Hugh Seton-Watson has distinguished between two categories of nations – the old and the new. Old nations are those which acquired national consciousness before the formulation of the doctrine of nationalism. They date back to the period the French call the Ancien Régime, that is the era before the French Revolution.
In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalist doctrine – which claims that sovereign states should encompass the lands in which nations live – inspired two sorts of political movements. The first sought to bring all those speaking the same language together in one state, while the second wished to separate national groups from existing states, thus forming their own “nation-states.” The idea that every nation was entitled to its own state was also central to the Wilsonian world view that inspired the dismembering of the multilingual and multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Western Allies after the First World War.
It is not common practice to categorize states as either artificial constructs or as non-artificial states. Nevertheless, I contend it is a more useful exercise than making the more common distinction between multilingual and unilingual states, or between multinational and uninational states.
Non-artificial states are states that have either (a) grown and developed organically over a long continuous period – such as Britain, France, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland; (b) been re-established at a given point in time and in a specific geographical space where they had existed as states before – such as Poland (1919), Ireland (1922) or the Czech Republic (1993); (c) been formed at a given point in time as a state uniting a people bound by a common culture or identity – such as Greece (1830), Italy (1861), Germany (1871) or Croatia (1991).
Categories (a) and (b) belong to what Seton-Watson called “old” nations. The difference between these two categories is that the states of the first group never needed an independence movement or nationalist doctrine to assert themselves, because at the time of the French Revolution they were “old” nations as well as “old” (and continuous) states. Categories (b) and (c), on the other hand, needed such a doctrine. The difference between the two groups lies in the fact that the states of the latter group consist of “new” nations and acquired national consciousness only in the 19th century. In other words, group (a) consists of “old” nations that are also “old” states; group (b) of “old” nations that are “new” states; group (c) of “new” nations that are “new” states.
Unlike the non-artificial states, artificial states were constructed (in Friedrich Hayek’s sense of constructivism: according to more or less specific plans or rationalist schemes) in places where no similar state had ever existed and where the people had no common identity that would enable them to acquire a “national consciousness” and, hence, become a “new” nation. Artificial states are either established through violence or drawn up at conference tables and they unite diverse peoples of different cultural, linguistic, religious or ethnic backgrounds. They are by definition multinational states. Until the late 1980s, Europe had four of these artificial states: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet-Union. Today, only two are left: Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Some might argue that Cyprus also belongs to this group. Despite the fact that the international community (with the exception of Turkey) still regards Cyprus as one state, I would consider it to have broken up into two states, if not formally then certainly in practice.)
Although artificial states are exceptional in the Western world, the majority of the member states of the United Nations are artificial states. One needs only to consider the many states in Africa that obtained independence in the 1950s and 1960s, but that originated in arrangements between the European Powers, such as the 1885 Berlin Conference. Indeed, Africa, with the possible exception of a handful of states (such as Egypt and Ethiopia), is composed predominantly of artificial states. The continent was, as one author says, “Balkanised into colonies with artificial boundaries that ignored traditional ethnic groupings.” As a consequence, Africa’s state borders are “mere lines on the map, sometimes taking account of river valleys, sometimes not even that. They cut across regions which [form] natural units, and they [divide] peoples and language groups.” At the first Pan-African Conference in Accra in 1958, the African leaders explicitly stated: “Artificial barriers and frontiers drawn by imperialists to divide African peoples operate to the detriment of Africans and should therefore be abolished or adjusted; frontiers which cut across ethnic groups or divide peoples of the same stock are unnatural and are not conductive to peace or stability. Leaders of neighbouring countries should cooperate toward a permanent solution of such problems.”
Despite this declaration, the borders were never adjusted. As a sad result Africa has known neither peace nor stability in the past four decades. Countries inhabited by peoples grouped together without any conception of allegiance to their common states, were bound to fall victim to individuals or clans who looked upon the state merely as a vehicle for personal enrichment. Almost the whole of Africa today belongs to the category of the so-called “failed states” run by criminals or mafia clans that colonise the state for their own purposes.
Asia, too, has many of these artificial and failed states, that are unable to generate a genuine “civic glue” binding the nation. Iraq, established by the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreements of 1916, is an example. Within its borders three large ethnic groups (Kurds, Arabic Sunites and Shi’ites) were randomly thrown together. Only a dictator can keep them together. It seems almost impossible for an artificial states to become a democracy, respecting the rule of law.
Turning an artificial state into a genuine nation, i.e. succeeding in a task of nation-building, has never before been accomplished. Artificial states are characterized by an absence of generous patriotic feelings and civil loyalty to the state – two elements which result from “national consciousness” and form the “civic glue” of a state. This makes these countries by definition politically unstable because they lack the basic foundations upon which “normal,” i.e. non-artificial, states are built. Patriotism is a virtue. It is the generous love for one’s state or nation. We need this love in order to be truly human and humane. But patriotism presupposes a nation or a “genuine,” non-artificial state. An artificial state is an unstable institution because it lacks genuine national patriotism. The only patriotism existing within its borders are the patriotisms of its various peoples, but as these undermine rather than reinforce the state’s unity, the authorities try to eradicate them, thereby turning a virtue into a crime. What these authorities basically try to do is to construct a state by deconstructing national identities. Iraq persecuted Kurdish and Shi’ite patriots; the Soviet-Union persecuted Ukrainian nationalists; Yugoslavia did likewise with Croatian nationalists.
And what about Belgium? Before we can answer this question, the distinction between multilingual and multinational states needs clarifying. Along with Switzerland, Belgium is the only multilingual state in Europe. This makes it tempting to compare Belgium and Switzerland and to classify them in one group. Belgium recognises no fewer than three official languages (Dutch, French and German), and Switzerland even has four (German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romance). While Belgium is, however, an artificial and multinational state, Switzerland is not. “Europe” will resemble a “Greater-Belgium” in that “Europe” is also going to be an artificial, multinational construct, but it will hardly be a “Greater-Switzerland.”
In the broadest possible definition of the word “multilingual,” a multilingual state is any state where more than one language is used by people who have citizenship of that specific state in their relations with groups of other citizens of the same state. In this sense, all states are currently multilingual states. Apart from the indigenous citizens, with generations of ancestors in their particular state, there live in all European states today substantial groups of people who have immigrated into these states in the course of the 20th century and who have acquired full citizenship of the states in which they have settled, but who, nevertheless, still use the language of their countries of origin in their relations with other citizens of the same ethnic origin living in the same European country. Many of these languages, such as Hindi, Arabic or Turkish, are of non-European origin. We will, however, restrict the word “multilingual” to those states with more than one indigenous language, with the term “indigenous language” indicating a language that was already in use in a specific state before the 20th century. (Continental authors often use the German word “bodenständig” to refer to groups that have been living in a specific region or country for at least three generations (approx. one century). However, as many of the immigrant groups that settled in European states in the 20th century are now in their third generation but still use their original language, I have preferred to limit the term “indigenous” to groups that were present in a region or country prior to the 20th century.)
Even in this restricted sense of the term multilingual, the vast majority of European states are multilingual states. The United Kingdom has not only an indigenous English-speaking majority, but it is also home to citizens whose native tongue is Welsh or Gaelic (Scottish). Even states that are generally perceived as unilingual, such as France, are in fact multilingual. Part of France’s indigenous population, especially in the peripheral areas, has a mother tongue other than French. In almost all the European states, languages of differing linguistic groups are spoken by indigenous populations. Indeed, Iceland and Portugal are the only examples of unilingual states if we apply the broad definition that every European state where more than one indigenous language is spoken, is a multilingual state.
In most states, however, there is a hierarchy of languages. Even when the authorities officially recognise, protect or subsidise the existence of different languages, they presuppose the knowledge of one common lingua franca by all the citizens. For some citizens, this language is the only one they know and the authorities do not presuppose that they speak or understand any other language. I will call this language the “national” language. In the United Kingdom, English is the national language – a language which the authorities assume is understood by all citizens, even by those whose mother tongue is Welsh or Gaelic. In France, French is the national language; in Germany, German. Although the other languages spoken in these countries may enjoy official recognition, they are not “national,” but “regional” languages. Some authors apply another definition to the term “national language,” arguing for example that a language such as Welsh is a “national” language because it is the language of a nation. (Nevertheless, in Wales only a minority of the population actually have Welsh as their first language; even some Welsh Nationalists do not speak Welsh). I am using the word “national,” however, as an adjective for the word “state,” in the sense that it is also used in “international” and “United Nations.” I prefer not to use the term “official language,” because some regional languages also enjoy official recognition by the state.
Though it can be argued that all the states with one or more regional languages are “multilingual states,” I prefer to limit the term to its narrowest sense, which I think also corresponds to the sense in which most people understand and generally use the term. According to this definition, a multilingual state is a state with more than one national language, while all the other states – e.g. France – are referred to as unilingual states. For a state to have more than one national language implies that the state authorities accept that citizens know only one of these languages, and do not need to understand any other language (not even any of the other national languages of their state). This in turn implies that the authorities use more than one language to communicate with their citizens about all aspects of public life. Some provinces of multilingual states may be unilingual, which means that in these provinces the authorities use only one national language; some provinces may be bilingual, but even there it is assumed that the citizens understand only one of the national languages. In short, multilingual states recognise two or more national languages on a par, without assuming that there is a hierarchy between them.
In the strictest definition of multilingual, the number of European multilingual states is limited to less than a handful, most notably Belgium and Switzerland. In the 19th century, Belgium recognised only French as a national language, even in Flanders and in Brussels. According to my (strict) definition of a multilingual state, this would have made 19th century Belgium a unilingual state. I retain my definition, however, on the grounds that Belgium, by functioning as an official unilingual state, was violating the linguistic rights of a substantial group of its citizens – just as some unilingual states may be doing today.
Another distinction that needs clarification is that between the multinational state and the uninational state. Some nations live confined within the boundaries of one state, where they may form either a minority group, the largest of all minorities in the absence of an overall majority, or a majority. When a nation is either a state’s “national majority” or its largest and dominant minority, it will often claim this state as its nation-state. This is not always the case, however: the Flemings are the majority in Belgium, but do not regard the latter as their nation-state.
Sometimes a nation exists on the territory of more than one state. The Hungarians provide one example. Apart from Hungary (their nation-state), Hungarians also live in areas of Romania, Slovakia and Serbia. In each of the three latter countries, they constitute a “national minority.” The idea that national minorities are entitled to legal protection emerged in international law for the first time in 1830, when the International Powers forced the newly established Greek state to recognise the rights of the minorities living on its territory. The concept re-emerged for the second time in 1863 at the time of Greece’s further territorial expansion, and again at the 1878 Congress of Berlin when the international community recognised the independence of Serbia, Romania and Montenegro on condition that they guaranteed equal rights to every citizen.
After the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary in 1919, the rights of national minorities became a pressing issue in Central and Eastern Europe. Within the Wilsonian system established after the First World War, the League of Nations provided a system for protecting national minorities. It was an incomplete system, because “in reality, only states of Central Eastern Europe were brought under League supervision, not states of the West.” The latter simply refused to recognise that there were any national minorities living within their borders. Moreover, the system did not last. Hitler’s abuse of the position of German minorities in Czechoslovakia and Poland to further his aggressive schemes in the 1930s, led many states to regard minorities as hostile foreign pockets within their borders.
Consequently, between 1939 and 1947 the circumstances changed to such a degree that when the League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations, the League system for the protection of national minorities was deliberately not re-established. The emphasis now became protection from national minorities. Following the Second World War, millions of people belonging to national minorities were forced to leave the territories where they had been living for centuries. It is only since the fall of Communism in the late 1980s, that the topic of national minorities has reclaimed its position on the international agenda.
Though the European Powers forced Greece in 1830 to recognise the rights of national minorities, it is worth noting that the same Powers did not ask Belgium to guarantee the rights of national minorities when they construed the country in 1831. But then, as we will see, it was not the rights of a national minority that the Belgian authorities violated, but those of the country’s Dutch-speaking majority. Nevertheless, the absence of any international concern for the nationality problem in Belgium is remarkable.
Depending on whether we use a broad or a strict definition, we can call either almost all states “multinational states,” or hardly any of them. Again, I opt for a strict definition. Though all the states with national minorities on their territory can be called “multinational states,” I prefer to consider them as uninational once they are considered to be the nation-state by either a national majority or by a minority that in the absence of an overall majority is the biggest minority. As a consequence, for example, states such as France, Romania and even Estonia are regarded as uninational states, despite the respective Breton, Hungarian and (very large) Russian minorities living within their boundaries. A country such as Belgium, however, is not a uninational country because its Flemish majority does not consider it to be its nation-state.
The “old” states of Europe, dating back to the Ancien Régime, developed organically over a long period of time. Sometimes this state-forming process resulted from historical accidents, sometimes the peoples united themselves or were united by so-called “fathers of the fatherland,” on the basis of dynastic or economic interests, geography, language or religion. Such states have to be classified as non-artificial. One example is Spain, a state that originated from various older states (such as Aragon (Catalonia), Navarre, Castile) brought together by the Habsburg dynasty, who subsequently “called themselves kings not of Spain but of the Spains (las Españas), as the Romanov rulers had called themselves emperors of ‘all the Russias.’” And as the dukes of Burgundy in the 15th century became sovereigns of the Netherlands.
Even when states – “new” (post-Ancien Régime) states – were established, or rather constructed, in accordance with planned strategies (Italy and Germany in the 19th century), they often shared important characteristics that constituted powerful unifying elements binding together peoples who had hitherto lived in separate states. In these cases, the artefacts became viable states and effectively ceased to be artificial states. They were able, more or less spontaneously, to generate their “civic glue.” One of the “fathers” of Italy, Massimo d’Azeglio, former Prime Minister of Piedmont, is said to have observed: “We have made Italy; now we have to make Italians.” In other words: we have created the Italian state, now we have to construct the Italian nation. This proved successful, because “the forces working for a single Italian national consciousness and culture were stronger than those pulling the nation apart. Massimo d’Azeglio’s task of ‘making Italians’ [has] been completed.”
Language and religion are widely recognized as the most important constitutional elements of nationhood, but even without them, people can grow into a nation and form a viable state. Switzerland is an example of this. Though it is a multilingual and also a multi-religious state, it is definitely a uninational and not a multinational state, having grown organically over a period of more than seven centuries, after a number of Alpine farming communities formed a federation based on a free republican system in 1291. Today, the Swiss, though speaking different languages and adhering to different Christian denominations, exist as one nation within a single state. The German-speaking Swiss do not feel German, but Swiss; the same is true of their Francophone and Italian- and Romansh-speaking compatriots. The Swiss “national consciousness” and ensuing “civic glue” exists and is strong enough to bind its citizens together.
Multinational states are by definition artificial, because once multinational states evolve into viable entities, they generate a civic glue of their own and hence become uninational states. A state can also consist of various sub-nations encompassed within a larger nation. In such a state, there exists, so to speak, a hierarchy of nations. An example is the United Kingdom. The English nation exists, and the same is true of the Scottish nation, but combined they form the constituting parts of the British nation, which also exists and forms the civic glue of the British state. The latter came into being through an historical accident, namely the accession of the Scottish Stuart dynasty to the English throne in 1603. Without this accident, the English and the Scottish states would probably still exist today as two independent states.
Applying a broad definition, one can argue that the United Kingdom is a multinational state, because it “houses” at least two nations (the English and the Scottish). As the latter two are, however, constitutive parts of a single (British) nation, the United Kingdom is, according to my definition, a uninational state. (At this point it is tempting to speculate that, if history had taken a different turn, the Irish, too, might have been a sub-nation of the British nation. I do not wish to argue that this would have been better for them, but by breaking away from Britain, they were forced to emphasize their Catholic religion as a distinctive national characteristic, while if they had remained within the British framework, their geographic location rather than their religion might have become what distinguished the Irish from the English and the Scottish. In that case, the whole of Ulster would today still be considered an integral part of Ireland and even someone like Ian Paisley would probably consider himself to be a genuine Irishman and, who knows, be an MP in Westminster for a rabble-rousing party of Irish regionalists, called Sinn Fein? This consideration, however, belongs to the “What if”-type of history and, though interesting to contemplate, is altogether meaningless.)
The strictest definition of the concept multinational seems to me to be the most appropriate one, because in that case the uninational character of a state is relevant as a criterion to ascertain whether a state is artificial or not. Once a state becomes a single nation, even if it consists of various (sub)nations, it ceases to be an artificial state. Simon Green speaks of the “dual identity” of the British, “for [they] were never only British. They were English, Scots, Welsh and Irish, too. Those identities had been secured long before Union. Similarly, they outlasted it. […] Britishness never claimed an exclusive right to loyalty over the peoples of the United Kingdom. Thus separate nationalities not only survived under its aegis; in a curious way, they actually thrived under it.”
According to Seton-Watson, cited above, for a nation to exist, it is not necessary for the whole population to possess national consciousness; it is sufficient that a significant group does so: “Common sense suggests that if this group is exceedingly small (let us say less than one percent of the population), and does not possess great skill in propaganda, or a strong disciplined army to maintain it until it has been able to spread national consciousness down into much broader strata of the population, then the nationally conscious elite will not succeed in creating a nation, and is unlikely to be able to indefinitely remain in power on the basis of a fictitious nation.”
An artificial state is a creation based on such a “fictitious nation.” The nations living on its territory have not evolved into subnations of a new encompassing nation. Linda Colley has argued that the United Kingdom has remained an “invented nation” to this very day. She refers to the contemporary “re-emergence of Welsh, Scottish and indeed English nationalism […] not just as the natural outcome of cultural diversity, but as a response to a broader loss of national, in the sense of British, identity.” Other authors also point to “the rise of English nationalism,” predicting a coming “Balkanisation of Britain.” The Scottish political scientist Tom Nairn has even warned that “once England starts to think for and about itself in a new way, nationally and constitutionally, it will change everything and everyone else automatically – and in its own interests. […] The transition from Britain to England could mean a turn inward, […] as occurred in the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia.”
My view, however, is that Britain is not a fictitious nation – and the United Kingdom not an artificial state – because there exists, indeed, “a significant group” possessing not just a national consciousness of one of the British subnations, but also an encompassing British national consciousness. Contrary to Seton-Watson, I would dare to propose a more or less accurate suggestion of how large this “significant” group ought to be: it has to be sufficiently large for a state to be able to exist while respecting the Rule of Law. In other words, a nation ceases to be “fictitious” or “invented” if its state can continue to exist while respecting the Rule of Law. The United Kingdom and the Soviet Union are not comparable, because the Soviet Union disintegrated immediately once it began to introduce the Rule of Law. Consequently respect for the Rule of Law provides the major criterion for ascertaining whether a state is an artificial state or not.
To summarise: Uninational or non-artificial states are states that (a) consist of only one nation (e.g. Iceland); (b) consist of two or more nations, where one nation forms the national majority or constitutes a dominant minority, and considers this state to be its nation-state (e.g. Romania, Estonia, but not Belgium); or (c) have a hierarchy of nations, with one “national nation” encompassing the subnations (e.g. the United Kingdom). Switzerland can be categorised either in the first group or in the last, depending on whether or not one considers its constitutive parts (its linguistic groups or its cantons) as subnations or not.
Belgium is an abnormality. It is a state with two major linguistic groups where the Dutch-speaking majority forms the Flemish nation, but where the French-speaking Walloons do not regard themselves as a nation in their own right but rather as a part of the French nation and consequently a national minority within Belgium. If Belgium fitted the normal patterns, it would have developed in either of two directions: Belgium could have become the nation-state of its Flemish majority (category b), or the Flemings and the Walloons could have become subnations of a Belgian nation (category c). Neither is the case.
And what about Austria-Hungary?
An historical example that is often cited in discussions on multinational states, is the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. Does this example fit the definitions and the pattern outlined above or was it an abnormal case, like Belgium?
Like the United Kingdom, the union of Austria and Hungary was brought about by dynastic hazard. It came into being in 1526, almost one century before the union of England and Scotland, as a result of the marriage of the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand I of Austria to Anne of Bohemia, the daughter and heir of King Wladislaw II of Bohemia and Hungary. The Austrian, Hungarian and Bohemian (Czech) provinces remained united under the same crown for 393 years, until they were broken up by the Allied powers in 1919.
According to the definition employed above, Austria-Hungary cannot have been an artificial state for the simple reason that it was not “constructed.” Moreover, Austria-Hungary was not a state, at least not a single one. Indeed, after the so-called Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, Hungary became a semi-sovereign state. It is actually incorrect to speak of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after 1867, since, instead of forming one state, Austria-Hungary was more or less a confederation of the Austrian Empire on the one hand and the Kingdom of Hungary on the other. The Hungarians had their own parliament and government in Budapest, and the Austrians theirs in Vienna, while only defence issues, foreign affairs and certain economic powers were dealt with jointly.
The situation of the national minorities within the two parts of the “Dual Monarchy” was very different. Hungary pursued a policy of forced Magyarisation (or inculcation of the Hungarian language through the schools). Although non-Hungarians formed almost half the population of the Hungarian state (The official census in 1900 showed a 51.4 percent Hungarian majority), the government in Budapest pursued a harsh policy towards all minorities (with the exception of the Croats, who, under the Hungarian-Croatian Compromise of 1868, were granted limited regional autonomy). Already before 1867, laws had been enacted which made Hungarian the exclusive language of parliament, government and the administration. Hungarian nationalism was directed primarily against the non-Hungarian nations living in Hungary, rather than against the Habsburg monarchy.
The minorities living within the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy, such as the Czechs, the Slovenes and the Ukrainians, lived under far more favourable conditions than their counterparts in Hungary. Some of these minorities had chairs in their languages at the Military Academy and universities of their own. Prior to 1867 when Austria-Hungary was still one state, the Austrians had adopted the same lenient linguistic policy towards the Hungarians. Though in 1867 Bohemia had hoped to be recognised as a kingdom in its own right – which would have created a Triple instead of a Dual Monarchy (In the early 20th century, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Francis-Joseph advocated a stronger role of the Slavic peoples, which would give the Slavs an equal status to the German-Austrians and the Hungarians. This policy was called “trilism.”) – its Czech inhabitants did not have much cause for complaint. The Habsburgs had encouraged the development of the Czech language ever since the beginning of the 19th century. “If Austria did not exist, it would be necessary to create her, in the interests of humanity itself,” Frantisek Palacky, one of the great figures of the Czech revival wrote in 1848. At the end of the 1840s almost all the school age children in Czech-speaking districts went to school. In 1880 Czech was recognised as an official regional language in Bohemia, Moravia and Austrian-Silesia. In the 1890s the Austrian rulers even attempted twice to legislate for equality between German and Czech. Both attempts failed. If they had succeeded, Austria would have become a multilingual state in the sense outlined above, with both German and Czech as national languages, and a number of officially recognised regional languages. As it was, Austria must be categorised as a unilingual state with a number of official regional languages, while Hungary was a unilingual state where Croatian was recognized as a regional language but not the others, which meant that the linguistic rights of nearly half the population were violated.
Over time a national consciousness combining German-Austrians and Czechs could have developed. According to some authors Austria was “evolving into a multinational federation” before 1914. Hungary on the other hand was a uninational state according to my definition of the term, because it was the nation-state of the Hungarians. But the large group of non-Hungarians in that state certainly felt no love for it and, if given a chance, would probably have seceded. This made Hungary “a source of instability for the empire.” Indeed, the aim of the Slovaks (a national minority in Hungary, bordering on the Czechs in Austria) to come under the same type of rule as the Czechs, was regarded by the Hungarians as a form of separatism. National minorities in Hungary often looked for support to Vienna and frequently asked the Austrian Emperor to intervene on their behalf with the authorities in Budapest – something which he felt he could not do, given that he was also King of Hungary.
There are indications that, apart from an Austrian nation on the one hand and a Hungarian one on the other, there also existed within the Dual Monarchy something of an Austro-Hungarian identity, a kind of embryonic Austro-Hungarian “national consciousness.” The first indication is that the German-speaking Austrians never became Germans. They and the Swiss were the only German-speakers to go a separate way. Without this attachment to something non-German, Austria would probably have become either a constitutive part of Germany or the nucleus of a second German state, one that united all the Catholic German provinces.
The Hungarians, however, already constituted a nation in the early Middle Ages, long before the Austrians. This would have made it more difficult for them than for the Austrians to accept being “reduced” to the status of a subnation, although the English and Scottish nations, both as old as the Hungarian nation, allowed themselves to be “reduced” in this way. Indeed, a second indication of an embryonic encompassing Austro-Hungarian nation is the fact that the Hungarian attachment to the Habsburg dynasty – after all a German-speaking Austrian (originally Swiss) family – survived the end of the First World War. Hungary nominally remained a monarchy until 1945 (though it was ruled by a Regent), and even today some “Habsburg nostalgia” still lingers on in Budapest.
As the Austro-Hungarian “marriage” was broken up through external forces, we will never know for certain whether dynastic loyalty to the House of Habsburg could have become a civic glue strong enough to keep Austria and Hungary together in a single unit. It seems certain, however, that even if this had been the case, the various peoples living on the periphery of the Dual Monarchy, such as the Poles, the Romanians, the Serbs, the Italians and many others, would not have joined them of their own accord.
Czechoslovakia, mainly at the instigation of the Czech politician Thomas-Garrigue Masaryk, was put together by the international powers in 1919 from a part of former Austria and a part of former Hungary. They were merged in one single state, where before they had belonged to the different states of the Austro-Hungarian confederation. Masaryk’s plan had been even more ambitious. He had hoped to create “a Slav federation comprising a democratic Russia, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.”
Though the Czechs and the Slovaks speak related languages, there are many cultural differences between them. Czechoslovakia did not manage to become a genuine state with a national consciousness strong enough to keep them together. Having “made Czechoslovakia,” Masaryk and his successors (including Václav Havel), did not succeed in “making Czechoslovakians.” It remained an artificial state, which fell apart three years after the Communist dictatorship in Prague collapsed in 1989 and democratic principles and the Rule of Law were restored. “The federal state simply ‘withered away’; no traumatic blow was necessary to destroy it.”
The 20th century also witnessed the demise of the artificial multinational states of Yugoslavia and the Soviet-Union. They, too, lacked the civic glue binding non-artificial states; they fell apart as soon as the internal or international forces keeping the state together dissolved. With the demise of these three states, and ignoring Bosnia-Herzegovina, a remnant of Yugoslavia which has proved too difficult for the international community to divide (but might be on its way to become the nation-state of the Bosnians, the Islamic Serbo-Croat speakers), Belgium has remained the only artificial multilingual state in Europe. Its pivotal characteristic is not its multilinguality but its artificiality. Its history shows how this state originated through violence, how it was put together at a conference table by the international powers, without whose support it could not have survived, and how the Rule of Law was, and to a degree still is, absent from its political tradition.
Belgium was established as an independent state in 1831 after a historical accident that only in retrospect came to be known as the Belgian Revolution. The new state was unwanted both by the Dutch-speaking majority, and also by the Francophone minority. In the autumn of 1830, Francophone radicals had rebelled against the Dutch Kingdom of the Netherlands, of which the Belgian provinces formed the Southern and most populous part. The rebels wanted Belgium to join France. The establishment of an independent state was not their intention. It was the result of an international compromise reached by the Great Powers in the Summer of 1831 at the Conference of London. The same compromise turned Belgium into a Kingdom with a non-indigenous prince, the German Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, as the first “King of the Belgians.” The 1831 Conference of London also placed Belgium under the obligation to remain a neutral state, which was not allowed to enter into alliances with other states.
The Powers were sceptical, however, about the viability of their artefact. In other words: having “made” Belgium, they doubted whether anyone would succeed in “making Belgians.” The grand old men of 19th century European continental diplomacy, from Talleyrand to Metternich to Napoleon III to Bismarck, were all of the opinion that Belgium could not last longer than one or two generations.
Nevertheless, Belgium survived. It even became a rather stable country. If there is no national consciousness binding it, what has managed to keep it together? The country owed this primarily to its monarchy. Because of the artificial nature of Belgium, its king has greater power than any of his colleagues in the European monarchies. This power is not vested in the Constitution, but in the fact that the Belgian politicians implicitly, and (except for the Flemish separatists) almost unanimously, accept that the King, because he is neither a Fleming nor a Francophone and, hence, the only real Belgian, is a political arbiter who can actually make policy decisions and interfere in the political process. Because there is no justification for this in the law, the Rule of Law in Belgium is occasionally sacrificed to the requirement that the Belgian State survive.
The first King of the Belgians surprised everyone by cleverly holding a state together that none of its inhabitants had wanted. Leopold I even assisted his own Saxe-Coburg family by helping them onto the thrones of Great Britain and Portugal. Leopold and his first two successors were shrewd and imposing figures. They acknowledged the artificial nature of Belgium and the fact that it was unloved by the large majority of its citizens. The Kings of the Belgians were constantly in search of unifying elements that would compensate for the lack of nationhood and the absence of genuine and generous patriotic feelings in their country. Belgium’s national history is a consistent and dramatic search for the civic glue that bonds genuine countries.
Because the kings played such a pivotal role, this book will examine in detail how the successive kings tried to create a Belgian “national consciousness.” It will describe the Belgian Revolution and how Belgium was made, and in the following chapters analyse, in a chronological order, how each of the six kings tried to “make Belgians.” As the country lacked a common language, Leopold I (r. 1831-1865) opted for religion as the binding element. The King admired the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary, where he saw the dynasty and Catholicism as the unifying elements, and undoubtedly this empire inspired him. Leopold I’s recipe ultimately failed, however, because by the end of the 19th century Catholicism had become a predominantly Flemish characteristic, having much less significance in Wallonia.
His son, Leopold II (r. 1865-1909), inspired by the appeal of nationalism in his age, tried to incite Belgian Nationalism by planning wars of conquest and by giving Belgium a colony. But the Belgians rejected all his imperialist schemes. A people without national consciousness cannot turn nationalist. Leopold II had tried to work the other way round, but was bound to fail. The real “father of the fatherland” turned out to be his successor Albert I (r. 1909-1934). Since neither language nor religion could unite the Belgians, he shaped for them a common culture: the culture of the welfare state. Albert was the real constructor of his artificial country because he made corporatism into the foundation of the state, thereby assuring the loyalty to Belgium of all those at the receiving end of an ever expanding welfare mechanism. Belgium became a system of financial redistribution. According to Mancur Olson “distributional coalitions slow down a society’s capacity to [adapt] to changing conditions, and thereby reduce the rate of economic growth.” My findings confirm this. Albert’s recipe kept Belgium together for most of the 20th century, but from the 1970s onwards economic stagflation and social rigidities turned the conflict between Flemings and Walloons, which was until the 1960s mainly a linguistic conflict, into an ever deepening socio-economic conflict.
The last three of the six Belgians kings were less impressive figures. Leopold III (r. 1934-1950), inspired by multilingual Switzerland, tried to turn international neutrality into an element of a Belgian national identity. This policy had disastrous consequences, however, and cost him his throne. His sons, Baudouin (r. 1950-1993) and Albert II (r. 1993-today), continued Albert I’s welfare state policies, permanently stressing the need for more “solidarity” – between the rich and the poor, as well as between the Flemings and the Walloons, and also on a European level.
In the late 1990s, Belgium as an artificial state became the ideal of another group in addition to the welfare state corporatists. A group of Belgian artists and intellectuals wrote that they cherish the Belgian flag “because the latter does not represent anything,” and that Belgium, precisely because it has no national identity, is “an antidote against Nationalism” much needed by the post-modern world. Ironically, these intellectuals refer to two historical examples for the future post-national (or rather non-national) European state: Belgium and the former Austria-Hungary, “that old heimat that perished as the result of nationalist subversion and was, with the exception of Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia, replaced by nothing but filthy republics.”
According to the Belgian historian Louis Vos, “a non-ideological postmodernism has become the predominant fashion in intellectual life, more eager to deconstruct the national identity than to make a contribution to it. Some go so far as to deny that the ‘invented’ concept of national identity and community refers to anything real.” Indeed, attempts are now being made to transform Belgium into a non-national state, in the hope that this will be less artificial and its new common Belgian culture of nothingness will provide a better “civic glue,” not just for Belgium but also for the “Greater-Belgium” that Europe is supposed to become.