Monday, 28 June 2010

Balkans - 2010

I read a couple days ago that Balkan states launch 'mini-Schengen'. revealed that
'Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo have created a passport-free zone, called a "mini-Schengen" by Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu, in order to show their readines to join the EU's borderless, so-called Schengen area. Macedonia and Montenegro began EU visa-free travel last year'.

I think from Brussels perspectives Balkans are still far away. 2010 was a year of eurozone crisis and Greece was high on the agenda. So we tend to overlook what is happening in the former Ottoman empire. You ask why I bring back this old history? Let me just remind you that until the Congress of Vienna in 1815 most of Balkans including Greece were under the rule of Ottomans (if I read the maps correctly Montenegro stayed independant). Currently in Balkans we have several small states like the ones that joined the passport-free zone which are in the shadow of a somewhat bigger Serbia. And 15 years after the Dayton agreement we have an unresolved issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina...

The elephant in the room is the potential for creating a bigger Albanian state: joining Albania, Kosovo and parts of Macedonia. But I am really not an expert on this so maybe I go back to watch the Flemish national movement and see what comes out in my neighbourhood.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The independance of Flanders

Like with the financial crisis people will say that nobody had seen it coming. And then you find some guys who actually did and they become famous, get invited to newspapers and become celebrities. That is my goal too :) but let's go back to the facts and my reading of them:

Nationalism is an ideology which puts the nation as the most important psychological link to the world. Nationalism is a religion born probably during the French Revolution. Nationalism is a modern religion which has spread across Europe during the last 200 years.

Nationalism is not over despite what many would like to hear. Just look at Yugoslavia where nations led by charismatic leaders became the dominant political forces. Yugoslavia broke into pieces, even Kosovo is now a quasi independant state. The unfinished business is Bosnia and Hercegovina where different communities have been mixed for centuries. But the current international rule of BiH is unsustainable and most commentators agree to it. But joining the Union one day might be a good incentive to reduce the tentions - only if the political leaders would gain more from joining than becoming independant (Republika Srpska).

Flemish nationalism is a force which is growing in force since the collapse of the Flamse Union. Flemish Christian democrates have incorporated the nationalist agenda into their programme thus giving the nationalistic claims the status of legitimate argumentation.

CD&V (the party of Leterme, van Rompuy, Jean-Luc Dehaene) has lost their bet of reforming the Belgian state: splitting the BHV electoral district, breaking up the solidarity between Flanders and the rest (Wallonie, German communities and Brussels). Bart de Wever, leader of NVA- New Flamish Alliance, is the winner of the three-year-long political stalemate since the elections in 2007.

The Wallonia and Brussels have turned to Socialists to defend their claims for social justice. The Francophone claim that if solidarity between north and south is broken, it will be the end of the state. Their main argument is that in the first half of XX century it was the Wallonia which financed the developement of the poorer north.

The social security systems do not have to be homogenous in federal polities. Given the difference of income and living costs many economist would agree that different systems would actually provide a more accurate solution (let's say based on the Purchasing Power etc.). I will not go into the details but I have no problems saying that an unemployed in a richer region should get 500 euros per month while in the poorer 450 would be enough.

The current social security system in Belgium is ridiculous and does not provide enough incentives to look for a job. The taxation of work is so high that it can dissuade people from moving from the social security to the labour market. I believe it kills enterprenership too and is part of the problem in Wallonia and Brussels. It has also a perverse effect of bringing to Belgium immigrants who are seeking to acquire the rights to social benefits (but there are also historical reasons for immigration so let's not put this as the only reason).

So what is happening? Flamings want to have a German style efficient and functioning state. The Wallons are for them the lazy rent-seekers who live on the Flemish work. Does it bring to your mind the pictures of cruel capitalists exploiting the worker class? So the Flemish nationalism has a hidden anti-exploitation Marxist ideology.

The only elements that keep the country together is Brussels and its important political and economic status. The Brussels metropolitan area (essentially the Brabant walloon and flemish with the Capital region) is a economic motor of Belgium. Additionally Brussels is perceived by Flemish as a Flemish capital - mainly for linguistic history of the town.... yes, it used to be Flemish speaking.

Now the majority of people in Brussels capital region speak French, English, Arabic, Flemish (in this order). So the Flamings cherish the sentiment of lost heartland (like the Kosovo Pole for the Serbs or Lvov and Vilnius for Poles). Flemish have a minority status in Brussels which gives them over-representation in the regional government. They try to reconquer the lost land by supporting the Flemish revival (culture, schools etc.). This policy is partly successful but given the internationalisation of the town the progress will be slow. Flemish as a language is fighting to remain at the level of 20% (population knowing it, not necessarily using it in their daily lives).

So the question is if Bart de Wever will take a patient approach of Mr Van Rompuy who tried to build compromise and satisfy the Flemish claims. It is unlikely. These completely different political personae. So the risk is that finally NVA will take over the leadership of Flanders region and give up the claims for Brussels. If Paris is worth the mess, then for nationalists independant Flanders is worth losing Brussels. Or this is too high a price? This is the question.

So what is the possible scenario? NVA will try to limit the remit of the federal government and given the opposition of Francophone will be forced to push through solutions hostile to the Francophone in the federal parliament. Despite their majority it will take a lot of time because the Constitution has many in-built brakes. But it will only slow down the process, not stop it. The Francophone pushed against the wall will either renegate on their support to the Francophone minority living in the municipalities surrounding Brussels region or block the government.

After some time, with the finances of the country deteriorating, the Flemings will escape from the sinking ship leaving Brussels behind. We should not exclude violent clashes for the communes which are essentially francophone but are located in the Flamish region (Rhode-St Genese, Kraineem, Wezembeek-Oppen etc.)
At the end Brussels with Wallonia will become the new Belgium. It will be a buncrupt state so sooner or later they might ask for a protective hand from Paris. And if at this moment France is ruled by a Socialist president, the temptation to increase the political clout over a reunified French might outweight the cost of the bailout. And this way Brussels might one day find itself in Gaullist/Mitterandist hands.
Or Germans, Brits and others will claim an independant status of the capital of Europe. And in 2014 - the 100th commemoration of Sarajevo debacle Europe will be ruled from Brussels CE (Capital of Europe).

This narrative is a political fiction for now. But let's see what the future brings us. Watch carefully because it is no longer a Belgo- Belgian feud. It really is about the heart of Europe (in geographical and philosophical meaning).

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Danish Design

If anybody is looking for ideas how to improve the world we live he should go to Copenhagen to the Danish Design Centre. It is impressive and I mean it. I spent 3 hours in altogether 4 rooms watching films, listening to interviews and discovering what it means to design our environment and tools in a way which is pleasant, intuitive and useful.
The concept of design is not as easy as it seems. It is about research what the users need, it is about planning and implementation. You can go to the website to see how the concept is explored by the Scandinavians!
And even more, the Danes are crazy enough to implement this concept. You can see it in the trams that circulate in the town.
Europe has plenty things to discover... you just need to leave Brussels for a weekend :)