Published on November 30th, 20124
The Pointlessness of Belgium
by Jo Jakobsen, NTNU
Belgium is a pointless state. Its sole historical purpose, to act as a buffer state in the great-power game of Europe, has long since become obsolescent. Now it seems that Belgium merely exists to survive. Much like a beetle, actually.
Belgium is a pointless state. There, I said it. Someone should, really. Originally I wanted to do a small piece about – or rather a ranking list of – the ten most inconsequential, purposeless, meaningless, and pointless states in the international system, a vital system that harbors close to 200 independent, sovereign entities. I soon found that such a list would be difficult to construct, however. There are simply so many candidates! Take the island states of the Pacific, for example. Kiribati – seriously! Or Nauru, populated by about 9,000 people. And a handful of other, similar beaches that happen to hold a UN membership.
But it would be wholly unfair to these states if I ridiculed them here – because, to be fair, it is not the fault of the people or governments of Kiribati and Nauru that their respective territories are tiny, secluded islands. In some way, they deserve their independent-country status. Out of decency and niceness, if for nothing else. That is largely also true for the European microstates (although San Marino and Monaco are arguably borderline, semi-absurd cases). Most African states also deserve some credit simply for having survived, and in a few cases even prospered somewhat, as independent states despite the odds being stacked heavily against them courtesy of some 19th-century ludicrous, ethnocentric map-drawing by the major powers of Europe.
No, Belgium is my one and only true candidate. Although small, this is not a microstate by any count (the country is inhabited by roughly 11 million people, although that is hard to believe as one hardly ever runs into a Belgian, neither in Belgium nor elsewhere); it is located at the heart of Europe; its independent-country status originates from the 1830s; it played a decisive role in the run-up to the First, and a vital role in the Second World War; and – would you believe it! – for almost a century it even owned and, in the spirit of true great-power behavior, brutally oppressed an enormous chunk of Africa. But now there’s nothing. No discernible point at all. Not to me, anyway.
But in fairness to myself, the Belgians don’t seem to think so either. Their most recent claim to fame, it turns out, was the world record they absolutely smashed: by December 2011, the people of Belgium had somehow managed to go 541 days without settling on a government. Like if they didn’t care. And if the Belgians themselves do not care about their state and statehood, who on earth will, or indeed should?
Now you might point out that what I am saying here is associated with some inflammatory potential. What if Belgian nationalists read what I write and decide to confront me? Well, that shouldn’t really be a problem: at least one of the two words “Belgian nationalists” is meaningsless; together, they’re just an absurdity. Now, of course, I am exaggerating, albeit only a tad. On a much more serious note, though, the “Belgian problem” does have some very specific roots.
These roots stem from the 1830s, when Belgium obtained independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 1839, the major powers in Europe, through the Treaty of London, recognized Belgium as an independent country, declared it perpetually neutral, and pledged to intervene in case Belgium’s sovereignty was ever infringed. Belgium thus became a buffer. A buffer in the balance-of-power system of 19th-century Europe. Incidentally, that was a role Belgium, through its earlier status as an integral part of the Netherlands, had already held for two dozens years. 1839 just sealed Belgium’s role. As an eternal buffer. That was Belgium’s sole purpose.
Now I feel the urge to point out that I do not in any way disavow the importance of buffer states; in general, these are far, far from pointless. Quite the contrary, they have been, and in some cases still are, vitally important players in the realm of international politics. From Uruguay (between Brazil and Argentina), to Mongolia (China and Russia), to the famous buffer of Afghanistan (between Russia and Great Britain), to the mountain states of Nepal and Bhutan (China and India), and to, well, the whole of Central Europe during the Cold War: Buffer states serve the quite extraordinarily important role of preventing great-power conflicts by increasing the distance between trigger-happy major-power neighbors. This they do merely by existing – and this should keep them from ever entering into a phase of existential crisis. If they manage to reinvent themselves and their purpose after their buffer status become obsolescent, that is. Belgium has tried. But Belgium has failed.
Belgium’s role as a buffer state effectively ended sometime in the 1950s. As I have indicated above, the country played a significant role in the run-up the World War I, by virtue of luring Great Britain into that conflict (German control over Belgium, a stone-throw’s distance from the Isles, would pose too big a risk for London). In World War II, for its part, Belgium largely functioned as a convenient carpet over which the Wehrmacht could step on their way to much more important territories. Though it was perhaps useful for Europe to keep the buffer for a few years following that conflict (as French suspicion of a resurgent Germany still lingered), by the mid-1950s, when West Germany entered NATO, it was all over. Belgium had lost its purpose, its meaning, the reason for its existence.
Well, human beings also run into existential crises for various reasons. What we normally attempt to do in such circumstances is to invent for ourselves a new purpose, a new meaning of life – one (or more) purpose that can push us to exist at least for a little bit longer. So too with states. And so too with Belgium. Cue the European Community, of which Belgium was a founding member back in (well, of course) the 1950s. And ever since, Belgium has been intimately connected to the Community, spurring the other European countries on to take ever greater steps toward a truly united Europe (which, if realized, would, incidentally but not at all ironically, mark the suicidal obliteration of Belgium itself) – and it now still hosts the big central offices and buildings of the European Union.
Without the EU, Belgium would soon cease to exist by virtue of having no purpose. There’s certainly no need for any buffer in peaceful, war-weary, post-materialist, wealthy, and largely bored Europe these days. No need for Belgium, in other words. The EU provides the last lifeline for that state. But offices can be moved. NATO’s Headquarters were moved from Paris to Brussels in 1966; they’re only buildings, so they can move again (and so can the offices of the EU). Meanwhile, the people and politicians of Flanders (the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium) and the people and politicians of Wallonia (the French-speakers) themselves wonder what’s the point with their joint state.
There is one major problem to my main argument, though, which the perceptive reader might already have identified, though I honestly doubt it. That concerns the actual effects of a quiet, almost unnoticed dissolution of Belgium. At least those trained in International Relations know that, in international politics, vacuums are inevitably filled by someone. The territories themselves do not disappear even if the state of Belgium does. Someone will gain influence in these territories. Belgium disappears. Enter Germany? France? The Netherlands? All of them? Perhaps we can state here that the purpose of Belgium is simply to exist. If, for nothing else, to avoid the hassle of rewriting the maps of Europe, and to avoid inevitable changes in the European balance of power. Belgium exists. To survive. That is their purpose. Their sole purpose. Much like a beetle, actually.
Cover photo by Clay Irving, girl photo by Eddie Van, flag photo by Dr. Les