In more ways than one, Brussels is a fitting choice for capital of the European Union. Aside from its central location and placement in the middle of the Germany-France-UK cockpit which has shaped European politics and conflict for 500 years, Belgium shares many other qualities with the EU as a whole: internal cultural conflict, an ineffective and dithering political class and a massive debt burden threatening to tear the country apart. As a new article in the Financial Times reports, Belgium could be the next Euro member in line for a debt bust:
Economic stagnation and ongoing political deadlock sent Belgian bond yields up sharply Thursday as investors wondered whether it would be the next country swept up by the eurozone debt crisis.Yields on 10-year bonds jumped to 4.95 per cent, up 0.36 per cent in one day, making Belgium the riskiest sovereign issuer in the eurozone after Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain, the so-called PIIGS that have either received European Union bail-outs or have taken determined action to avert collapse.
Belgium is a mess. Its debts have been growing and its economy stagnating for many years. And as is the case across Club Med, Belgium’s economic weakness reflects deep seated political dysfunction. The political conflict between the Dutch speaking north and the francophone Walloons of the south has paralyzed the country’s culture and politics to the point where Belgium limped along without a government for the better part of two years — evoking uncomfortable reminders of the growing North-South cultural divide that has threatened European unity since the beginning of the crisis. Add to this the indecisiveness and bickering of the country’s politics and the picture is complete — Belgium is a microcosm of a troubled EU.The EU helps; in the old days, tension between Dutch and French speaking Belgians would have triggered a massive war crisis. France would have used the crisis as an opportunity to advance toward its coveted ‘natural frontier’ on the Rhine; Britain would be hunting for allies to keep the Gallic menace in check.These days, nobody, not even the Belgians, really cares all that much about the latest regional spats. Flemings and Walloons figure that at the worst they could just join the EU as mini-states (though Brussels itself would be a problem — unless the EU proclaimed it as the EU answer to the District of Columbia).Squabbles in Belgium won’t bring down the EU, but trouble in the EU could make problems like Belgium much bigger headaches for the rest of the world. Let’s hope Europeans find a way past their current troubles so that, among other things, Belgians can continue to snarl at one another in comfortable security, ignored by the rest of the world.