Belgian politicians doubleplusgood at blackwhite groupthink

8 November 2007

Politics is the art of the possible. Good politics, in doing so, has a plan of the desirable. Belgian politics, it seems these days, is the art of painting yourself in a corner by planning the undesirable and desiring the impossible.


Belgium proof that the EU will never work?

18 October 2007

Déviation - wegomleggingAlthough progress is now being made on the less controversial dossiers (discussions on constitutional change and social security should start later this week), the political crisis in Belgium is not entirely over yet, as foreign media will be delighted to hear. But do cultural and language differences really make the country fall apart?

Some analysts think it is, and some even put Belgium on a par with Yugoslavia as proof that rising nationalism will tear the EU apart. In this view, both Belgium and the EU are elitist projects doomed to fail due to lack of support from ordinary people:

If Belgium does go down it will provide only the latest and starkest reminder of the endurance of ethnic nationalism in modern Europe and the corresponding failure of elitist supra-nationalists to forge larger identities holding any real meaning for ordinary people. (FT)

But this is way too easy. First of all, I am not at all convinced that the differences within Belgium are too big for Belgium to continue as a country. And secondly, I very much doubt that the rise of ethnic nationalism in Belgium is a bottom-up process (it was not in Yugoslavia either, by the way). (more…)

Korea test fake?

10 October 2006

Just a thought that occurred to me, because:

  • Apparently, the test was low power;
  • North-Korea is not that advanced technologically, handicapped as it is by its international isolation, the dire state of its economy, and its stifling political system;
  • North-Korea is desperate to get the bomb – but even more to make it known that it has the bomb. For Axis of Evil dictators these days, having the bomb is their only guarantee against an American invasion;
  • Propaganda is Kim Il’s middle name.

Update 17 Oct: Still no proof despite what the US government says; check out the comments at ArmsControlWonk (via).

Lies, statistics and preconceptions

10 October 2006

Poll gain for Belgium’s far right“, headlines the BBC website after the municipal and provincial elections in Belgium last Sunday.

Most of its readers will have heard of the far right Vlaams Belang (VB, former Vlaams Blok) party and of the cordon sanitaire with which traditional parties try keeping it outside local council government. Despite – or as a result of – the cordon however, VB has been gaining votes in every election for years. Flanders, and VB stronghold Antwerp in particular, have become synonymous with the failure of traditional politicians everywhere in Europe to deal with their voters’ concerns on immigration and integration issues.

In other words, another spectacular poll gain for the Vlaams Belang fits into the picture we know. But is it correct? Well, no.

First of all, VB’s “sweeping gains” of seats in local councils are less the result of increasing support in the Flemish countryside, than of the fact that it actually put up any candidates in those places. In most places where VB candidates stood for election, people did not vote for them in larger numbers than they did on previous occasions when they could vote for VB candidates.

Second, compared to the last elections in 2004, VB lost votes – for the first time in history. In the 2004 regional elections, VB had 24.15% of the votes in the Flanders region. This year, in the provincial elections which use exactly the same constituencies as the regional ones, VB gained only 20.6% of the votes cast in Flanders. VB lost in all provinces, including its powerbase Antwerp where it gained 28.4% (province) and 33.51% (city) of the votes, compared to 30.07% (province) and 34.88 (city) in 2004.

So, indeed, VB still has good scores. But the good news of these elections is that, for the first time, its rise seems to have been stopped. At least for the moment…

Update: More on the Belgian elections in Guy’s post at AFOE.

Yet another Balkan statelet, but…

21 May 2006

Flag of MontenegroMontenegro. If the polls are right, 55.3% of the votes in the referendum today were for independence. With 85% turnout this would mean that both of the EU requirements for a “valid” outcome (50% turnout, 55% majority) are met.

But independence? Let’s say it was a vote on identity and legitimacy, rather than independence.
The country has 600,000 inhabitants. Opponents of independence argue that, economically or politically, there is no way in which it will function independently. This is of course true, although it is equally true for almost any much larger country – so this argument does not necessarily hold.

Many proponents of independence seem to think that an independent Montenegro will more easily be accepted as an EU member than the current union with Serbia. This argument only holds if the prospect of Montenegro splitting off does not lead to civic unrest or worse, after all about a third of the inhabitants identify themselves as “Serb” rather than “Montenegrin”. A violent outcome is however not expected by most observers, thanks not least to the fall of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade and the normalisation that has taken place there since.

In this sense, a non-violent outcome sort of defeats the pro-independence argument that an early EU membership is more likely without Serbia than with it. The EU has also become less keen on taking in new members, and will certainly hesitate to accept Montenegro as a member without at the same time agreeing on a long-term settlement for Serbia. Most likely, any agreement on Montenegrin accession to the EU would come with an agreement on Serbian accession a few years later – or not at all.

Still, it may be wrong to conclude that this whole independence episode is all about becoming an EU member a few years earlier. Identity and legitimacy have become determining factors in elections all over Europe, as voters feel increasingly uncomfortable with the speed at which the world around them is perceived to be changing. As a result they rally against any outside influence that symbolises this change: globalisation in France, immigration in the Netherlands, Denmark and (perhaps now) Britain, the EU in (again) France and the Netherlands, gays and foreign investors in Poland.

With this in mind, regionalists could argue that rallying around local independence movements is not the worst way in which electorates can deal with globalisation fears, especially if seperation from the larger state is accompanied with an opening up to the rest of the world. The result in this case is a government that is more legitimate because people identify with it more easily, and which is, as a result, more effective when it comes to tackling the problems posed by globalisation on their behalf.

This could be the positive outcome of today’s vote in Montenegro.

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Go for it, Belarus!

21 March 2006

Demonstrators in Minsk

Will Belarus, Europe’s last remaining dictatorship, go the same way as Georgia and Ukraine? One can only hope so. Although this time, I have a feeling that the regime’s propaganda-based support is too strong, and that the demonstrators are too few. Sadness and anxiety prevail when I see their courage and optimism.

Still, for those who want to stay informed on recent events, here are a few links:

What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence

15 February 2006

It is true that Wittgenstein’s proposition (see title) means something else altogether, but taken very literally one can still read it as a lesson politicians and commentators should take at heart more often – be it in words or even in actions.

Take the ‘freedom of speech’ row, which was started by Jyllands-Posten, allegedly, in order to defend free speech (and the potential illustrators of a children’s book on Muhammad) against attacks by fanatic muslims. Did Jyllands-Posten achieve what it wanted? I think not. Be it in the eyes of fanatic or of moderate muslims, if the publication and what followed has set a lasting example this is not as convincing proof of the benefits of free speech, but of its drawbacks.