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Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Why Belgium?

Episode of the Belgian Revolution of 1830, by Egide Charles Gustave WappersHaving gone for months without a government, the Belgian crisis looks set to kick off once again. French speakers and Flemish speakers really just don’t seem to get on, and are increasingly objecting to being forced to share the same country. Indeed, as anyone who has ever been to Brussels – which is in the Flemish part of the country – will know, if you try to speak French to a Flemish-speaker, you’re liable to end up with an earful of abuse. To outsiders it can all seem rather confusing – I mean, hell, it’s only Belgium, right? As anyone who’s ever visited the place will know, although the countryside is pretty enough (and the beer and food is aces), there’s really not that much worth fighting over – Belgium has more often than not been used as a staging-post for wars aiming to claim other, more interesting territories. Rarely has it been the prize that has been sought.

So what’s worth getting so het up about? The confusion only deepens when you realise that the problem dates back more than 2,000 years…

Belgium has always been an artificial creation – and one with little in the way of a coherent history. It started out as part of the Roman province of Gallica Belgica (named after the Belgae tribes of the region, whom Julius Caesar thought among the most brave of those he helped conquer), formed in 22 BC following thirty years of on-off rebellions and Germanic invasions and even then made up of two distinct linguistic/racial groups, the belligerent Germanic tribes in the north and the more Romanised Celtic Latin speakers in the south.

But the real clincher came under Emperor Domitian in c.90 AD – Gallica Belgica was restuctured, with the part largely corresponding to modern-day Belgium being named Germania Inferior. The inferiority complex has arguably remained ever since – the area more often under the rule of others than independent.

After three hundred years of relative peace under the Romans (albeit heavily militarised peace, as this was border country) being shattered by the arrival of the Vandals and Burgundians in 406, becoming part of the heartland of the Frankish Merovingian and then Carolingian empires. Modern day Belgium was still but a part of a greater whole, with no identity of its own.

Then came the split – the division of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire that followed the Treaty of Verdun of 843. Now, rather than just being part of a larger whole, what is now Belgium became two even smaller parts of two far larger wholes – a situation only worsened when, in 862, the County of Flanders became part of the new country of France, the rest of what is now Belgium remaining in the Holy Roman Empire. Despite being nominally part of France, Germanic languages began to dominate in northern Flanders, while Latinate languages continued to be the norm in the south for much of the medieval period.

900 years on from Julius Ceasar’s initial Roman conquest, there was still no sign of Belgium – but the language division was firmly entrenched. When the two parts of modern Belgium were reunited as part of the Bergundian Netherlands in the early 15th century, they found they had little in common – and continued to feel that way until the Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, when they were divided once again during the reorganisation of the Seventeen Provinces.

Did the Belgians have any say in any of this? Of course not – they still didn’t exist.

Meanwhile, the Reformation kicked in and – as in so many parts of Europe – caused further divisions, the Flemish/Germanic north turning Protestant, the French/Latinate south remaining Catholic [* see comments*]. The northern part joined the newly-formed Dutch Republic, the south the Spanish Netherlands – and the dividing line of this political/religious schism ran right through good old Belgium, neatly positioning it as one of the central battlefields and staging grounds of first the Eighty Years War, then the overlapping Thirty Years War, swiftly followed by the War of Devolution, the Franco-Dutch War, the War of the Grand Alliance, the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. Along the way, the region’s rulers (usually French, Spanish, Dutch or Austrian) changed too often to keep track of, and it played host to at least two of the battles that helped define modern Europe, Ramillies and, of course, Waterloo.

After Napoleon’s defeat, Belgium was included as part of the newly-created United Kingdom of the Netherlands – which was so united it lasted a mere 15 years until the oft-forgotten Belgian Revolt created that fun little country that plays host to the European Union. Why was there a revolt? Well, because having been under French rule from 1795-1815, the French-speaking Catholic south didn’t much like suddenly being ruled by the Protestant Dutch again.

The Belgian Revolt remains a hugely confusing affair, thanks largely (as far as I can tell) to a combination of revolutionary fervour and Dutch over-reaction, rather than just the southern, French, Catholic bit of Belgium ending up independent, parts of the Flemish Protestant north [* see comments*] split off as well. It seems rather like a one-night-stand that ended up in marriage – albeit a marriage that has lasted 178 years so far, and weathered countless more wars passing through the country’s borders (that declaration of neutrality made back in 1830, it seems, not doing them much good).

And there we have it. Like all European countries, Belgium is an accidental construct of centuries of conflict, only this time one where the accident is continuing to create real problems thanks to the harsh cultural/linguistic divide between north and south that was already in evidence back in the time of the Romans. Just check out the map of the Belgian elections from last year (left) and the Flemish/French linguistic divide (right), and it becomes all too obvious – a picture telling a thousand words and all that (almost literally, in this case – I’m about 30 words over…):

Belgian elections v languages, stolen from ElectoralGeography.com and The Encyclopedia Britannica respectively

Plus, of course, the irony value of even so small a country as Belgium – a country that even by Europe’s standards has experienced more than its fair share of warfare, conflict and persecution – not being able to stay united while playing host to the various institutions of a European Union which of course aims to unite a far larger and far more divided area packed with far more languages and far more past conflicts, is not lost on me… It makes it at once the most and the least appropriate place to house the (majority of the) EU institutions going. Unless we can relocate them to the Balkans…

Update: Here you go, the stupidity of Belgium personified. I present the town of Baarle-Nassau. Surely this has to be one of the most convoluted fixed national border situations in the world?

16 Comments

  1. Mostly good article, except where you keep saying ‘Protestant Flemish’. It’s true that Antwerp was one of the early centres of the Dutch Reformation, but several centuries of ultra-Catholic Habsburg rule left Flanders with almost no Protestants at all by the time it came under Dutch rule. So religion was something of a uniting factor in the Belgian Revolution, on the revolutionary side.

    However, it wasn’t a uniting factor on the Orangist side. Contrary to popular belief, Christians within the territory of the present-day Netherlands are not a homogeneous group of Calvinists, nor were they in the 19th century – there was a state religion, but unlike say England it was never really enforced on the populace. In fact, a large minority of Dutch were and are Catholic, and the Protestants were until recently divided into different camps as a result of various uniquely Dutch schisms, making the Catholic church the largest single grouping. Until the mid-20th century, Dutch society was deeply divided or ‘pillarised’ partly on religious lines (socialism and liberalism behaved like ‘secular religions’), even between the different kinds of Protestants.

    Of course, nowadays both Belgium and the Netherlands are fairly secular, and the Catholic/Protestant divide is probably seen as less important than the Non-Muslim/Muslim one.

    As for language, the Belgian Revolution, like most revolutions, was one organised by the rich and powerful who’d seen their power slightly diminished, and if you were rich and powerful in early 19th-century Belgium you probably spoke posh French (as opposed to the Flemish or Walloon dialects spoken by the common folk, who had little say in politics). This applied in Flanders as well as in Wallonia, which is why Dutch speakers have such a huge chip on their shoulder even though nowadays their numerical superiority would allow them to dominate a more centralised state, and they are richer than the Walloons to boot. Brussels is an especially sore point, being a Flemish city that got Gallicised mostly by virtue of being the capital of a country where French was the only official language.

  2. Hurrah! I was hoping someone who knew a bit more about this may be able to explain that bit to me a bit more, because the entire Belgian independence thing has confused me for years (the early-mid 19th century not really being my period, sadly…)

    Now all I need is to find out the reasoning behind the ridiculously convoluted and frequently illogical Belgian/Dutch border (e.g. / e.g. / e.g. / e.g.). It surely can’t all be down to old feudal landowning patterns – as is apparently the case with Baarle-Nassau – can it? I mean, a popular independence movement wouldn’t pay much attention to aristocratic land rights, surely?

  3. Being an expat Belgian (I bet you hadn’t guessed that from previous posts) who clearly identifies as Flemish (although relatively moderate), I can comment a bit further.

    First off, I back Colin on his correction viz. the religions. Although it must be said that until about 40-50 years ago, Flanders was probably a lot more Catholic than Wallonia has ever been. Since then, as Colin points out, the whole country has rapidly become ultra-secular.

    Second, Amsterdam got its Golden Age because Antwerp was forced back under Spanish Catholic rule rather heavy-handedly, with most of the rich merchants leaving Antwerp and settling in Amsterdam. Neal Stephensons’ quote is really interesting: “Antwerp suggested, Amsterdam confirmed, and London proved” that wealth could be created through trade rather than by owning land. Antwerp had the first stock exchange, and arguably the first newspaper (opinions differ on that).

    Third, I see no contradiction between the current Belgian problem and the country still acting as a model for Europe. What Belgium is currently proving is that a Federation built on a very complex agreement between cultures, that tries to protect minorities by giving them virtual veto power over the majority, is not workable.

    The only alternatives are: unified institutions and parties etc (something that won’t work for either Belgium nor Europe), or a true Confederation with independent nations that do some things collectively, by choice.

    In the case of Belgium, I believe very few things should be done collectively, as those things that are best done as close to the people (education, employment etc) should be done by the smallish independent nations, and those things that require scale (climate, immigration, health etc) would be much better done by the EU. The Belgian confederation if it ever gets created can have state police, external affairs, and justice, but not much beyond that.

    As for the EU, I strongly favor a total reform that also establishes a confederation of independent nations that have full control over everything that can be best done locally. But the EU level should also be strengthened significantly, with very few veto powers and more direct democracy (election of a president, European parties etc).

    Finally, I predict (as Nosemonkey has done before) that the existence of the EU will actually increase incidents such as this one in Belgium. Simply because it means that smaller nations will be able to thrive under an EU umbrella and hence no longer need anachronistic accidents such as the artificial country of Belgium. The Walloons may not realize it yet, but eventually they could be much better off as a separate nation in the EU (not at the moment, though, because they must be one of the best protected minorities in the world now, and they get an enormous amount of money from Flanders without any strings attached — that’s what they are fighting to keep).

    PS. Totally unrelated, but go see “In Bruges” if you can. Excellent film.

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  5. Ah, the constitutional impasse A.K.A. Belgium raises its profile yet again, rather quicker than I had envisaged.

    SD notes the emergence of a fascinating (and I would argue, pivotal feature for future European political evolution) geo-political phenomena:

    “Finally, I predict (as Nosemonkey has done before) that the existence of the EU will actually increase incidents such as this one in Belgium. Simply because it means that smaller nations will be able to thrive under an EU umbrella and hence no longer need anachronistic [historical?] accidents” [i.e. Nation States]; my additional comments enclosed in [] brackets

    However I have to question the limitations SD places upon potential pathways for European integration.

    SD: “The only alternatives are: unified institutions and parties etc (something that won’t work for either Belgium nor Europe), or a true Confederation with independent nations that do some things collectively, by choice.”

    Perhaps there is a third option? A federal construction in which the distribution of political power is determined by the merits of the policy under consideration rather than any arbitrary (and historically accidental) lines currently drawn across the continent, i.e. National borders?

    Global Environmental Issues (Climate Change), Defence, Immigration (in a world of transcontinental migration flows), Foreign Affairs, Global Trade, Macroeconomics, Combating the threats posed by terrorism and organised crime? Quite obviously these matters are inexorably gravitating outside the compass of individual countries to effectively manage.

    Healthcare, Education, Law & Order, Housing, Intra-Regional Transport, Culture & Tourism; it’s a no-brainer to rationalise these policies as more immediate in nature and therefore applicable to more local (by default covering smaller geographical areas) tiers of accountable governance

    Therefore common sense (signally absent from most discussions between politicians) informs me that a supranational level is the most appropriate level for managing the first array of policy portfolios and more localised (smaller?) institutional arrangements should manage the latter set.

    It goes without saying that this common sense approach can only succeed if two particular pre-conditions are met.

    1. The political willpower exists within all relevant parties (amongst political elites) to the discussion.

    2. The various public audiences impacted upon by this radical realignment of political power are consensual to the bargain struck – this latter circumstance can only emerge if the institutional structures involved are a) democratically accountable, b) function in an essentially open and transparent manner & c) said democratic institutions are given the time to develop meaningful levels of affinity with the electorates they respectively serve.

    I accept that there are many (some would claim virtually insurmountable) obstacles preventing the emergence of this concept as a credible template for the future development of the European political landscape but chief amongst these barriers is the relatively small but very powerful clique of individuals we (as Europeans) collectively know as individual member state governments.

    These individuals jealously guard the capacity to manipulate and control the European political agenda, thus resolutely preserving their grip upon the reins of power, rather than giving credence to any wider concerns motivated by the interests, aspirations and desires of European citizens.

    ….and so Europe stumbles from one political fudge to another, from one self interested institutional power play to yet another crisis of democratic legitimacy, all in the guise of maintaining the orthodox primacy of existing Member (Nation) States within the EU’s institutional architecture.

    Belgium’s fate stands as a metaphor for the long-term goal of European political unity. Would it really be a disaster for Belgians if their existing political infrastructure faded into insignificance and obscurity to be replaced by three smaller and more relevant geo-political elements; Vlaanderen, Wallonie and Brussels with the latter functioning as a European administrative capital and semi-autonomous City State, a la Washington D.C.?

    SD is correct in claiming that Europe cannot succeed utilising the current “Europe of Nations” or “Europe des Patries” model. With increasing vigour we hear questioning voices asking “What is Europe for?”

    Until and unless Europe is empowered to deliver a credible answer to that entirely legitimate challenge, our continent will never make serious strides towards achieving its vast potential.

  6. Thanks Peter. You have said it better than I did.

    I find your second pre-condition interesting. In precisely this way Belgium can continue to act as a model for EU evolution. IF it succeeds in drastic reform that basically introduces the two-level governance model (EU for supranational affairs, and two small nation states for almost everything else), and IF it is shown to work, with the (former) Belgians finally satisfied with their institutional structure, THEN fellow Europeans may notice this new model.

    Yes, I know Switzerland is already an existing example of a Confederation, but since its been around for ever, I don’t think many Europeans have taken the effort to understand how it works. In addition, it is not part of the EU so the supranational is still handled at too small a scale. This may be different when a new Confederation inside the EU is created and blogs etc explain how it works.

    I believe that a Confederation is also a good way to keep nationalism at the healthy level of regional pride. The alternative, a whole bunch of fully autonomous nations, would be much worse in this respect.

    Peter, you ask “Perhaps there is a third option?” with which you mean a Federation. Well, the problem (in my humble opinion) with Federations is that the central government tends to grab more and more power as time goes by. The US used to be really a collection of States but now those states hardly have any real power left. There are many other examples. In a Confederation, it’s the members that decide what gets to be done collectively, not the other way round.

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  8. Hypothetically spoken, Belgium could become a role model for the EU as you have pointed out so eloquently.

    However, it will never become one: It is possible for Belgians to know all three state languages. It is possible to meet in all three parts of the country within one day. There is no option for a possible enlargement of Belgium. The country is (as you have noted) already entangled into a larger supranational context. The Belgium economy is not a heavyweight in a global context. And Belgium has a relatively low international relations profile. All this is quite the contrary of the present (and more important: future) situation of the EU.

    What I want to say with this list is that for the EU it will always be more easy to stay together for scale effects (joint power, economy) while on the cultural and communicational side there will be much more work to do to prevent fugal forces. And since this will always have strong effects on institutional discussions (not least meta-debates about supranationalism, confederalism etc.) the European Union cannot take Belgium as a role model.

    What the EU can do is to learn from the mistakes and misunderstandings in Belgium and try to find better ways, but since the Union could already learn enough from its own mistakes, there is no special need to look to Belgium if there wasn’t the joint importance of Brussels for both, Belgium and the EU.

  9. SD: “Well, the problem (in my humble opinion) with Federations is that the central government tends to grab more and more power as time goes by.”

    There is a very simple but effective mechanism to preclude this (undemocratic) trend from establishing itself. A document of interest to every European Citizen because it would define (unequivocally) the limits of state power exercised by each tier (within the [Con]Federation – I suppose it depends upon your interpretation of the words), whilst simultaneously establishing the precise nature of the relationship between each tier of accountable governance and individual citizens.

    We all recognise this vital text as a Constitution but mere utterance of the dreaded ‘C’ Word sends national politicians running from the room with their hands clapped over their ears, screaming profanities along the lines of “EUROPEAN SUPER STATE” or “CENTRALISED UNNACOUNTABLE MONOLITH”, mainly for the benefit of their respective domestic electorates.

    The irony in all of this is the fact that:

    a) National Governments tend to operate in a relatively unaccountable, bureaucratic and highly centralised fashion anyway – certainly the UK is an exemplar of this governance style
    b) The process of establishing such a constitution would facilitate a true democratic engagement with the European electorate in the form of a simultaneous pan-European plebiscite.

    National administrations reject this (democratic?) mechanism specifically because it would establish the concept of a European public, leading to the emergence of a quasi-demos; a notion guaranteed to create panic amongst those groupings viscerally opposed to the European integration in any form whatsoever.

  10. Great article !

    But then again… As a Belgian I do not consider myself Flemish nor Walloon nor anything else…

    I speak the 3 national languages of my country and am not afraid to “lose my culture” to another “cultural entity”…

    What I am though is fed up with more than 60 ministers who are doing absolutely nothing to the real problems in my country; pollution, the economy, employment, health etc…

    It has been months now that the civil servants – who I am paying with my tax money – are bickering among themselves about issues that aren’t even understood by most Belgians.

    During a crisis you should recognize real leaders (I know, I specialize in crisis management and had my part of “situations”)…

    Alas, the only thing I have seen this last year are politicians with no respect for those who elected them, fighting over the little power they have and are afraid to lose…

  11. Long history indeed. All Belgian teens are supposed to learn that in high school, but I don’t think many of them care.
    What seems relevant to me today is that Belgium really lacks an identity, and therefore does not live up to its standards. If it weren’t for Brussels, Belgium would have split 25 years ago. The problem is that both Wallonia and Flanders keep on picking on each other about Brussels – instead of minding their own business. While this fight goes on, the voice of Brussels and its citizens is hardly ever heard, whereas it has a great potential to truly become the capital of Europe.
    What’s worse is that the French-speaking media and politics are trying to convince the French-speaking people that it is a linguistic and cultural issue and, sadly, it works. I’m not saying that the Flemish are better informed, I don’t read that many Flemish newspapers. I’m from Brussels, I work in Flanders, my mother tongue is French, and I know one thing for certain: Flanders just “works” better. It attracts businesses, there’s less unemployment, less taxes, streets are safer. To me it just seems common sense that Flanders wants to live on it’s own. They’ve been waiting -and paying- for at least 20 years for the other regions to grow. And what’s happening? You tell me…

  12. @Dime: “While this fight goes on, the voice of Brussels and its citizens is hardly ever heard, whereas it has a great potential to truly become the capital of Europe.”

    This is an interesting nugget of information, which the vast majority will doubtless be oblivious to.

    Would it be constructive to suggest that the semi-autonomous government of of Brussels organise a referendum amongst its citizens to determine their support for various constitutional options or would this essentially democratic initiative be perceived as inflammatory and premptive, given the current delicate circumstances prevailing in Belgium?

    I feel sure (but maybe Dime could enlighten readers) that given an effective choice to pursue a relatively autonomous future under the protective umbrella provided by the EU (see SD’s earlier comment), the citizens of Brussels would prefer this pathway rather than a contentious and potentially divisive marriage of convenience with either Vlaanderen or Wallonie?

  13. I quite like the idea of a referendum, and I am sure many Belgian citizens would really appreciate to be able to express their opinions – would it be regarding the fate of Brussels or of the country itself.

    However, as far as I know, there has never been a referendum in Belgium, on any topic. Most of the political decisions are imposed to the citizens without them being given a chose, or (a lot worse) without them knowing it. For example, a referendum on gay adoption or the electronic ID might have led to different decisions, or at least citizens would have been thinking about it.

    Currently I see two problems with having a referendum on an “independent” Brussels.
    First, for a referendum to be actually effective and fair, people need to be informed on whatever advantages and disadvantages such a resolution would involve.

    Second, as Philippe Borremans said, politics would loose a lot of its power.
    Don’t forget that the government and the political institutions in Belgium are really complicated. We have 3 institutional communities (French, Dutch and German speaking), an additional 3 regions (Région wallonne, Région flamande and Région de Bruxelles-capitale), and the federal state on top of that. They share jurisdiction over several domains, and that means that there are a lot of representatives and people in charge, not counting all the civil servants in all these institutions.( see http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%A9partition_des_comp%C3%A9tences_dans_la_Belgique_f%C3%A9d%C3%A9rale for more detail in French).
    Therefore scratching part of that is very difficult to imagine for the majority of politicians, and this is why I think such a referendum will never happen.

    With what’s happened during this whole “crisis” – that means in reality nothing much (no real decisions), I don’t foresee a very bright future for Belgium in the years to come. Unless some people actually start screaming and a major radical change happens…

  14. Dime

    I accept 100% the principle that deliberative democracy (referenda) should not impinge upon or supersede the role of representative democracy.

    The deliberative method should be used only in specific circumstances as an adjunct to the traditional representative mechanisms.

    Those circumstances are:

    a) Where the issue under consideration is of such vital importance that it has profound and irrevocable constitutional implications.
    b) That the question posed can be structured in such a manner that is both simple and mutually exclusive, i.e. – you can have this choice or that choice but not both.

    I believe that the topic of potential Brussels independence under the EU umbrella fulfils both criteria.

    Your point about information is absolutely vital. It is this feature sadly lacking in much political discourse. The public must unfortunately (due to the fact that significant percentages of the populace exhibit a wilful neglect towards informing themselves) be subject to a massive and sustained campaign (of objective information) to increase awareness of the options available and their full implications, in advance of the plebiscite.

    Only then can the final decision boast real legitimacy because the public has delivered its consent in an “informed” manner.

    A major problem is (as you have pointed out) the malign influence exerted by various self-interested parties – political elites and the immediate workforces of existing tiers of governance are obvious examples.

    Perhaps you should consider forming an Independent Brussels political movement to ensure the voice of Brussels citizens is heard above the current shouting match between Vlaanderen and Wallonie?

  15. @ Peter Davidson

    I would be cautious to generally lump together referenda and “deliberative democracy”.

    Referenda usually are just forms of a “direct democracy” where instead of giving everyone the choice about persons (‘representatives’) a choice of policies is presented. The choice presented does not have to be the result of real deliberations (in the sense the word is used for “deliberative democracy).

    In most cases, there is one gatekeeper (the government, a powerful political group initiating the petition) that has the legal and/or general capacity to present both, the question and the (limited amount of) answers. The political result is thus not the result of a true deliberation, it is the majoritarian choice between limited alternatives presented by external actors.

    And that is the big problem of many referenda: They limit the political choice (or they can only be applied for questions with limited choice) for those who have to choose by excluding other solutions that might even compromise between the alternatives presented.

    What if Belgians or the people of Brussels have to decide between Union and separation, between Flanders or Walloon, between unity or autonomy and the vote is split? In all parts of the country? Should those who want to stay together form their own united country and the rest get their own little states?

    The same for the EU: Are there really questions where in reality there is nothing but a choice between clear alternatives? Am I pro-Lisbon or anti-Lisbon? Or am I not rather pro-half-of-Lisbon, contra-three-eighths-of-Lisbon, and indifferent-of-one-eighth-of-Lisbon? Is it a deliberation if one single country (or for five) holds a referendum on something where a majority of 50%+1 for a simple “yes” or “no” does in the end effect not less than 27 countries and 500 million people?

    So is Belgium a role model for the EU? Maybe. Maybe not. Are referenda helpful to find realistic democratic solutions? Maybe not. Maybe.

  16. @Julien Frisch

    I accept your clarifications concerning use of the term – deliberative democracy.

    I am not well versed in Belgium’s political geography but I assumed Brussels as a distinct geo-political entity emerged out from a consensual process amongst its inhabitants. In short, why does Brussels exist as a separate Regional bloc within Belgium’s federal structure?

    I do know that the three Regions are relatively recent historical artefacts and that Brussels emerged as a separate (bi-lingual) Region approximately ten years after Vlaanderen and Wallonie. This would suggest to me that Brussels is a distinct entity in its own right.

    Therefore it makes sense in the current turmoil to ensure that the voice of Brussels is not drowned out during the ongoing “bunfight” between Vlaanderen and Wallonie.

    Julien is also correct in highlighting the inherent problems within referenda; the Lisbon Treaty / European Constitution debacle being a classic of the genre.

    However, I see nothing inherently wrong with a process in which the people of Brussels are first acquainted with the facts, i.e. this is the situation, we (political elites) believe there is a massive problem, which cannot be ignored and we need to know what you (the people) think should be done to solve it.

    Once completed the referendum offers mutually exclusive choices:

    a) You can stay as you are (but presumably the information exercise would indicate that choice as unwise)
    b) You can become autonomous under an EU umbrella
    c) You can become part of Vlaanderen
    d) You can become part of Wallonie

    Voting in preferential fashion: 1, 2, 3, 4

    In that fashion everybody can express a sophisticated choice and every vote would count. I also accept that some form of super majority safeguard – say 55% of the final run off between the final two options left after elimination – would be advisable to ensure legitimacy.

    Referenda should be limited to fundamental issues (that have no pressing time constraints) with simple yes/no outcomes and only in an environment of “informed” consent