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Published: Tuesday, 7/13/2010

Threatened unity

One puzzle at the heart of European affairs is whether Belgium will split into two parts or stay in the form it has maintained since 1830: a united nation of two peoples, the Flemish and the Walloons.

The question is acute. In national elections in June, the winning party was one that favors independence for the Flemish-speaking 60 percent of the nation.

After Belgian elections, a complicated process of building a coalition government can take months. Belgium has two sets of parties, each from left to right, one French-speaking, the other Flemish-speaking. The delay and government confusion normally would not matter to most Belgians, and certainly not to other Europeans.

But this time, the timing is especially troubling. The sword of Damocles is swaying in a wider arc over the head of the formally unified country.

Belgium's indecision is important because the country has assumed the chairmanship of the 27-member European Union for the next six months. The prime minister or president of the country that holds that post, supported by his country's bureaucracy, has a considerable portfolio of duties, ceremonial and real. The fact that Belgium is in considerable chaos is not helpful to a Europe in economic turmoil.

To the degree that America's economic state is tied to Europe's, Belgium's disarray and its effect on the equanimity of the rest of Europe matter to the United States. There was considerable difficulty in achieving consensus on economic policies at the recent G-20 summit in Canada.

A division of Belgium has potential advantages as well as disadvantages. There is so much redundancy in Belgium's bilingual government that the financial cost of two countries might not be that much greater.

As the current capital of Europe as well as Belgium, and the host of the administrative headquarters of the European Union and NATO, Brussels would need to change little.

A disadvantage is that some French-speaking Belgians favor adding a separate Wallonia to France. But there would be a precedent for such a split in Europe, without too much grinding and crunching.

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