Separatist movements less ominous

Separatist sentiment will always be part of the Quebec scene. But it shows every sign of settling in for a long remission. Quebecers seem to have become bored with the topic.

Belgique - des leçons à tirer...

Belgium doesn't exactly rate as one of the world's most troubled countries.
Apart from its weather, which is persistently grey and damp, Belgium is affluent, comfortable and cosy, with a lush countryside and some beautiful cities such as Bruges. Its food is to die for, and in terms of calorie count may sometimes be just that.
As nation-states go, though, Belgium does have one considerable handicap: it doesn't exist. It's still there on the map, all right, filling up the same, rough oblong that it has since 1830. It has an impressive capital – Brussels – which is also the capital of the European Union.
But all of that is fiction. In fact, Belgium is a "Potemkin village" of a nation-state, a pretend one. What actually exists is two nation-states – French-speaking Walloonia and Dutch-speaking (technically, Flemish-speaking) Flanders. There's also a small German-speaking minority.
Recently, a leading Belgian politician, Filip Dewinter, commented: "There's no Belgian sentiment. There's no Belgian language. There's no Belgian nation. There's no Belgian anything".
On this topic, Dewinter is a suspect witness. He's the leader of the ultra-nationalist Flemish party, Vlaams Belang. This time, though, Dewinter is right. No one can come up with a list of things in Belgium that are actually Belgian other than beer, the national soccer team and the king, 73-year-old Albert II.
Moreover, Belgium's Belgian-ness keeps diminishing. A poll last month found that 66 per cent of Flemings regard separation as inevitable. Since elections last June, the country has had no national government because the 11 ethnic and regional parties cannot agree on anything. It's almost certain that Belgium will vanish from the map sooner or later.
About this, two things matter. The first is that it doesn't matter. More exactly, it doesn't matter in the way this kind of an event once did – as a consequence of a gross political failure and as a potential cause of violence.
That neither are any longer necessarily true was demonstrated in 1993 by Czechoslovakia's Velvet Divorce out of which have come the well-functioning states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Another Velvet Divorce is becoming more and more likely. It would be in Britain. Last summer, the Scottish National Party won a narrow majority in local elections.
Since then, sound government by its independence-seeking prime minister, Alex Salmond (himself committed to holding a referendum on separation), has substantially increased the pro-independence vote. Within the rest of Britain, a majority of the English tell pollsters they are either ho-hum about Scottish separation or would actually favour it.
The second aspect of this development is more local in its nature. It concerns exclusively – so far – Canada. Once, we were at the head of this queue of map re-drafters. Now we're way at the back.
Separatist sentiment will always be part of the Quebec scene. But it shows every sign of settling in for a long remission. Quebecers seem to have become bored with the topic.
A case can be made that we've dealt with the challenge in a distinctively Canadian way: Quebec is now so close to full self-government that it's just about independent within Canada. (Intriguingly, some Scots nationalists talk similarly about becoming independent within Britain, and so keeping the Queen and not needing passports to cross the border.)
Which leaves us with good and sound reasons for giving thanks. We seem to have got our house in order ahead of everyone else. Better yet, we now can do what we most like to do – go around telling others to do like us.

Richard Gwyn usually appears on Tuesdays. Email:

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