What does it really mean to be in a nation-state? I’m talking about, as it were, a political phenomenology, and I think it’s an intriguing question. Indeed, it’s the traveller’s question — where does the essence of a society lie? Is it unchanging or morphous? There’s a well-known elusive quality to the living human society of the nation-state, something very Heraclitan, as though the Egyptians who built the Pyramids and the Belgae who fought the Romans were somehow the ancestors of today’s Egyptians and Belgians, and yet somehow not: with each generation, they’ve stepped into the same river of time, event, and identity again and again, but because of that, it’s never the same river twice.
I think it’s very interesting to juxtapose the Egyptians to the Belgians because both societies are constituted of, on the one hand, very ancient geographical and demographic elements, and on the other hand, repeated and violent influxes of exotic blood — they are rich with relics of both stone and gene. And yet, the Egyptians have a much stronger sense of continuity, one that’s co-extensive with the borders of the current geopolitical place that history and the world have affixed as “Egypt”, whereas the Belgians have a profoundly weaker sense of of it for “Belgium”. Rather, Belgians’ continuities lie in their towns, in their families, and to some extent in the regional polities affixed as “Flanders”, “Brussels”, and “Wallonia” — that is, if they have any sense of continuity at all, which many of them self-avowedly don’t.
And then there’s the ongoing political crisis, which has left the federal central government hollowed out and in gradual decline, yet which hasn’t appeared to have harmed the three regional sub-governments all that much. Again and again I wonder: how is such a phenomenon enabled? It’s a subtle and tricky question, as most of my Belgian friends think I’m talking about what they always talk about, namely, how Belgium’s federal government “doesn’t matter” (wealth distribution and healthcare notwithstanding) and, moreover, how this might actually serve as a model or even paradigm for a future European federation or European nation-state. I’m actually not thinking about that; rather, I’m curious about the experiential and conceptual significance of the fact that there are three semi-sovereign governments here that are able to get by seemingly without the sovereign central government.
In other words, when I ask, How is Belgium possible? I’m actually really asking about the remarkable depth of Continental integration — and what this may really say about the future of the European Union.