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July 1, 2014 - 7:34pm

Policy Matters: Discovering identities in Belgium


The Leie River runs through the center of Ghent, a small city in the Flemish region in the northern part of Belgium. (Paul Sherman/Daily)

Chocolate, waffles, beer and diamonds. If you haven’t been to Belgium before, that’s probably what comes to mind. I have spent the past two weeks in Leuven, a small Flemish town that is about 15 minutes from Brussels by train. I was surprised to find that the city was like Ann Arbor in that the town’s livelihood is based on its large student population. As I look back on my experience in this Ann Arbor-esque town, one thing sticks out in my mind about Europe: regional differences and their impact on peace.

You’re probably wondering, “Why should I care about this tiny country?” Sure, Belgium isn’t the most powerful country in the European Union. But, the common theme that I found throughout my group’s visits to the EU institutions such as the European Commission was the importance of regional diversity in Europe. Language continues to be an important part of any European’s identity. In Belgium, three official languages are used regularly other than English and Flemish dialects: French, Dutch and German. And each language represents a distinct region of Belgium. The European Union continues to fight to preserve these languages and identities.

This is why Americans should care. Despite these regional differences, the EU has established relative peace. Regional differences have helped to spur large European conflicts, such as the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars. The fact that there has not been major conflict in Europe that has engulfed the continent in conflict since World War II is amazing (there is a reason why the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012). Now, regional governments all over the EU interact with each other to develop policy on a regular basis. The relative stability that the EU has brought over the past seventy or so years is going to help drive the United States and world economies. Last year alone, the United States imported about 387,127.2 million dollars in goods from the EU. So, a stable EU will be a reliable partner for the United States. in trade and in international affairs.

However, these ideals are going to be tested. National interests of each country continue to push and pull the EU apart. For example, Germany and France would have different opinions over economics as opposed those of smaller countries such as the Croatia and Czech Republic. This has become apparent in the Ukrainian crisis, as national interests may be interfering with developing a strategy to deal with Putin’s behavior.

Additionally, unemployment is unevenly spread out, as countries such as Germany have a much lower rate than southern countries such as Greece. Belgium is not immune to these problems, as Flanders, the Flemish part of the country, has a lower unemployment rate than Wallonia, the French part, and the region around Brussels (4.3 percent for Flanders, 9.5 percent for Wallonia and over 16 percent for Brussels).

And, with all of this in mind, Britain could leave the union, which would devastate the EU as a whole.

For Americans and students at the University, the next time you see in news about regional differences in Europe, there may be more at stake than you previously had realized. They help bring Europe together and build a diverse environment in recent years, but trouble may still be lurking around the corner.

Paul Sherman can be reached at