From Nationalism to Supranationalism

19th-20th Century

The influence of the Belgian secession of 1831 on the Dutch national sentiment proved two-fold. Firstly, the northern territories, to a large degree, rallied behind William I and his efforts to crush the Belgian insurrection — fueling their patriotic convictions. International pressure and increasing costs, however, forced the Dutch to halt their efforts. William’s government officially recognized Belgium as a sovereign state in 1839 and in 1843 the border between the two countries was officially settled in the Treaty of Maastricht. The loss of the south, and the inability to do almost anything about it, required the Netherlands to reconcile with the fact that it was no longer a major power. As a result, the nation’s political focus shifted inwards. Ideas of romantic nationalism helped shape the image of a singular Dutch people that, despite no longer being powerful, could still find solace in its illustrious past. In 1848, while other European capitals were again swept by revolutionary waves, the Netherlands adopted a, for the time, thoroughly liberal constitution. It laid the groundwork for further modernizations, that, in the subsequent decades, continued not only on a political level, but on economic, social, and cultural levels as well.

Around the same time, it appeared as though the newfound state of Belgium had truly come together. In 1831, the country adopted a constitutional form of government with an independent judiciary and a directly elected parliament. The system would be presided over by a monarch, the first being Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (1790 – 1865) – who was subsequently known as Leopold I. The political class that had been so successful in ridding themselves of their Dutch despot, seemed, on the surface, to be of like mind. This period of relative consensus was, however, swiftly followed by deep political divisions, which manifested themselves first along ideological lines (liberals versus Catholics), but later shifted to social (moneyed versus working classes) and cultural (Flanders versus Wallonia) ones as well. The young nation would nevertheless manage to maintain itself. However fundamental the mutual differences may have seemed, none of them would succeeded in undoing the actual fabric of the Belgian state.

The traumatic events of the twentieth century that followed left neither country untouched. While the Netherlands was successful in maintaining its neutral posture during World War I, Belgium almost completely fell under German control. In May of 1940, Belgium was again the victim of German aggression, but this time the Netherlands fell prey as well. The armies of both countries were swiftly defeated, and a five-year period of occupation began. After Germany’s defeat, the two nations sought to embed themselves in larger international structures. Unable to unilaterally guarantee their safety and ability to do business abroad, Belgium and the Netherlands, together with Luxembourg, founded the economic partnership of the Benelux in 1944, joined the NATO defense community in 1949 and lent their support to the Schuman Declaration (1950) – the former leading to the establishment of European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1952. Both countries were signees of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which founded the European Economic Community (EEC), an organization that sought to increase mutual economic integration among its members. In the following decades, Belgium and the Netherlands would continue to strive for further European integration, culminating in the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the founding of the European Union (EU).

Throughout this process of ever-increasing international cooperation, both Belgium and the Netherlands were at its forefront. As early as 1958, the Benelux countries signed a treaty establishing the Benelux Economic Union. The Union made possible the free movement of people, capital, goods, and services and officially went into effect on 1 November 1960 – 25 years before the signing of the Schengen agreement and predating the European Single Market by 33 years. Border checks between Belgium and the Netherlands have since all but ceased.

Does all this mean that borders have lost their significance? Recent events seem to point to the contrary. The gradual transfer of responsibilities to supranational organizations like the EU have led to the rise of reactionary political movements throughout Europe, the United Kingdom’s Brexit movement being the prime example. Furthermore, the refugee crisis and the more recent COVID-19 pandemic have led to the reinstatement of border checks throughout the continent, often exemplifying political disputes among EU member states. While the continent carries on wrestling with these events, borders appear as important as ever as they continue to unite and differentiate in the face of crises.