This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.
Belgium is a strange concept, more of a vague idea than a real country. There is a joke that there is just one real Belgian, and he is the king, (currently King Philippe, who is married to a speech therapist). Everyone else is either Flemish or Walloon. General de Gaulle described Belgium as a country invented in 1830 by the British to annoy the French. The dominant powers in the 19th Century constructed a neutral state to prevent an invasion of England from Antwerp harbour.
For rich French people, including Gerard Depardieu, the idea of Belgium is as a tax haven. The village of Nechin – which has a street known as Millionaire’s Row – is less than two minutes drive from the French town of Roubaix.
There is a tired old joke about the only famous Belgians being fictional characters like Tin Tin and Hercules Poirot. Let us not forget Plastic Bertrand, born in Brussels of a French father and Ukrainian mother. There are major real Belgian talents such as Georges Simenon, Jacques Brel and painters like James Ensor, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Jonathan Meades observed that when you go to Belgium, Rene Magritte stops looking like a surrealist and starts looking like a devastating social realist.
Magritte often painted enigmatic men holding umbrellas. In his recent novel, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, (the title of one of Ensor’s paintings) Dimitri Verhulst wrote: “the inhabitants of this kingdom value the anonymity provided so perfectly by an umbrella”. In the novel, Jesus Christ announces his return to Earth, and his selected point of entry is Brussels. The citizens of the Belgian capital receive the news with equanimity. There is no reason to get excited.
Centre of the EU Enterprise
One hundred years ago it was thought of as “plucky little Belgium”, a small powerless nation bullied by German military might. The country is about the same size as Maryland, with a population of 10,839,905 people on January 1, 2010. Today, it is the epitome of what EU haters hate about the EU. For Eurosceptics the name of the Belgian capital, “Brussels”, is shorthand for oppressive, anti-democratic, bureaucratic dictatorship.
Belgium was an early adopter in the European project. It was one of the six founder members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951; in 1957, it was among the founding members of the European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community. Today Brussels is the home of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the extraordinary and committee sessions of the European Parliament.
As well as 20,000 EU civil servants, Brussels attracts a large population of lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals. The EU has brought an estimated 115,000 extra people to live in Brussels. These people tend to have few or no Belgian friends. There may be some resentment among Bruxellois because of Eurocrats buying up houses with their large tax-exempt EU salaries. People who had lived in Brussels for years suddenly discovered that the best idea to earn is to rent their apartments to the officials and leave the city.
Let’s Talk about the War.
Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg used to be the Low Countries. From the end of the Middle Ages until the 17th century, the area covered by Belgium today was a prosperous commercial centre. It was also a battleground between European powers. The British ‘invented’ Belgium as a neutral state, a buffer zone against the French. Britain intervened to defend Belgian neutrality when German troops invaded in 1914. Before the war, Belgium had one of the world’s most successful economies. The war displaced a third of the population and in the first months of the war, as many as a million Belgians faced starvation because of German requisitions. Around 6,000 Belgians were executed, there were as many as 60,000 military and 23,000 civilian deaths, 25,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed. One and a half million Belgians (20% of the entire population) fled from the invading German army.
Belgium as Oppressor
Belgium is a young country that grew rich suddenly during the industrial revolution, thanks to coal and steel. It also acquired wealth from looting the Congo. Plucky little Belgium was particularly vicious in Africa. Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo. King Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo and ran it as a personal fiefdom and business venture. Labourers were not paid but they were beaten, mutilated and murdered.
The province of Katanga seceded after Congolese independence from Belgium in June 1960. Belgium-based mining interests engineered the rebellion so that they could continue mineral extraction. Belgian settlers and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba demanded that Belgian troops withdraw and, when they refused, Lumumba expelled Belgian diplomats. On October 6th, the Belgian Minister for African Affairs sent a cable that stated clearly that Belgian policy was the “definitive elimination” of Lumumba. Lumumba was, indeed, assassinated. A case has been presented that the Belgian government also had a hand in the killing of UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld.
Rwanda was also part of Plucky Little Belgium’s empire. In 1933, the Belgian authorities issued identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. In 1994, these ID cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them. The ethnic cleansing and genocide of twenty years ago were horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s under the Belgians.
Belgium was the world’s 15th largest trading nation in 2007. There is still a highly productive work force, high GNP and high exports per capita. Belgium’s main imports are raw materials, machinery and equipment, chemicals, raw diamonds, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, transportation equipment, and oil products. Its main exports are machinery and equipment, chemicals, finished diamonds, metals and metal products, and foodstuffs.
Belgian Premier Elio di Rupo has questioned the EC’s commitment to austerity and has raised concerns about the best way for Belgium to balance growth and austerity. Political tensions have prevented him doing anything about this in practice. Between 1990 and 2009, the poorest 30 per cent of Belgians saw their share in net taxable incomes fall (from 11.2 to 8.3 per cent), while the richest ten per cent saw their share increase (from 27.3 to 31.9 per cent).
According to the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey, 15.3 per cent of Belgium’s population in 2011 was at risk of falling into poverty. In Flemish-speaking Flanders, the wealthiest region in Belgium, this was 9.8 per cent, whereas in Wallonia, a poor French-speaking region, this was 19.2 per cent.
In 2012, nearly one in seven Belgians had a monthly income that was lower than the official poverty threshold (€1,000 for a single person or €2,101 for a couple with two children).Twenty-one per cent of the Belgian population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to the new European poverty indicators.
An Experiment in No Government
During 2007-11, cultural and linguistic tensions resulted in the state being without a government for 589 days. In 2011, Elio Di Rupo became Belgium’s first French-speaking premier; He is of Italian origin and he is gay and socialist. Despite reforms, tensions remain; the formation of a coalition government took 18 months following the June 2010 federal election. However, the hiatus did show that the country could function with just a caretaker government and the civil service.
Verhulst sees Belgium a pantomime horse of a country, puzzling to outsiders and infuriating to its inhabitants. Belgium is a federal state divided into three regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, francophone Wallonia in the south and Brussels, the bilingual capital, where the French and Dutch languages share official status. There is an ongoing political crisis, which may lead to the country splitting, as did Czechoslovakia. It is ironic that the country seen by eurosceptics as the seat of a federalist plot, may itself fall apart. This would provide encouragement to separatist groups throughout Europe. Wallonia is the poorer segment of federal Belgium. How will it survive without the efforts of the industrious Flems? Wallonia will probably need EU subsidies.
A persistent note in visitors’ accounts is that Belgians are discontented and rude. Some might feel guilt at the barbarity of the Belgian colonial project. some feel uncomfortable about the presence in their midst of migrants from that empire.
To end on one positive thing about Belgium – it was Belgium that helped soul genius Marvin Gaye to recuperate, if only for a little while. A sojourn in Ostend gave Gaye the breathing space to reach one of his greatest achievements, Sexual Healing.
Plucky little Belgium is in dire need of some kind of healing. One wonders whether this will be possible given Belgium’s central role in the EU project. The EU project itself seems to be increasing the natural disgruntlement of its people.
On 28 July 2010, Plastic Bertrand finally revealed that he was not the singer of any of the songs in the first four albums released beginning in 1977 under the name Plastic Bertrand.