May 18, 2008
It seems the only thing that can save the federal state of Belgium now is a shift in public opinion or, more precisely, an articulate expression of the views of those who think the ‘community game’ is overplayed. People can always blame the politicians for the situation – they’re fair game everywhere these days – but this only diverts attention from the need to speak up individually.
There are many Belgians in business and public life who think things have already gone too far. But, in the traditional Belgian way, they are keeping their opinions to themselves. Yet there are brave souls in the world of entertainment and the arts – from the popular singer Axelle Red to the ballet choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker – who openly express their impatience with the situation. A lot of them, in fact: a recent survey by a leading Flemish daily of the singers and writers who object to the current trend reads like a national ‘Who’s Who’…
If you look back in history, the subdued resentment of many Flemish people toward their French-speaking compatriots is understandable. From ‘top dogs’ in the Middle Ages, they became the ‘underdogs’. A new French-speaking urban bourgeoisie (little to do with the Walloons) brought with it an unjustified sense of elitism. The rise of smokestack industries in Wallonia helped relegate Flanders to the status of a backwater at the time. It was only in 1873 that Flemish folk were able to defend themselves in court in their own tongue. In WWI Flemish foot soldiers were sent into battle by an officer class that only spoke French. But we are now talking about things that happened a century or more ago…
And, looking to the future, what sense does it make to split up a country that is just about the right size, institutionally and economically (the late Professor Northcote Parkinson set the ideal at about ten million inhabitants)? And this in a European Union that, pace the national politicians, could eventually mutate into a Europe of the Regions?
Belgium has the extraordinary advantage of bringing together the two reservoirs of European creativity, the Germanic and the Romance, and the country is home to many of the European institutions. That of course is part of the problem: foreigners are pushing up real estate prices in the areas around Brussels – and the Flemish, with their new-found self-respect, reject the dilution of their society and culture. But, in doing so, they often fail to make the distinction between Eurocrats, the French-speaking elite, Maghrebians, foreigners generally… and Walloons.
An article in the May 14th edition of the International Herald Tribune comments that “this combination of national pride, rightist politics, language purity and racially tinged opposition to big-city mores and immigration is a classic formula these days in modern
Europe, a kind of non-violent fascism.” The Flemish should set their historical resentment aside. But, as I have found out, there are some middle-aged kleinburger who are as narrow-minded and vindictive as their politicians are mean-spirited and careerist. The same IHT article quotes a Flemish town secretary as saying that “the Flemish people are becoming more self-aware and more decisive. We’ve been ruled long enough by the French people, and our time has come.” But which “French people” is he talking about?
There is no real ethnic element in this issue (genes are pretty mixed on all sides) and the linguistic argument is also pretty shallow. Beneath the surface of differing behavioural traits – the Flemish tend to be more task-oriented, the Walloons more relationship-oriented – the two communities get on pretty well together and have a great deal in common: in particular a proper appreciation of the good things in life that sets them apart from their neighbours, the Dutch and the Germans.
Frequently invaded by unwelcome foreigners in the past, and often stigmatised by the international media today, Belgians understandably keep their heads down. They even pride themselves on their modesty, which is both a strength and a weakness. They should assert their other strengths – quality of life, openness to the rest of the world (but not to their compatriots!), flexibility and decency – and look more positively at the good things that they share.
At least one group properly understands the need to change public opinion. In mid-April a think tank, België anders/Belgique autrement, organised a public debate that was attended by some 250 senior businesspeople and professionals. The group pleads for a return to traditional Belgian pragmatism, common sense and, ultimately, self-interest – and not a minute too soon!Author : Richard Hill