Belgium's Survival as a Nation

By Corner, Mark | Contemporary Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Belgium's Survival as a Nation


Corner, Mark, Contemporary Review


ONE of the most famous works of the great Belgian painter Rene Magritte looks like a clear representation of a pipe and bears the title Ceci n'est pas une pipe. Nowadays Belgium is full of black, gold and red flags hanging from windows as if it was football world cup time; but those who are less convinced about the country's future add a Magritte-like epithet beneath the tricolour: Ceci n'est pas une nation.

There is no doubt that the political crisis in Belgium has attracted a fair amount of media attention in recent months and a great deal of speculation about the country's future. You can find articles predicting a 'Czechoslovakia-like' split as Belgium becomes Flanders and Wallonia, much as in 1993 Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic and Slovakia. You can find other articles pointing out that the 'simple split' solution raises too many problems for Brussels itself, which is overwhelmingly French-speaking and yet located (though only just) inside Dutch-speaking Flanders. Some of these commentators talk about an independent Brussels city-state, a 'Brussels DC' which would function as the capital of the EU much as 'Washington DC' functions as the US capital. Then there are those who insist that the whole debate is a storm in a teacup and the Belgian 'spirit of compromise' will ensure that there is no split.

Below the level of serious commentary comes a whole series of minor incidents which illustrate the sensitivities at stake. Miss Belgium is booed in Antwerp because she can't answer a simple question in Dutch; a leading politician asked to sing the national anthem launches into the Marseillaise; a television station broadcasts a spoof declaration of UDI by Flanders. Much as the British media manages to stoke up euroscepticism with stories of EU rules on bananas and beer, so sections of the Belgian media manage to keep alive a sense that the country simply doesn't work.

But does Belgium work, and can it go on working as it does at present? In trying to answer this, it is certainly worth going back at least to the sixteenth century (some would go further) when a long war of secession was being fought against the Spanish Habsburgs by 17 provinces which roughly correspond to the modern-day Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) plus a slice of what is now Northern France and Western Germany. It was Flanders which was to pay the price for this rebellion.

Antwerp had already suffered from the so-called 'Spanish fury' when unpaid soldiers plundered the city in 1576, killing some 8,000 inhabitants and burning thousands of homes. It was again besieged by Spanish forces five years later and eventually forced to surrender. What had been the foremost Dutch-speaking city and commercial hub of Northern Europe (think of all that English wool which entered the continent through Antwerp in the early Tudor period) was effectively reduced to a shadow of its former self. Many of its inhabitants fled north, including all its Protestants, and by 1590 it had been reduced to less than half of its population in mid-century (40,000 as opposed to 100,000).

Naturally enough, Antwerp's loss was Amsterdam's gain. Those living in what was to become the independent Dutch Republic saw their prosperity grow, greatly assisted by the intellectual and cultural elite that had been forced to flee northwards by the successful Spanish conquest of the south. One consequence of this was a Flemish sense of betrayal not only by the south but also by the Netherlands, which allegedly failed to recognise that a true 'Golden Age' without Flanders was impossible. The province felt that it had to proclaim its Dutch character on all sides. Nineteenth-century Flanders, resisting the dominance of the French language, would insist on 'proper Dutch' and eliminate any 'dialects'; twenty-first-century Flanders similarly insists that Dutch, not Flemish, is its language.

The main concern of European politics between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries was the power of France. …

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