22nd February 10:11
Belgium's last hurrah?
BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 22 (UPI) -- They say there are only two things
that unite Belgians -- sport and the royal family.
When Kim Klijsters, the world's No. 2 tennis player, played Justine
Henin -- ranked No. 3 -- in the final of the French Open last month,
the country came to a virtual standstill.
King Albert II and Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt both took the train
to Paris to watch the two female stars play and when Henin returned to
Brussels with the trophy she was treated to the sort of Grand Place
welcome usually reserved for royal weddings.
Belgians got a double chance to put their patriotism to the test over
the weekend when the country feted the 10th anniversary of King Albert
II's coronation Sunday and its national day on Monday.
Sunday's celebrations were authentic enough. In true Belgian style,
the king led a motorbike parade through central Brussels, before
hosting a "people's" garden party at the palace.
"The monarchy is as Belgian as democracy," said Verhofstadt, before
presenting the king with a life-size polyester cow painted in the red,
gold and black colors of the national flag.
There is genuine affection for Albert II, a modest pensioner who
accidentally became head of state after the death of his saint-like
brother Bauduoin in 1993.
On Monday night, 45,000 people turned up to listen to a concert in his
honor outside the capital city's imposing Palace of Justice.
"A spontaneous king who listens to his people," was the verdict of Le
Soir, Belgium's national paper.
Albert II, may be popular, but the state he presides over is not. In a
bid to remind citizens of its continuing relevance, stalls
representing the few federal institutions left standing set out their
wares in the center of the city Monday, while overweight officers with
handle-bar moustaches panted past the king in a show of Belgian
Bastille Day -- the French national day that is celebrated with much
pomp and cir***stance on July 14 -- it certainly wasn't. The biggest
cheer of the afternoon was reserved for the street sweepers who headed
the snaking column of aging tanks and cavalrymen. But for most people
in this prosperous country of 10 million, how could it be otherwise
when the state they are meant to be celebrating has long ceased to
At a recent concert in Brussels, Mike Skinner, lead singer of British
rap-band The Streets, kept asking fans: "What's this Belgium all about
It is a question Belgians have been asking themselves for more than
In "The Belgian Labyrinth or The Beauty of Deformity," Geert Van
"The Belgian state was (...) born out of the untruthfulness of the
Catholic church, the force of arms by French soldiers and an uprising
by desperate proletarians, who continued to suffer hunger, even after
1830. Not a great start."
Indeed. Apart for a brief period at the end of the 19th century when
Belgium ruled a large chunk of Central Africa and was an industrial
powerhouse, the state has been in almost permanent decline.
Over the past 30 years, a series of constitutional reforms have
chipped away at the government's authority, handing widespread powers
to the Flemish and Walloon regions. Belgium no longer has a federal
agriculture ministry, trade representation or tourist office. In fact,
almost the only two issues the federal government has sole
responsibility for are taxation and social security -- and Flemish
nationalists have pledged to swipe these powers away during the next
round of overhauls.
The result of this continuous downsizing of the state has been to
create layer upon layer of regional bureaucracy. Belgium, a country
with less people than New York, now has six parliaments -- a federal
one, a Flemish, Walloon and Brussels one and an assembly for both the
French and German speaking minorities.
Language lies at the heart of the divide. In World War 1, it was
alleged that Flemish soldiers were slaughtered because they could not
understand the instructions of their French-speaking superiors.
Today, linguistic misunderstandings are less deadly, but just as real.
Drive south from Brussels to Mons and suddenly signs for the city
disappear in French. Only if drivers know that the Flemish for Mons is
Bergen will they find their way to their destination.
Likewise, try speaking French in a Flemish city such as Gent or
Antwerp and people will give you an icy stare before replying in
English. In Wallonia, speak Dutch and the odds are they simply won't
understand what you are saying.
It is the same story with newspapers, according to veteran journalist
"In Flemish newspapers, the south of Belgium just doesn't exist any
more -- even in the international news section. It's a black hole.
They don't even have any correspondents there."
Tired of footing the bill for their poorer, southern neighbors, a
sizeable minority of Flemings advocate splitting the country in two.
They draw parallels with the "velvet divorce" in Czechoslovakia, which
saw the Czech and Slovak parts of the country part ways in 1993.
In recent years, support for the separatist Vlaams Blok -- and other
milder nationalist groupings -- has been rising, leading Andrew Osborn
of the U.K. Guardian newspaper to predict: "Belgium 0- whether the
Walloons like it or not -- is inexorably and slowly heading for the
dustbin of history."
However, Goossens believes rumors of Belgium's imminent death are
"In 20 years time, Belgium will still exist as a kind of post-modern
state with a king, national flag and hymn, but few constitutional
Most Belgians agree with him. Although a recent European Commission
poll showed only Germans displaying less pride in their country, few
want to consign their country to the scrap heap.
In fact, many take a perverse pride in being Belgian. They may not be
patriotic about their country and they may complain bitterly about
taxes and rain, but they love their cycling champs, tennis stars and
football players, their strong beers and mayonnaise --drenched fries,
their windswept coast and their biking-mad king.
patriotism a couple of times a century -- at the appropriate moment. I
hate Belgium because its inhabitants take absolutely no pride in their
country...I love Belgium because it exists. I hate Belgium because it