Whither Belgium?

What does your country mean to you? Is your nationality something that you feel strongly, or do you have stronger ties other levels (region, city, neighbourhood, street?) How “large” is your tribe?

Italians are known for placing their region above their nation (not surprising given that their nation is only 150 years old), and even have a specific word for it: “campanilismo”. I recently overheard a man responding to the question “Are you German?” with an indignant “No, I’m Bavarian!”. Personally, despite having British nationality, I feel “culturally” English, and I’m sure Scots and Welsh would first and foremost describe themselves in those terms rather than British.

 These questions are in my mind now because of the current Belgian political crisis which many fear will lead to the country splitting in two (or three?). For those of you who, for whatever bizarre reason, are not fully au fait with the the minutiae of Belgian internal politics, a brief summary can be found here. There’s a more comprehensive historical analysis here, and the views of some actual real-life Belgians, as opposed to foreign correspondents, here.  Seasoned Belgian politicians and political analysts have patiently pointed out that this state of affairs is not without precedent, that Belgians are masters of the art of compromise, rumours of Belgium’s death have been greatly exaggerated, it’ll all be over by Christmas, etc. This has not stopped most of the press from speculating and exploring scenarios for a post-Belgium region. How would the split be achieved? What would happen to Brussels? (most seem to think that Brussels would become an independent city-state).

Two things occur to me about this situation. Firstly, what would it mean for me personally – how would life in Brussels be were it to become independent (or, less likely, joined to either Flanders or Wallonia)? I can’t really think of any concrete ways in which my everyday life would be affected – maybe taxes would rise?

Secondly, in the wider scheme of things, would it really matter? Obviously there would be wide-ranging consequences for all concerned, but is it, per se, a bad thing if two halves of a country decide to go their separate ways? None of the things people love about Belgium (and there are many) would change. Is the world a poorer place because Czechoslovakia split in two? I know that was a completely different situation, but still my point remains—what harm did it do? If the two populations wanted to go their separate ways, what reason was there to stop them?

   So, I’ll be interested to see the outcome of the current impasse, but I’m not taking sides myself. I love Belgium, but if it ceases to exist I’ll still love it, just under a different name(s).

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4 thoughts on “Whither Belgium?

  1. Jane October 18, 2007 / 8:59 pm

    I have sort of been keeping up with this but don’t know how to think about it since my perspective is very different. I mean, I come from this gigantic country with all these states, each trying in some ways to be autonomous countries of their own.

    As far as my personal feelings go, I am perfectly happy to be an American (in a calmly patriotic fashion rather than a painfully jingoistic one) but my identity is overwhelming that of a southern highlander.

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  2. V-Grrrl October 18, 2007 / 9:34 pm

    Well Jane, I’m a Southern Highlander too, now in Belgium. I was born in NY and lived there until I was 12 but spent most of my life in the South and consider it my home. I came of age in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

    The great thing about being an expat is that it’s helped me get some distance from my own culture and consider the pros and cons of my home country with a bit more objectivity than before. Despite the debacle of American foreign policy and the Bush administration, I’m proud to be an American, if not proud of my government at the moment.

    A Belgian friend has pressed me for an opinion on the current situation here. Europe seems to re-draw its borders every generation, and as an American, it’s hard for me to embrace that reality because my national history is so different. I can study the articles written on this all I want, but it won’t tell me what the differences between Flanders and Wallonia mean to the people who live there, how the issue “feels” to them.

    My husband’s parents were Belgian, one from Wallonia, one from Flanders. He has family members from both parts of Belgium. His cousins speak French and Flemish with ease and without issue. I don’t know where they stand on the issue of the country splitting.

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  3. Jane October 19, 2007 / 2:19 am

    V-grrrl: Howdy! I grew up in the Blue Ridge. I totally agree that current American foreign policy is a debacle. Domestic isn’t much better right now, frankly.

    But I digress.

    Reading the various articles on the Belgium issue have been very informative but like you, I probably cannot adequately feel it because I am not Belgian. As with all issues of this type, I hope for the best.

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  4. rasman1978 November 5, 2007 / 8:40 pm

    And here I thought that Spain was the only European nation trying to split itself into a million pieces. Personally, I think such separatist ideals are almost always a bad idea. But, as my first sentence noted, I wasn’t even aware of the growing Belgian cultural fractures. Thanks for piquing my interest.

    One of the passengers on my recent honeymoon cruise, when going through immigration, was asked, “What nationality are you?” She responded, “Catalan!” She actually had it written on the form, too. I guess “Flemish!” would be the equivalent response from Belgium.

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