Following the politics of Belgium is sometimes like watching an endless game of tug-of-war. One one side, you have the Flemish. On the other, the Francophones. Two teams forever locked in a power struggle in the wacky world of Belgian politics. With all that tugging, the rope just might snap eventually.
Fortunately, there are certain elements that are powerful enough to unite the Belgians and keep their country from falling apart like a knocked down tower of Jenga.
1. The Red Devils
Nothing binds the Flemish and the Francophones together like football. Their sense of national identity may be zero on an ordinary day. But when Belgium’s Red Devils start kicking the ball, the Flemish and the Francophones become Belgians one and all. Even the folks in government temporarily forget how much they hate each other because, football!
When the World Cup reopens next year, we can expect another ceasefire in Belgian politics. King Philippe can heave a huge sigh of relief and say, “Ouais! Je peux enfin avoir une paix… royale.” And whether they win or lose, the Red Devils will always be a shining testament to what the Flemish and the Francophones can accomplish if they work together as one Belgian team.
2. The Monarchy
In this country, the King is indispensable since he is constitutionally mandated to stand for national unity. And let’s face it, national unity is practically non-existent in Belgium. Since the Flemish and the Francophones are habitually cutting each other’s throats, there needs to be a separate entity that can hold the country together. And it has to be someone unelected and therefore unobligated to take sides. Now who does that sound like? The King, right?
During the 2010-2011 political crisis in Belgium, the country went without an official government for 589 days because Flemish and Francophone politicians just wouldn’t work with each other. Who stepped in and saved the day? King Albert II and his negotiators. It was largely through their efforts that a federal government was finally formed after more than a year of negotiations.
Monarchy is well suited to Belgium’s political landscape. Other than that, it only really works for Walt Disney cartoons where you have the prince and the princess, and the happy ending.
3. The French
The Flemish and the Francophones may detest each other, but they will magically bond over their shared dislike for the French. That’s how powerful the French are. They can unite a divided people without so much as lifting a finger. They can change the world just by being themselves. Vive la France, tout à fait.
4. The European Union and International Organizations
Belgium may not be as large and as chic as its European neighbors, but it is recognized as the capital of the European Union. That means both prestige and money for Belgium.
Based on a 2016 study by Visit Brussels, there are 20 EU organizations, 42 intergovernmental organizations, and 300 regional and local representations headquartered in Brussels. The whole operation rakes in more than 80 thousand jobs and some five billion euros annually for the Belgian economy.
But it’s more than just about prestige and money. To be the established neutral ground for Europe is a milestone for a country that served as Europe’s battleground for centuries. Major wars between European nations were fought on Belgian soil, including the battles of Oudenaarde, Ramilies, Waterloo, Ypres, and Bastogne.
Belgium has come a long way indeed. And if the Belgians want to live up to the honor and keep the cash flowing, they will have to do what they can to keep it together.
5. The Brussels-Capital Region
If Belgium is neutral ground for Europe, the Brussels-Capital Region is neutral ground for the Flemish and the Francophones. The bilingual heart of Belgium is a sacred space where two warring cultures can coexist harmoniously. The region also acts as a bridge between the Dutch-speaking Flanders Region in the north and the French-speaking Walloon Region in the south.
6. The Expat Community
Belgium will survive even if the Flemish and the Francophones keep pulling each other’s hair. The Belgians are not the only ones living in their country. Happily, there’s a dynamic community of expatriates playing an active supporting role in Belgian society.
In his article, Welcome to Expatland, Lucas Tripoteau talks about how expats are keeping Brussels alive. Out of more than one million residents of the city, four hundred fourteen thousand are foreigners. Migration and expats are vital to the Belgian capital.
Come to think of it, we expats are becoming the new Brussels. It’s just a matter of time before we become the new Belgium. And we don’t even have to divide in order to conquer. The population is already divided. We just have to move in for the kill. But of course, we won’t do that because we oh so love the Belgians.
7. Jean-Claude Van Damme
How many Belgian actors have made it as big in Hollywood as Jean-Claude Van Damme? None. It’s understandable if the Flemish and the Francophones will high five each other at the mention of one action star.
So please, Mr. Van Damme, continue making action films for as long and as much as you can. We don’t care if you’re starting to look like grandpa. Just keep your career alive for the sake of your countrymen.
8. Belgian Beer, Chocolates, Waffles, Fries, etc.
Within the confines of Belgium, the Flemish and the Francophones can fight all they want over who makes better beer or chocolates. But out there in the highly competitive world of tourism, they will have to stick together and sell themselves as one country or they will lose. The world recognizes them only as Belgium, not as Flanders or Wallonia.
A united tourism campaign is especially imperative for Belgium since it is nowhere as glamorous as its European counterparts. When tourists go to Europe, they usually know which places to visit in countries like France, Italy, Germany, Spain, or Greece. But when it comes to Belgium, what? where? No sparkling destination comes to mind unless you’ve seen the movie, In Bruges, or you’ve heard of the Atomium.
9. The Manneken Pis
Flemish or Francophone, the Belgians are extremely proud of this 61-centimeter statue of a naked boy making pee-pee in public. The Manneken Pis is a symbol of their sense of humor and independence of mind. This audacious little urinator is the Belgians’ way of saying, “Don’t you dare belittle us just because we’re a small country.”
So don’t you dare belittle the Manneken Pis even if it’s really just a statue of a naked boy making pee-pee in public from whatever angle you look at it. Whatever floats the Belgian boat and keeps it steady deserves all our support. Go, Manneken Pis!