Making sense of Belgium

I have made a habit of trying to understand the politics and society of the countries I live in. Belgium has proven to be a challenge on a league of its own. Moving to Brussels from the UK, the sheer mass of Belgian bureaucracy overwhelmed me. I had to go to my commune on three or four separate occasions to get registered.  I remember blankly staring at my health insurance provider trying to explain to me the inner workings of social security. Getting to understand simple things makes you feel like Asterix in the Place that makes you mad.

Few people understand or are interested in politics. With an endless administrative divisions and subdivisions, the layman cannot make sense of a system that is too complex. As opposed to the gladiator like elections of the likes of France or the US.

I had once heard that Belgium and Uruguay, my home country, were the product of one same man. And one same country. Argentina and Brazil were at war over the Eastern strip (Uruguay), which was a menace to British interests. As a mediator, British diplomat Lord Ponsonby ingeniously materialised his vision through diplomacy: the creation of a sovereign buffer state, friendly to its benefactor. In a letter to London, he states “we must perpetuate a geographical division of states that benefits England.”

This was in 1828. Two years later he was in Belgium, dubbed as the battlefield of Europe, due to repeated confrontations between the Great Powers since the 16th century. He repeated his feat, crafting Prince Leopold’s ascension to becoming the King of Belgium. A country of two halves (and some bits) was born. And a modern country it was. Belgium was one of the industrial revolution’s pioneer countries. Belgium also fed this revolution, through Leopold II’s private possession, the Belgian Congo. Raw materials were extracted with such brutality, that in 1919 the population was estimated to be half of what it was 50 years earlier. The Belgian government took over the colony in 1908.

After the repeated violence of being once again ravaged by two (world) wars between great powers, Belgium became the center of Europe. Over the years was built a massive bureaucracy that helps 28 countries to try and live together. It is therefore very fitting that Belgium is at the heart of it. After all, it has deployed layers and layers of government institutions over centuries to make one country out of different nations.

But tensions have been rising between the french and flemish-speaking communities. It seems that after all, they might not want to live together. Before, Belgium was constantly trampled by surrounding powers. Now, the threat comes from within. Flemish speakers were historically disadvantaged by the french speaking elite and have now reversed the situation, thanks to Wallonia economic dependency. Things are not going so smoothly.

A Ugandan once asked me how many tribes there are in my country. I replied that we were only one tribe. If I was asked about Belgium, I might be tempted to say two. But that was before the Euro. The support for the Diables Rouges was outstanding: Belgium stood as one! I also believe that the Belgian sense of humour is a testimony of the resilience of its people. More than 2,000 years ago, Cesar was  impressed by the Belgae’s bravery. And I think they still have it.