A Shorter History of Belgium

11 Feb 2002 // books

As a I found myself preparing to live in this country, I saw it as my duty to find out more about the history of Belgium, a country more important than its size suggests, sandwiched between the larger nations of Europe. Of course, when I first enquired about the history of Belgium, all the Belgians I asked would answer « Oh, it's terribly complicated » and then proceed not to enlighten me much about it at all. The Belgians have a sense of poltical turmoil in-grained into them that mirrors the political traumas inflicted on their beloved country. And it is as much in the younger generation as in the older generation. Nevertheless, they had a boundless faith that Belgium will prevail. I was fascinated.

So I trooped off to one of two English bookstores in Brussels and found this one book, "A Political History of Belgium from the 1830's". White, bare with a single chess piece of the front. It was just what I was looking for. This book was originally published in Flemish and has now been translated into English after winning some acclaim in academic circles. No wonder, it was a somewhat dry, pedestrian historical overview, filled with a procession of mind-numbingly endless number of dates, figures and acronyms, sprinkled through with marxist jargon and neo-liberal technicalities in a bizarre attempt to drum up some passion. This is a book that reflects the Belgian character. And I was told by the erstwhile bookseller that it had been selling quite well. I had to buy it.

So where lies the complexity ? Simply put, since its inception in 1830, Belgium has been continually pulled in six different political directions, each of them dominating and then receding in turn. These are, in no particular order – Walloonia, Flanders, Catholicism, Socialists, Liberal-Capitalists, and the King.

The whole of Belgium, including Luxembourg, used to be ruled by Holland – by the House of Orange. When Revolutionary fever broke, the region that is now Belgium spontaneously revolted and tried to set up a Republic. The revolution was motivated by hatred of the House of Orange and so, the newly created Republic did not split along ethnic lines.

But it turns out that setting up a repulblic is not so straight-forward. What with Dutch speaking Flanders in the north and French speaking Walloonia in the south and some tiny German speaking part that I know nothing about, the creation of the new Republic required a lot of international deal-making, much as the state of Israel was created. With mainly the backing of France, who wanted to see a joker of a nation buffering them from Holland, Belgium became reality. However, admist the turmoil of nation building, and perhaps, with a not-so-distant memory of a Repulic backed Napolean rampaging through the lands, at the last moment, the people of the soon-to-become Republic decided that they wanted a Monarchy instead.

So a king had to be found. Thus, Leopold found himself elevated suddenly from a plain old member of the German aristocracy to a King. Leopold was diplomatic, cultured and had the right political views so as not to offend Dutch, French, English and German power brokers. The King possessed powers akin to the current President of the United States –appointing ministers, signing laws and dictating foreign policy – except that the title of King flowed from father to son, unlike the United States. This King made political neutrality –surprise, surprise - the cardinal virtue of Belgian foreign policy. The new King was also quite accomodating to the Catholic Church and rich land owners. This may have something to do with the very expensive electoral tax, without which you could not vote at all.

Until the first World War, Belgian politics was dominated by the struggle between the Catholics and the Liberals to dominate the government. The Catholics were constantly trying to re-consolidate a power that they had lost under Dutch rule and the Liberals were trying to establish a buorgeois secular captialist state. The most pointed political battles centred around control of education. A battle which the Catholics clearly won. The Catholics dominated this era but by the First World War, there were enough prosperous middle class Belgians to undermine Catholic support. With such a strong Catholic background, is it surprising that Belgium is not exactly a country renown for its easy-going progressive nature ?

After Universal Suffrage near the turn of the centry, the Great Depression and the Second World War, where the King took Belgian neutrality to ridiculously new heights, the Belgian Socialists managed to absorb workers discontent and Communist zealotry to become a significant political force in Belgian politics. The Socialists managed to under-write a working welfare state after the Second World War in Belgium. Nevertheless, the Socialists were always viewed with suspicion by the Liberals and the Catholics. Indeed ever since the First World War, there has been a merry go-round succession of coalition governments. Just after the Second World War, there was even a laughable Liberal-Catholic-Socialist-Communist minority coalition government. That one didn't last too long.

The role of the King took a battering especially after he bet on the wrong horse during the Second World War. Although secular groups didn't want the King back after he went on a self-imposed exile, the conservative nature of the Belgians exerted itself. Royal anxiety won the day and the King was asked back. However, given the acrimonous atmosphere over his conduct in the Second World War, the King abdicated in favour of his son, who was still under-age, thus ensuring that his son would get the throne with a clean slate. Since then the Royal family has slowly devolved itself to a skeletal, almost symbolic function. But every so often, the King would wade into the political quagmire. The one famous example was when King Badouin decided that he could not sign the abortion law passed by parliament, him being a good Catholic and all. Parliament was in a quandry. They couldn't force the issue without engendering a constitutional crisis. What could they do ? What would you do ? That's right, declare a coup d'etat for a a few hours, sign the law themselves, and then immediately re-instate the King (compare this to Australia where the Queen's representatives simply dissolves parliament).

After being invaded twice, both times by Germany, Belgium decided that it was probably time to re-think it's political neutrality. After the Second War, Belgium became one of the most vigorous proponents of NATO. Belgium couldn't offer up its sovereignty to the the gentle patronage of the United States fast enough. And being a tiny inconsequential military nation smack in the middle of Europe, it was a most logical place to situate the headquarters of NATO. Having a bilingual capital sealed it. Brussels is now a wonderfully international city. It's fantastic when the train attendant switches to flawless English when he sees that you are embarassing yourself with futile attempts to parler francais. From there on, it was natural that more and more of European power would accrete in Belgium. Indeed, the Belgians are so blasé about their role as European nexus that when the Belgian parliament first came together to vote for the Maastricht Treaty to bring in the Euro, they couldn't even make chorum. This is the same Treaty that caused the hair to turn grey in politicians in other European nations.

But by far the most trauma that the Belgians have inflicted upon themselves has been the language split. Carved out of the old Dutch empire, you have the predominantly Catholic Dutch Flanders in the north and Liberal French Walloonia in the south and the capital Brussels is a region unto its own. When Belgium was first created, Belgium was predimonantly French. It was the French liberals who played the biggest part in the Revolution. It was the French capitalist who profited most from the new government. Brussels was French. It was understood that you had to speak French if you wanted a position of power.

Unfortunately two things happened. Over the last 100 years, industry shifted from the mining industries of Wallonia to the manufacturing and shipping of Flanders, thereby re-arranging the economic landscape. And the Flemish bred much faster the Walloons. Suddenly the Dutch speaking Flemish had both money and more people. Yet the people who ruled them often couldn't even talk to them. There were furious battles over education. Since all government positions were assumed to be French speaking, the Belgium government saw no need for a Dutch university. Dutch-speaking soldiers in the Belgium army sometimes had no idea what commands the French-speaking officers were giving them. This caused a few problems during the War.

Although always a festering sore, the language problem simmered to a compromise by the Second World War when bilingual status was officially adopted. But oh what a compromise. It wasn't a simple bilinguallism for all. That would have been too difficult. Instead, each county would count the number of Dutch and French speakers in their area and register with the central authorities as Dutch or French. Consequently different government departments would liase with that county. Different documents, teachers, officials would apply depending on the language registered. As you can imagine, there were all sorts of shenanigans with county boundaries, methods of counting and disgruntled minorities - around Brussels especially where the demographics would change violently from year to year.

The whole thing came to a head in the 70's, timing fortuituously with the oil-crisis led recession and the subsequent neo-liberal back-lash. Along with a swing to the hard-right, the language issue fissured completely. In many a county, conservative single language speakers who refused to speak the tainted other language despite the official classification would get voted in. This was but the tip of the ice-berg. All three major political parties – Catholics, Liberals, and Socialists

  • decided to split along ethnic lines. Indeed, all of them felt that they performed better apart (figure that out ?). So from a three party system, you suddenly had a six party system.

Better yet, admist all this confusion - where there was talk of Flanders going back to Holland and Walloonia going back to France and Brussels joining Tintin on the moon - people decided that maybe they didn't want a central government anymore. Then a most remarkable thing. The Belgians voted for a series of constitutional changes that devolved their country from a strong nation state into a loose con-federation of counties. All for none and something for everyone. What does that entail ?

What the Belgians did was to take the traditional split of the levels of government and completely re-organised the balance of power between them

  • the national government, regional government and counties. First, the finances for the different levels were completely re-vamped. The two lower levels of government were suddenly allowed to tax a citizen a lot more. In Belgium, paying taxes is a complex process where one has to pay a national tax, a regional and a city tax. Although there is legislation that dictates the range of taxation, city councils governments can impose quite a substantial personal income tax. And it can differ enormously depending where you live. In Brussels, the capital, the city tax is quite high. In the country-side, they are much lower. Second, certain national ministeries were disbanded and corresponding regional ministries were created. In particular, cultural and education ministeries were broken up into Brussels, Flanders and Walloonia. It was recognised that the three different regions were too diverse to have a national program and that the dominant language in each region created a distinctly unique culture. Education was also regionalised, given how important that a language is too basic education. Third, proportial representation was vastly increased at all levels of government. Given that Belgium has some 9 million people, Belgium has as many politicians for the national and state governments as the United States of America - a nation of 250 million people.

So where does this lead Belgium? Less unity it seems but a stronger society perhaps. Obviously such drastic changes reflected deep schisms in Belgium society. Yet most Belgians are deeply conservative. For typical Belgians, the constitutional reforms seem like a fix to a problem. Perhaps the model of Belgium society is one fit for Europe. However, I think a fix is all there is. My friend at work was helping me cart some stuff from Flanders Antwerp to here, Wallonia Gembloux. Talking to the guy at the other end of the phone, they found that they could converse better in English. Bilingualism has faded away for the triumph of the global tongue.