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Travels in Belgium, the dysfunctional, fractured state at the heart of the EU

Donald Trump called Belgium a “beautiful city”. One British prime minister said that it was “not even a country”.

The hordes of foreign travellers who visit Belgium’s war graves rarely make a side trip to the small riverside town of Diksmuide, which was destroyed in the horror to end all horrors and, in its rebuilt incarnation, given distinction by a single grey-brick building.

Not just any building. The Yser Tower is 85 metres and 22 storeys high, dominating the view from the West Flanders flatlands for miles; at first sight, it looks like the world’s tallest water tower. It is stark, dystopian, the stuff of nightmares, built in the shape of a distended gravestone, topped with a cross and the mysterious initials AVV VVK. The museum inside describes it as “Europe’s largest war memorial and peace monument”. This is an obfuscation.

The letters stand for Alles Voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen voor Kristus (All for Flanders, Flanders for Christ) and this is the unofficial shrine of Flemish nationalism. It was originally built in 1930 in reaction to a war in which Belgian soldiers – mostly monoglot Flemish peasant boys – were contemptuously given orders in French, the language both of Belgium’s other half, Wallonia, and of the entire officer class. Folklore suggests there were sometimes disastrous consequences, and the memories sowed the seeds of a Flemish consciousness that in the 1930s found a natural affinity with the Nazism next door. A decade later this segued into widespread collaboration. One night in 1946 the tower was vengefully dynamited. No one knew who did it; everyone knew who did it.

The replacement is 60 per cent bigger than the original but the message is less strident and contentious. Much has happened in Belgium in the past 70 years, even if its politics rarely engage the attention of the outside world. Belgian prosperity was initially built on the coal of Wallonia (“Belgium in 1900 was like Kuwait is now,” the diplomat Jean de Ruyt told me); Flanders to the north had nothing.

Then everything flipped. The mines were played out by the 1960s; in the 1970s the attendant steel industry tottered. The once-mighty Walloon city of Charleroi could now be used as the backdrop for a film set in eastern Europe circa 1955. Flanders has grown fat on the success of the Port of Antwerp and entrepreneurialism.

Belgium’s extreme devolution means that neither the Flemings nor the Francophones (the split is 60:40) have to kowtow to the other linguistically or politically. Financially it is a different story, and Flanders has to subsidise Wallonia. Flemish bitterness about this lies close to the surface, as so much else does in the fields of Flanders. At the monument on an autumn morning I met a local writer, André Gysel: “There are six million Danish people; they have a country,” he told me. “We have six million but we share our country with these other people and we give them €1,000 a year from each of us. And they never say thank you.” He paused, witheringly: “Mer-ci!”

One of the many myths of Belgium is that it is bilingual. That is misleading. Many Flemings of a certain age can speak French but refuse to do so – even when asked simple directions. Their grandchildren simply don’t bother learning it: it’s not necessary and, frankly, they find English far more useful as a second language. The Walloons have never bothered much with Flemish – usually regarded as just debased Dutch – or English either.

These divisions break down to an extent among the elite in the capital: geographically in Flanders, linguistically more French, culturally deracinated. But elsewhere the chances of a relationship across the language line are vanishingly small because the two sides never meet. One 2007 report put the figures for Flemish-Walloon marriages at 1 per cent, far below the percentage of black-white marriages in the UK, for example.

Yet the notion of Flemish independence attracts no clear majority and seems to have no positive energy to go with the contempt. A senior government official insisted to me it would never happen: the problem of how to split Brussels was intractable; the costs would be outrageous; and Belgians are, above all, pragmatists. “It’s like a bad marriage, isn’t it?” I said. “No, he replied. “Un mariage de raison. A marriage of convenience.”

For a British visitor this makes Belgium uniquely difficult to grasp. Overwhelmingly, the British believe in the nation state, even among those outside England who would prefer to live in a different nation state. Yet here at the very heart of Europe is a small but, in the EU, influential country with a diametrically opposite viewpoint.

Sure, we in the UK have multiple loyalties. But Belgians have up to half a dozen of those: to Europe, to their country, to their linguistic grouping, to their social “pillar” – liberal, Catholic, socialist, whatever – to their commune and perhaps to their village. And Belgium, which went 589 days in 2010-11 without a fully-formed government, is a long way from being loyalty No 1. It might even be the least important.

One former British prime minister, when irritated by the Belgians who are often so prominent in the EU high command, snorted: “Belgium! It’s not even a country!” (And Donald Trump once called it “a beautiful city”.) One might put it more politely: it is the world’s first developed post-nation state. On one level it is a stunning success. If the two sides habitually whacked each other, the BBC’s John Simpson and Jeremy Bowen would have spent their careers here in flak jackets on the Romance-Germanic linguistic frontier. Instead the Belgians just chunter and occasionally seethe.

But there are drawbacks. Britain has spectacularly failed to imbue huge numbers of its own immigrants with a sense of loyalty to their new country. We should know by now that immigration without acculturation is doomed to fail. But it is infinitely harder to inculcate that in Belgium, which has a minimal sense of loyalty to itself. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California: “There is no there there.”

***

So, what does unite Belgium? Certainly not religion, which was the primary reason for its separation from the rest of the Netherlands in 1830. Now the Belgians ignore their Catholic churches, just as the Dutch ignore their Protestant ones.

Years ago I was told that the answer was “the monarchy, football and beer”. However, beer is hardly a uniting factor; you might as well say that Belgians are loyal to chocolate or moules frites. The Belgian football team had good runs in the past two major tournaments, but of its nature that’s spasmodic.

The monarchy? Well, successive kings have been masterful at transcending the language divide; republicanism has no traction because a president would necessarily be either French or Flemish and thus unacceptable to the other side. This is a country where even Radio Nostalgie needs not merely different wavelengths for different languages but also for completely separate sets of cultural reference points.

What seems to unite Belgium more than anything else is a penchant for net curtains, which occasionally twitch. In newer houses, among younger families, these are usually replaced by vertical blinds but the principle is unchanged. The Dutch have houseplants in their windows or just let the light flood in. The Belgians tuck themselves away, perhaps from an atavistic fear that they might wake up to find yet another invading army marching past. Expats say it is very rare ever to be invited into a Belgian home, though they will be given warm hospitality in restaurants.

Perhaps allied to this, there seems a curious lack of self-confidence. As Martijn Vink, a Dutchman long resident in Brussels, put it: “We Dutchmen have strong opinions and never mind offering them. But the Belgians… If you show them a banana and say ‘What colour is that?’ they will look at each other and consult before saying anything.”

“I teach interpreting to all nationalities all over the world,” another old Brussels hand told me, “and the absolute worst are the Belgians. Ask for a volunteer: silence. Ask for anything: blank looks. Look at the floor, table, ceiling anywhere but me. It is quite striking and completely different from all others. Like talking to a bloody brick wall.”

In other circumstances, this can morph into a magnificent disdain. On my first day in Brussels I was trying to buy a transport pass. There were two windows: one young man was serving a growing queue that moved with pitiful slowness; his colleague was sanitising his keyboard, a procedure that occupied many minutes. He looked up at the queue, walked to the cupboard behind him, fetched a different cloth, returned, looked up again, and then began sanitising the mouse.

Never was there a country so pointlessly annoying. I remember driving north through Wallonia once, heading towards a city called Anvers, obviously a place of some importance even if it seemed unfamiliar. Then it vanished, obliterated from the map, and Antwerp appeared in its place. The signs were not there to help: they were there to make a political point.

Brussels’s iconic Grand Place – or Grote Markt. But it’s a myth that Belgium is bilingual. Photo: Gallery Stock

To reach Diksmuide, I was instructed to change trains in Gand. At the appointed time, I arrived at a station where the word Gand appeared nowhere. It was Gent. I was lucky there was a sign at all. Aiming to get off the Brussels metro at Schuman, the station serving the HQ of the great and wonderful European Union, the cynosure of 510 million pairs of eyes (2019: 450 million), there was a single sign on the platform giving the name, and no audible announcement. How many signs on each platform at Westminster? A hundred? More?

The incompetence of the Belgian police and security services came under global scrutiny after the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris in November 2015 and in Brussels four months later, both executed from the inner-city Brussels district of Molenbeek. This was no isolated failing. Belgium is run on the principle of Britain’s railways: everything is always someone else’s problem.

There is also a well-attested pattern of corruption to an extent associated with much warmer climates. It is accepted among residents that if you want something done, better give a bung. Yvan Mayeur, the former mayor of Brussels, resigned in June over €36,000 he received to attend two years’ worth of meetings that never took place. This might not have been noticed so much had the meetings not been intended to help the homeless.

Perhaps in mitigation, it can be said there is a certain pervasive eccentricity, bordering on weirdness. Sometimes it can be delightful: “You’ll be cycling in the middle of Belgium,” mused an Irish expat, “and you’ll suddenly come across a museum of something completely insignificant.” Sometimes it seems even odder. There is a long-established philanthropic organisation called Les Noirauds, full of prominent Brussels figures who black up and parade in clown outfits to solicit donations for a children’s charity. One story I heard concerned someone standing at a bus stop approached by a blacked-up clown who turned out to be the foreign minister.

Sometimes it is far weirder than that. The case of the child torturer Marc Dutroux, perhaps the most repulsive of all modern serial killers, involved police ineptitude on an industrial scale in the 1980s and 1990s. And yet the only Belgian film I can ever remember seeing was a mockumentary about a serial killer.

Even Belgian art tends to be peculiar. There is Magritte, of course, and also Paul Delvaux, James Ensor and Antoine Wiertz, the 19th-century painter whose huge, hopeless, horrid canvasses are permanently displayed, under contractual obligation, in a government-funded museum on a prime site near the European Parliament, which hardly anyone visits. Only in Belgium. (Delvaux [1897-1994] specialised in dreamy nocturnes generally involving naked women or railways, often both. At the excellent museum devoted to his work in the seaside resort of St Idesbald, the woman at the desk told me: “The Englishmen who come here always say they want to see the trains.”)

***

On a sunny Saturday I wandered the streets of Molenbeek, which might almost have a sign describing itself as the bomb-making capital of Europe. Most Brussels districts seem to be entirely Turkish and Moroccan or otherwise entirely Eurocratic. Molenbeek felt like a suburb familiar from home, one in transition.

At street level, it certainly didn’t feel unsafe. Almost all the old working class had gone, though a few houses – said to belong to lingering Flemish widows – still had both net curtains and flowerpots. Now the migrants who had taken over were themselves in danger of being replaced. Arty studios were popping up by the canal, and a young woman was putting the finishing touches to a new organic food shop due to open on the Monday; she even invited me to a street party (which I failed to find). I asked her if what the world thought about Molenbeek was right. She used her hands to make a balancing signal. “Vrai,” she concluded. “Et pas vrai.” It was only later that I was told about the turf war between police forces said to have taken place at Molenbeek’s metro station. It was resolved by the federal police taking charge of the platforms with the locals at street level, leaving the mezzanine ticket office as a kind of no-cops’ land.

My father was born in Belgium in 1912. He left Antwerp for England when he was two, after the Boche invaded, at a time even more tortured than our own and in circumstances I can now only try to imagine. He had no memory of it and naturally I never asked my grandparents when I had the chance.

I had sometimes wondered about whether I could apply for Belgian citizenship; maybe I could play international cricket that way. Before travelling, with the added impetus of Brexit, I enquired about my prospects at the Belgian embassy in London. The woman was very snotty: five years residence and a test in an official language, she said sternly – German acceptable, thanks to the tiny enclaves of German-speakers in the south-east corner; English, the nearest Belgium has to a lingua franca, emphatically not.

After a week in Belgium I had gone off the idea. Just before getting here, on Estonia’s border with Russia, I felt a surge of enthusiasm for the vital importance of the EU. Here, trying to live on a New Statesman budget amid restaurants designed for Eurocrats, I was starting to feel decidedly Faragist. As Kim Philby may have reflected during his long years in a Moscow flat, one should never defect to a country even more dysfunctional than one’s own.

For the next article in our series “The Lost Continent” Matthew Engel will visit Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit