belgium

The country that shouldn’t exist

I have a modest proposal to rationalise Europe (well, in just one small way; possibilities – and needs – are endless): let’s abolish Belgium.

If nations are, in Benedict Anderson’s words, “imagined communities”, then Belgium is more imagined than others. In fact, it is imagined to the second power, being in turn composed of two smaller, and quite different, sub-national imaginary communities: the Flemish and the Walloons. It’s not that the two necessarily hate each other, certainly not the way that the Israelis and the Palestinians do or the Catholic and the Protestant Irish used to, but they don’t have all that much in common, and large minorities of each group would like to become independent of Belgium, if by Belgium they mean the other one.

The northern Belgium is Flemish (no “g”, though the speech sounds very much so) and linguistically and culturally are the kin of the Dutch. This once used to be the Duchy of Flanders (not as in Ned), and the Duke’s small and exceedingly grim castle still stands on a canal in the middle of Ghent. I had a local burger (as in a hamburger, and not an inhabitant of a medieval town) for lunch across the street from it. Flanders used to be cloth-making centre of medieval Europe and for a brief shining moment Ghent used to be the biggest city in Europe. Together with Bruges and Antwerp, Ghent formed the nucleus of the north-west European urban civilisation, based on early manufacturing and commerce – very much like their cousins to the north, the Dutch of Holland.

The southern Belgium is Walloon. If Flemish is a dialect of Dutch, Walloon is a dialect of French. While the capital Brussels is just north of the historical Wallonia, in many ways it, rather than the traditional Walloon centres of Namur and Charleroi, is the true capital of the region. It certainly has more of a French than a Dutch feel to it. Being rich in coal and iron, Wallonia was the pioneer of the Industrial Revolution on the continent, and for that the richer part of Belgium. With the decline of the heavy industry after the war, however, fortune has reverse and Wallonia now trails the wealthier Flanders.

There is no reason for Belgium to exist. The northern, Flemish part, should be incorporated into the Netherlands, and the southern, Walloon, into France.

While the north is quite Dutch already, it would benefit from even more original, highly concentrated Dutchness. Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent are all picture-perfect lovely, but they are also dirtier and more disorganised than your average Dutch city. You go south of Roosendaal and the trains suddenly stop running on time. Bruges and Ghent with their canals and tall, narrow houses look very much like typical medieval Dutch cities like Amsterdam, Utrecht or Leiden.

The south is even dirtier and even more disorganised. Pretty much like France. They belong together.

The Flemish might be Catholics (historically; no one goes to church anymore) but they are culturally more Protestant, like the Dutch (also historically; in the Netherlands no one goes to church anymore either). Flanders is that orderly, hard-working, sober northern Europe; Walloonia is the messy, Catholic, in spirit though not geography sub-Alpine, Mediterranean south. Belgium is like the place where two tectonic plates meet – i.e. inherently unstable. The plates rub against each other but they will never mesh and merge.

In future history books, I’m quite happy to be called the Father of Belgian Disunity. Stay tuned for more great ideas on how to improve Europe.

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