De lijm die België bijeenhoudt

 
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By Khaled Diab

De nationale voetbalgekte verbergt de realiteit dat België al twee staten is. Ik gebruik mijn stem als lijm die kan helpen om België samen te houden.

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De nationale voetbalgekte verbergt de realiteit dat België al twee staten is.

Zondag 25 mei 2014

In de aanloop naar de Wereldbeker in Brazilië heeft de voetbalgekte België in haar greep, merkte ik onlangs tijdens een bezoek naar ons huis in Gent. De Rode Duivels, de beste ploeg sinds een generatie, lijken alomtegenwoordig: in de media, in uitverkochte stickeralbums en zelfs in een campagne van het Rode Kruis om bloedgevers te werven. In een land dat normaal een hekel heeft aan vlagvertoon is de nationale driekleur in haar voetbalversie overal te zien en worden zwart, geel en rood op wangen gesmeerd en in pruiken geverfd.

Maar achter die opwelling van nationale trots gaat een andere realiteit schuil: het lijkt meer dan waarschijnlijk dat de regionale, federale en Europese verkiezingen van 25 mei zullen tonen dat België in feite twee aparte staten is geworden.

Bedreigde Brusselaar
De verschillen tussen Vlamingen en Walen uiten zich in de politiek, de cultuur, de identiteit en het bewustzijn – of toch op het eerste gezicht. De peilingen voorspellen dat in Vlaanderen de neoliberale, separatistische N-VA een derde van de stemmen zal halen. Andersom zou in Wallonië de linkse PS een derde van de stemmen krijgen en de grootste partij zijn.

Los van de ogenschijnlijke rechts-linkse tegenstelling tussen het welvarende noorden en het arme zuiden, is er de taalkloof. België heeft al sinds tientallen jaren geen nationale partijen of nationale media. Ook het onderwijs is geregionaliseerd. Dat alles heeft de vervreemding en het wantrouwen tussen de gemeenschappen in de hand gewerkt.

Dit geleidelijke vervagen van ‘België’ wordt symbolisch belichaamd door de bedreigde status van de meest typische Belg: de tweetalige Brusselaar, met één voet aan elke kant van de taalgrens. Vandaag is Brussel nog altijd officieel tweetalig, maar spreekt bijna iedereen Frans en vormen de Nederlandstaligen een kleine minderheid. Buiten Brussel wordt het Engels een officieuze lingua franca voor zowel Vlamingen als Walen.

Als genaturaliseerde burger die al bijna tien jaar Belg is, vind ik die trage ontbinding jammer – voor een stuk omdat ik de excentrieke charme waardeer van een land dat ondanks zijn saaie reputatie op een subtiele manier cool is. Voor iemand als ik, die uit de immigratie komt, is het bovendien vaak gemakkelijker om je als Belg te identificeren, wat niet dezelfde etnische bagage heeft als ‘Vlaming’ of ‘Waal’. Tweederde van de Brusselse bevolking is trouwens van buitenlandse afkomst, zodat de etnische aanblik van de hoofdstad sterk is veranderd. Je ziet dat ook op het voetbalveld, met spelers als de Congolees-Belgische Vincent Kompany. Hij spreekt even vloeiend Nederlands als Frans, is aanvoerder van het nationale elftal en bovendien een figuur die de gemeenschappen samenbrengt.

Er wordt vaak gegrapt dat Belgen alleen in het buitenland een gezamenlijk nationaal gevoel hebben, als ambassadeurs van hun nationale tradities (meer bepaald bier en chocola, die tot de beste van de wereld behoren). En veel Belgen die ik ken, hebben zich verzoend met het vooruitzicht dat ze hun land zullen overleven, in de veronderstelling dat het zich in afzonderlijke soevereine staten zal splitsen. Anderzijds blijkt uit peilingen dat in de twee gemeenschappen een grote meerderheid België intact wil houden, ondanks het gekibbel tussen de politieke klassen van de gewesten.

Bovendien is de politieke kloof tussen Vlaanderen en Wallonië wel heel goed zichtbaar, maar bleek uit een recente peiling van de VRT dat de meeste Belgische kiezers min of meer dezelfde politieke standpunten en meningen delen. “Je hebt een vergrootglas nodig om de verschillen tussen Vlamingen en Walen te zien als het over de sociaaleconomische problematiek gaat, de ethische vraagstukken, de immigratie of het milieu”, zegt politiek wetenschapper en columnist Dave Sinardet. Dat zal geen verrassing zijn voor wie in de twee gemeenschappen heeft geleefd. Ik denk al lang dat de Vlamingen en de Walen meer met elkaar gemeen hebben dan met respectievelijk de Nederlanders en de Fransen, die met argwaan worden bekeken.

Stem als lijm
Een van de karaktertrekken die Vlamingen en Walen delen, is een zwak voor het ‘Belgisch compromis’, een ingewikkelde manier om problemen op te lossen waarbij alle partijen iets krijgen maar ook toegevingen doen, zodat er geen winnaar maar ook geen verliezer is. De jongste jaren heeft die politieke kunstvorm minder succes dan vroeger, maar ze heeft er wel voor gezorgd dat een conflict dat al meer dan een eeuw oud is nooit tot geweld heeft geleid.

Deze Belg zal dan ook op zondag zijn stem niet alleen gebruiken als een beetje lijm dat kan helpen om België samen te houden, maar ook als een blijk van vertrouwen in de multiculturele toekomst en de verdraagzaamheid van dit land.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article appeared in De Morgen on 21 May 2014. It was originally published in the New York Times on 18 May 2014.

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Glueing Belgium back together one vote at a time

 
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By Khaled Diab

With Belgium little more than a hollow shell, I’ll be using my vote as a squirt of glue to help hold the collapsing country together.

Friday 23 May 2014

Equipped with the best team in a generation, soccer mania has infected Belgium in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil, as I witnessed during a recent visit home. The Red Devils, as the national side is known locally, seem to be everywhere: in the media, in sold-out sticker albums, and even a Red Cross blood donation campaign.

In a country where flag-waving is generally anathema, the soccer version of the national banner is everywhere and the national colours — black, yellow and red — are smeared on cheeks or dyed into wigs.

But the red devil, as always, is in the detail. Despite the apparent surge in national pride, the forthcoming regional, federal and EU elections, which will be held on 25 May, highlight the reality that Belgium has, in effect, become two separate states.

The divisions separating Dutch-speaking Flanders from Francophone Wallonia extend to politics, culture, identity and consciousness – at least at first sight.

In Dutch-speaking Flanders, which has long had a fractured political landscape, polls forecast that the neo-liberal, secessionist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) will top the ballot with a third of the vote. In contrast, in Francophone Wallonia, it is the leftist Parti Socialiste (PS) which is likely to walk away with a third of the vote, putting it in first place.

Over and above the apparent right-left split between the north and south, there is the perennial linguistic chasm, which is deepened by the parallel and separate socio-economic realities in which the regions exist.

In addition to the economic gap between the prosperous north and the struggling south, Belgium has not had national parties or national media for decades, while education too has been regionalised. This has led to the drifting apart of the country’s constituent parts, and a rise in relative ignorance, distrust and even demonisation.

This gradual fading of “Belgium” is perhaps most symbolically embodied in the endangered status of the quintessential Belgian, the bilingual Bruxellois/Brusselaar, who firmly had one foot on each side of the language frontier.

Today, though Brussels remains officially bilingual, its residents are mostly Francophone, with a minority of Dutch speakers. Beyond Brussels, English is increasingly becoming the second language of choice for Flemings and Walloons alike, making it an unofficial social and business lingua franca.

As a naturalized citizen who has been a Belgian for nearly a decade now, I find this slow disintegration to be a terrible shame. This is partly because I appreciate the eccentric and understated appeal of this country with a dull reputation but an understatedly cool reality.

Moreover, for people like me of immigrant background, it is often easier and less troublesome to identify as “Belgian” because it does not carry the same ethnic baggage that Flemish or Walloon does.

Like “British” is a more neutral label than English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, Belgian is better suited to minorities. In fact, with some two-thirds of the population of Brussels of foreign origin (including European), the ethnic complexion of the bilingual Brusselaar/Bruxellois — and, hence, quintessential, Belgian — has rapidly shifted.

This is exemplified on the soccer pitch, among other places. Take, for example,  Congolese-Belgian footballer Vincent Kompany, the captain of the national squad. Equally at home in both Dutch and French, he not only plays for the national side but acts as a unifying figure between the country’s bickering communities, both of whom are proud of the success he has found in England, including two English Premier League titles for Manchester City in 2013/14 and 2011/12.

Although many Belgians I know have reconciled themselves to the prospect that they will outlive their country, I don’t think we should condemn Belgium to the dustbin of future history just yet.

Wits have joked that Belgians only feel a sense of shared nationhood when abroad, where they become ambassadors or even missionaries for the finer aspects of the national lifestyle, from probably the world’s best beer and chocolate to the country’s fine cuisine and music.

In Jerusalem, where I am currently based, I have found that there is more than a grain of truth to this. Amongst the surprisingly large Belgian community here, there is a shared sense of kinship, camaraderie and solidarity between Walloons and Flemings – albeit a typically understated and pragmatic Belgian variety.

While this may have something to do with the more open-minded and inclusive nature of being an expat, it strikes me that many back home share similar sentiments. Surveys regularly show that clear majorities on both sides want Belgium to survive, despite the Byzantine bickering of the political class.

Moreover, despite the visible political divergence between Flanders and Wallonnia, a recent survey conducted by VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster, revealed that the majority of Belgian voters have similar political positions and views. “Whether it relates to socioeconomic, ethical, immigration or environmental issues, you need a magnifying glass to see the difference between Flemings and Walloons,” concluded the columnist and political scientist Dave Sinardet.

And this would come as no surprise for anyone who has actually lived among the two communities. Equipped with the perspective of the relative outsider, I have long held that Flemings and Walloons have more in common with one another than they do with the French or the Dutch, both of whom are viewed with suspicion due to their colonial history in Belgium.

One characteristics which both Flemings and Walloons share is their penchant to strike “Belgian compromises”, a form of settlement by which all sides concede something in return for something else, creating a complex web of gains and losses in which there is no victor or vanquished. Although this political art form has had a lower success rate in recent years, it has ensured that this conflict of more than a century has never erupted into violence, nor captured international headlines, except in the surreal.

Come election day, this Belgian, for one, will use his ballot not only as a small squirt of glue to help hold Belgium together, but also as a vote of confidence in its multicultural future and capacity for tolerance.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

A condensed version of this article first appeared in The New York Times on 18 May 2014.

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Nawal El Saadawi: “I am against stability. We need revolution.”

 
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By Nikolaj Nielsen

Renowned author and feminist Nawal El Saadawi believes that her fellow Egyptians “must pay the price for freedom”.

Thursday 11 July 2013

 

Imprisoned by former president Anwar Sadat, exiled by Hosni Mubarak, and hated by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, 81-year old dissident and feminist Nawal El Saadawi still sees hope for an Egypt free from the clutches of religious and military rule.

“We will never allow a military government rule or a religious Islamic rule, never,” she told me in Brussels on Wednesday (10 July).

Nawal El Saadawi in Brussels. Photo: ©Nikolaj Nielsen

An avid campaigner for women’s rights in a society deeply ingrained with patriarchal values, Saadawi was a director in the ministry of health in the 1960s working to stop female circumcision.

Her campaign for women’s rights continued, despite her being jailed in 1981 over her publications.

Released two months after the assassination of then-president Anwar Sadat, she fled Egypt in 1988 following numerous threats against her life.

“Democracy means economic equality, social equality – you cannot have democracy under a patriarchy when women are oppressed,” she said.

The liberation of women from religious and patriarchal doctrines is a common theme in her numerous novels, plays, short stories and non-fiction books, some translated into 30 different languages.

Upon her return to Egypt in 2009 after a three-year exile for a play she wrote, Saadawi moved to set up the Egyptian Women’s Union, which she formed at Tahrir square in January 2011.

“I was trying all my life to organise women and so, two years ago, we started the Egyptian Women’s Union. Fifty percent of our members are young men who are progressive and non-patriarchal,” she noted.

Both the United States and Europe can keep their aid, she says, noting that their conditions have condemned Egypt to poverty, submission, and misery.

“The free market is not free, it is only free for the powerful to exploit the weak,” she noted.

Saadawi describes governments in the US and in Europe as capitalist, patriarchal and theocratic systems that promote class oppression.

The EU, for its part, handed over approximately €1 billion in aid to Egypt from 2007 onwards.

But a report published by the European Court of Auditors in June said corruption and lack of accountability squandered funds paid directly to the Egyptian authorities.

The court said women’s and minorities’ rights were not given sufficient attention despite the critical need for urgent action to counter the tide of growing intolerance.

“The whole philosophy of the world, capitalism, patriarchy, and religions – we are still living in the post-modern slave system,” she said.

As for the Americans, Saadawi says they buy influence over the Egyptian military elite, which is complicit in forging a false sense of stability for Israel’s benefit.

“Revolution came out in the streets because we are fed up with poverty. We are forced into poverty by US aid. US aid increased poverty in Egypt,” she noted.

On Thursday (11 July), the US approved the shipment of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt despite the political unrest in the country.

The planes are set for delivery in the next few weeks.

Not a military coup

Despite her criticism of US-Egyptian-military scheming, Saadawi describes the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood, their arrests, and forced isolation by the army as part of an ongoing revolution to establish a civil secular society based on social justice.

The deposition of Egypt’s fifth president Mohamed Morsi is not a military coup, she insists.

She said the army was initially reluctant to intervene, but armed Muslim brothers forced their hand in a revolution that has yet to see its final outcome.

“I heard women and children screaming because of the bullets and blood oozing on Tahrir square and people were saying where is the army?” she said.

With Morsi out, Saadawi says there is now a greater chance to put in place a secular constitution where everyone is equal, regardless of religion, gender or class.

“We must write this constitution before any election,” she said.

But the task ahead is fraught with difficulties.

On Wednesday, an arrest warrant was issued for the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, for inciting violence in a speech that saw thousands take to the streets.

Nine other warrants on the leadership were also issued.

Critics say the arrests risk usurping the interim government’s plan for national unity.

Saadawi, for her part, dismisses the warning.

National unity, she says, will come from a fiercely independent and free-thinking younger generation.

“I am against stability. We need revolution. We need to move ahead and pay the price for freedom,” she said.

___

Follow Nikolaj Nielsen on Twitter.

This article first appeared on EUobserver.comIt is published here with the author’s consent.

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The human wrongs of the Holocaust

 
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By Khaled Diab

A new museum in Belgium seeks to make the Holocaust relevant for contemporary visitors by placing it in the wider context of human rights.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

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The original Kazerne Dossin. photo: ©Khaled Diab

Located half way between Belgium’s two largest cities, Brussels and Antwerp, prosperous Mechelen, which was once the capital of the Low Countries, has for centuries played a pivotal role in the economy and the arts.

During the Industrial Revolution, the first railway line in continental Europe connected Mechelen to nearby Brussels. Just over a century later, when the Industrial Revolution gave way to industrialised devolution in Europe, the extensive rail network running through Mechelen led the Nazis to choose it as the location for an infamous transit camp for Belgium and Northern France.

Between 1942 and 1944, the camp, which was located in Kazerne Dossin, a 17-century infantry barracks constructed during the Habsburg era, deported 25,500 Jews (as well as 352 Roma) to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of which only 5% survived the Nazi’s Final Solution.

In 1996, Belgium’s Jewish community set up the Jewish Museum of Resistance and Deportation (JMRD) on the ground floor of one wing of the Kazerne Dossin. Last month, a larger state-of-the-art museum and memorial opened its doors to the public.

The two generations of museums owe their existence to two men touched personally by the tragedy of deportation. One was Nathan Ramet, an Auschwitz survivor who reportedly refused to speak about his ordeal until he decided to establish the JMRD, who sadly died a few months before the new museum was opened. The other was the then Minister-President of Flanders Patrick Dewael whose grandfather, Arthur Vanderpoorten, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities.

The €25-million cubic complex is a sombre white mausoleum-like structure which its designer, the celebrated Flemish architect Bob Van Reeth, says was built with a brick for each person deported from the site, while the museums entire volume is equivalent to the freight cars in the 28 convoys which transported the victims to their eventual death in Poland.

Inside, echoing the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a wall rising the entire height of the building carries photos (or empty spaces where no pictures survive) for every single victim transported from Mechelen, in a bid to re-humanise them.

But with dozens of Holocaust museums and memorials around the world, including in nearby London and Paris, how does Kazerne Dossin intend to stand out?

“Naturally, we can’t tell the story of Auschwitz here. We focus ourselves on the Belgian story,” Sarah Verhaert, the Kazerne’s spokeswoman, told me.

And the Belgian story is retold through photographs, newspaper clippings and other material from the time, as well as interactive personal testimonies from a number of survivors.

Caricatures and newspaper clippings from the time illustrate clearly that Judeophobia was not just a German ill but infected significant strata of Belgian society, as it did much of the West, though there was also great opposition to it too.

With its own ready supply of home-grown antisemites, a natural question arises of whether or not any Belgians actively took part in the Nazi persecution. The issue of collaboration remains, in fact, a touchy one in Belgium, even today – but the museum does not shy away from addressing it.

The accepted narrative is that only a tiny minority aided and abetted the Nazis out of ideological conviction, while others, such as the civil servants who helped draw up Belgium’s first-ever register of Jews, did so because they had no other choice.

“We have to challenge the myth that the Nazi occupation left no room for manoeuvre,” explains the museum’s curator Herman Van Goethem, a prominent professor of history at Antwerp university. “In the hierarchal context of the time, Belgian civil servants had a margin for administrative resistance without putting their lives in danger.”

This margin for dissent could help explain why only roughly half of the 85,000 Jews in Belgium at the time (many of whom were refugees from further east) were registered and how deportation occurred more smoothly in some places and with difficulty in others, such as Brussels.

“This museum has had to deal with a lot of sensitive issues, such as the role of the palace,” notes Verhaert. “At a certain moment, the palace had turned its head and looked away from what was happening.”

The part played by the Belgian monarch at the time, Leopold III, is particularly controversial. Although he defied the German occupiers at times and was kept under house arrest and even deported, his sympathies seemed to lie more with the Nazis than the Allies, whose expected entry into Belgium to push out the Germans he regarded as an “occupation”.

That said the monarchy, as well as the Catholic Church, played a pivotal role in in extracting assurances from the Nazis that no Jews with Belgian citizenship would be deported, and Leopold’s mother, Queen Elisabeth, organised the rescue from deportation of hundreds of Jewish children.

But the most heroic, dangerous and defiant forms of resistance came from ordinary people, who harboured and hid Jews, at great personal risk. Some 1,500 of these everyday heroes are commemorated among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. These include Yvonne Nèvejean, who helped hide some 4,000 Jewish children.

Jews also played an active part in the resistance, with many joining the Belgian underground. Perhaps the most audacious (and simple) example of this underground resistance was the daring rescue of Transport XX, one of the convoys from Mechelen. A Jewish doctor, Youra Livchitz, and his two non-Jewish friends, Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon, managed, equipped with little more than a makeshift red lantern, to stop the train to Auschwitz long enough for 231 of those on board to escape, half of whom were recaptured or killed.

21st century relevance

In addition to shedding light on the Belgian page of this dark chapter of European history, the new museum approaches the Holocaust from what it describes as a unique perspective. “Kazerne Dossin is the first Holocaust museum that explicitly takes up human rights in its mission,” explains Herman Van Goethem, the museum’s curator.

Linking the Holocaust to the theme of human rights in general was chosen as a way of enabling modern audiences to better relate to this tragedy and to draw the necessary lessons from it.

The installations explore the dynamics of intolerance and exclusion, from bullying in the playground to discrimination against entire groups in society, and how this can escalate to mass violence. Segregation in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa are among the case studies highlighted.

“Visitors find the link that is made between the Second World War and human rights today to be very interesting,” observes Sara Verhaert.

But the connection has sparked some controversy. “The most common question that we get is, ‘Why haven’t you included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’?” admits Verhaert. “But that is such a sensitive issue to address, especially here, which is a memorial for so many Jewish people.”

Although the atrocities committed in King Leopold II’s “Congo Free State” get a passing mention, questions have also been raised about why Belgium’s colonial ghosts have not been given greater prominence at Kazerne Dossin. Moreover, Belgium has no museums dedicated to its dark history in Africa. Though she admits that this is an unfortunate oversight, Verhaert notes that: “No country likes to be confronted with its war history and its colonial legacy.”

And her observation rings true in many instances. For example, though Washington is home to a centrally located Holocaust museum, the nearby National Museum of the American Indian has been criticised for failing “to confront the clash between foreign colonists and the native people they found here”.

Moreover, echoing a debate that is familiar elsewhere in Europe, Israel and the United States,  the question of whether it is valid to compare the Holocaust to other atrocities also played out over the decade it took to plan and construct Kazerne Dossin, with some leading politicians insisting that  “the unique character of the Shoah” must be preserved.

Herman Van Goethem finds such objections to be both unfounded and potentially dangerous. “The exclusive focus on the uniqueness of the Shoah can lead to us isolating it, placing it completely outside ourselves, and viewing it as a completely incomprehensible event,” he argues.

And the greater the distance in time and social reality grows, the harder it becomes for people to get their heads around the sheer scale and inhumanity of the Nazi’s Final Solution. “The younger generation find it all very hard to imagine,” notes Verhaert. “I conducted a tour and the multiracial group of young people found it hard to believe that there were some things that people were not allowed to do, that Jews were not allowed on the tram, or in the park or the cinema.”

Verhaert sees this as a good sign, despite the growth of discrimination and intolerance in some quarters of Belgian society. Kazerne Dossin, she believes, can help make upcoming generational more appreciative of how special the multicultural reality they live in today is, and the need to be vigilant in order to preserve it.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 31 January 2013.

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A careless killer on the loose…

 
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By Khaled Diab

Gun and knife violence gets a lot of public attention but one killer prowling our streets goes largely unnoticed… apathy.

Thursday 24 January 2013

It was a case of senseless violence followed by a needless death. Peter Vercauteren, a 43-year-old Belgian artist and local community leader, was heading home late one night in the heart of Sint-Niklaas, not far from the picturesque market square, the largest in the country, for which this smallish town is best known.

Vercauteren, “Pee” to his friends, was followed by another punter with whom he’d allegedly had a bit of a shouting match in the pub, even though, by all accounts Vercauteren was a jovial man with a big heart and a booming laugh that could be heard long before its owner could be seen.

His assailant, Wesley L, head-butted Vercauteren so hard that he collapsed on a dark street and died… eventually.

Had this been the whole story then this tragedy would have remained a largely private one. But what happened next has had locals, who went on a silent march to express their outrage at his preventable death, searching for explanations.

While Vercauteren lay dying outside a kebab shop, under the apparently unwatchful eye of a police surveillance camera, a number of people walked past him without stopping to offer assistance, including his attacker who returned for a second look. An hour and a half later, someone finally put in a call to the emergency services, by which time it was too late.

This carries echoes of a similar tragedy, in 2006, when Joe Van Holsbeeck, 17, was not only stabbed for his mp3 player on a busy rush-hour train platform in Brussels, but no one came to his aid.

One explanation for why no one lifted a finger to assist Vercauteren, as one friend, Steven, put it to me, is that passers-by may have assumed he was just a drunk who had fallen into a booze-induced stupor.

While this could well be what (de)motivated some from rushing to the fallen man’s aid, I find this diagnoses the symptom more than the underlying condition. Even if Vercauteren was a passed-out drunk, surely this, in a cordial, educated society whose sense of solidarity is reflected in its high tax rates would prod people to act, despite knee-jerk snobbery towards “tramps”. After all, in addition to the danger of choking on vomit, an unconscious drunk also runs the risk in winter of developing hypothermia or freezing to death.

Another, more convincing reason is simple, instinctive, gut-wrenching fear. “The uncertainty in society has increased the level of fear, and this undoubtedly played a role,” says Roel Thierens (23), who volunteered in a youth centre, Kompas, where Vercauteren also worked.

And, indeed, though much of Europe is perhaps the safest it has ever been, a neurotic media and fear-mongering politicians induce in many people a sense of disproportionate fear and distrust of, not to mention alienation from, others, especially immigrants and minorities. But fear, especially in a situation as unthreatening as this, can be overcome.

At heart, what this could all boil down to is that the true accomplice in this crime was apathy and indifference. “Passers-by might well have thought that somebody else is bound to help him,” notes Wouter Thierens (26), Roel’s brother who also volunteers at Kompas.

Many social conservatives see such apparent apathy as a sign of the breakdown in traditions and family values. But what this overlooks is that, though families have become less central than they once were, they still play a pivotal and central role in the lives of most Belgians.

Additionally, in countries where family is still paramount and traditional community remains important, such wilfull blindness also occurs, as demonstrated by the recent outrage when passengers reportedly stood by as a young woman was gang raped and beaten to within an inch of her life on a Delhi bus. And similar incidents occur in the Middle East.

Moreover, in a modern, well-oiled, mechanical society, like that which is prevalent in northern Europe, it is not that people have abandoned their sense of community and solidarity, though some erosion has occurred thanks to the greater individual alienation witnessed in contemporary society, but that it has changed to become more impersonal and distant. Citizens, aka taxpayers, have grown to expect the ‘system’ to take care of everything and everyone: the destitute and the desperate, the weak and the sick, and the criminal and their victims.

However, important as such systemic solutions are, we still need a certain sense of personal social responsibility.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 21 January 2013.

 

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Basque Country: In the eye of the financial storm

 
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By Eric Bienefeld

Although many Europeans associate it with political turmoil, the Basque Country is the only Spanish region where the economic outlooks is mild.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

In the summer months, the beachside cafés in the Sagües quarter of San Sebastián (Basque Country, Spain) are bustling. The surfers take their morning session, while tourists, local youth and middle-aged clientele take their mid-afternoon cañas, or small beers. Walking through the parte vieja – old quarter of the city – a sign reads: “Tourists beware you are not in Spain, nor France, you are in the Basque Country”. Something seems very different here.

You get the impression that the financial crisis has not taken hold here. Nevertheless, the winter months are hard for the service sector. Juan Ramon, a local taxi driver, confirms the difficulties of keeping one’s head above water in the ‘off-season’. Elena, one of the owners of La Consentida, a pintxos bar along the normally thriving coastal avenue, La Zurriola, notes the effects of the now four-year crisis. “Every day we are worried about business, but winter is always especially difficult,” she says.

Although things may be bad in the Basque Country, the situation is worse in the rest of Spain, especially in the south where mass tourism plays a huge role. But the Basque Country has a different background. Its research centres and traditional industries are still fairing well in the financial storm.

Amid soaring unemployment and fears of a double-dip recession in Spain, the Basque Country offers a contrasting picture. The Spanish situation is grim, with 5.3 million unemployed at the end of 2011, the Bank of Spain predicts that the country’s economy will fall into another recession, contracting by 1.5% in 2012, which would exacerbate the 22.9% unemployment rate reported at the end of 2011, according to the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (INE).

Meanwhile, the Basque Country has the lowest unemployment rate of all the Spanish regions, known as Autonomous Communities, and has maintained comparatively lower levels for decades. With a population of 2.16 million, the Basque Country’s unemployed is 159,667. That’s just 7.4% unemployment, way below the Spanish average.

But why is the Basque country weathering the financial storm better than the rest of Spain? It goes back to basic economic drivers… industry and production. Iron mining and steel manufacturing helped build this region and, unlike the UK and other struggling European economies, the Basque Country is not letting go of them without a fight.

Heavy mining at the turn of the 19th and well into the 20th century gave the Basque region a solid economic base and provided steady employment for skilled and unskilled workers, including economic migrants. Today, the Basque Country’s level of industrialisation is greater than the EU average.

The Basques have also been able to reinvent themselves, with EU backing and opportunities. Through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the EU has €241 million in co-funding destined for the Basque Country under the Regional Competitiveness and Employment programme (2007-2013). The funds are devoted to areas that are already highly developed in the Basque Country, including science and technology, research and development, environment, energy resources, and transport.

The tiny Basque Country punches above its weight politically as well, offering its expertise to the EU in such fields as taxation policy, health, the environment, transportation, e-democracy, agriculture, language and culture, and even fishing policy. According to one MEP from the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), “The Basque Government is in continual contact with the European Commission in formal and informal settings.”

But does all this direct contact between the EU and the Basque region create greater tension with Madrid? Yes and no.

In considering the absence of a Spanish central state-sponsored representation mechanism, an official from the Spanish Permanent representation to the EU notes, “It is a weakness of the system that the Autonomous Communities do not have the capacity to be able to negotiate and be represented here in Brussels,” at least through the central state.

As an autonomous region you would expect some, well, ‘autonomy’ in its dealings with the EU, but Spain can’t help but be envious of the Basque Country’s clout and strong ties to the EU. For the Basques, though, it is pure logic: why wait for Madrid – or negotiate a shared position with the other Autonomous Communities – when you can act directly at the EU level?

This thinking applies on many levels, including how the Basques fund their research. Tortuero Martin, a government expert, explains that funding is arranged through an agreement between the management agency or authority and those in charge of employment policy in the Autonomous Communities. “There is regional source of funding, and it doesn’t come from the budget of the state in Spain,” he stresses.

Moreover, the Basques have the means and institutions in place to lobby the EU directly, which is arguably a more robust form of negotiating than the sclerotic traditional power structures. This nimble, somewhat informal, approach could well be the Basques regions secret weapon, helping it weather the financial storm and defy the dire predictions for the Spanish economy.

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Greece and the euro – a Trojan tragedy

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Greeks are putting a new spin on the legend of Troy by snubbing the fattest gift horse they’re likely to get from the weary euro club.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Violence continues to rock the streets of Athens, as anti-austerity protestors vent their anger at what unions see as meddling outsiders “covertly abolishing or eroding democracy and national sovereignty” in Greece.

Last week, the unions called a 48-hour strike – the latest in a series of anti-austerity actions which have taken place since the European Union and International Monetary Fund began bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 – and sporadic violence erupted as some 10,000 unionists rallied around Greece’s Parliament, where leaders are meeting to thrash out the terms of the next installments.

“The tombstone of Greek society” is how trade unionists in Greece describe the €3.2 billion in cuts needed this time to save the country from sliding into the Aegean.

For several weeks, the right-wing Laos party has been deliberately blocking the austerity package – a move many predict could see the country fail to secure the new €130 billion EU-IMF bailout needed to stave off imminent default on Greece’s sovereign debt. Then last week, Laos promptly quit the new coalition government altogether.

Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a technocrat recently chosen to lead Greece out of this mess, still has a majority in the Parliament. But as talks heated up in Brussels last week, euro-club finance ministers insisted all of the main parties – including Laos – will have to sign a pledge to respect the latest round of austerity measures after elections in April.

Greece’s position in the euro zone is very much under threat – rightly so, in my view. Yet despite his party’s clear distaste for outside intervention, Laos leader Georgios Karatzaferis said Greece should remain in the euro, like it was some kind of ancient privilege that does not involve duties too, but not “under the German boot”. “I am very disturbed not by the sacrifices we have to make, but from the humiliation of Greece. They have stolen our dignity,” he asserted.

So, while the rest of troubled euro zone countries tighten their belts, commit to work harder and dig ever-deeper into their pockets to pay for Greece’s profligacy, we should feel sorry for the Athenians who are feeling humiliated. That kind of farce is worthy of Greek tragedy, no doubt.

Just to put Greece’s waste, graft and work ethic into perspective, the latest figures fresh from the Greek finance ministry show that the government has managed to collect only 1% of the €8.6 billion in tax penalties issued over the past two years.  According to media reports, had the government managed to collect even a third of the fines, the new austerity package may not have been needed.

The European Commission is starting to talk tough, hinting in statements last week that it could absorb the impacts of a Greek default and departure from the euro zone. A Commission spokesman said on 10 February that the increased presence of EU and national experts in Greece leading up to the next possible tranche is part of the new bailout deal, helping the government do what the rest of Europe manages to do – collect taxes.

It doesn’t seem to matter how much money and concessions you throw Greece’s way. The ‘good money after bad’ adage keeps bubbling up. Only a few months ago, EU and IMF leaders put an astounding deal on the table for Greece. Under intense pressure from world leaders fearing that an imminent Greek debt default would sink the whole euro zone, member states and banks agreed to wipe 50% off current obligations.

That’s like borrowing a €100,000 to extend your house or expand you business, and then being told: “Don’t worry, you only have to pay half back!” What kind of message does that send to Greeks who already appear to have a distorted understanding of the connection between saving, spending, borrowing and other such financial fundamentals?

And what does it say to other EU members, many of them newly entering the euro zone and some struggling with their own debt demons? No doubt the Hungarians who are having to pay back huge loans taken out in Swiss francs when the euro was strong, would like a piece of that action. So, too, would the Slovaks who earn considerably less than the Greeks and had to make many concessions to enter the euro under what now seems like a fading hope that it would improve their lives.

So, are the Greeks delighted that the rest of Europe is chipping in to help them out? Apparently not. Their pride is hurt, and they don’t like what the gift horse comes saddled with … “austerity measures”, unpopular measures that many other Europeans are also having to endure, despite the social unrest and anger they unleash.

According to the UK’s Guardian, around the time of the last bail-out, some 60% of Greeks thought the European deal was bad for the country. “In most polls, voters have voiced their support for remaining part of the euro, but have increasingly vented their frustration at austerity measures,” the paper noted. “Cuts in the bloated public sector, reductions in pay and pensions, new taxes and privatisations of airports, state lotteries, the Greek water supply and the postal service are part of the deal agreed.”

Fat chance of that happening while Greece remains hooked up to life support. It’s time to switch off the machine. Let Greece regain its pride without the euro and all these Olympic coaches teaching it how to tread water.

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Social responsibility goes digital

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

Information technology is being hailed as the new face of socially responsible business.

Friday 10 February 2012

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is getting a makeover thanks to the emergence of ultra-fast, ultra-smart, ubiquitous information and communications technologies (ICT). This match-up is the beginning of an unexpected but somehow quintessential relationship explored in a refreshing exhibition hosted this week in Brussels.

Companies are embracing cutting-edge technology to save on costs and deliver competitive advantage in these tough economic times. But what many may not appreciate is that this economically rational decision can have profound social benefits, too. ICTs can boost an organisation’s CSR activities, which has a cascading effect along whole value chains, from stakeholders and staff to suppliers and service providers.

The five dimensions of ICT4CSR

Political … giving people a voice

Geographical … bringing people together virtually

Economic … bringing markets closer to home

Societal … providing access to education, knowledge and opportunities

Environmental … green technology helping to tackle climate change

 

 The term ‘corporate social responsibility’ dates back to the late 1960s and 1970s but has entered more mainstream use since the publication of R Edward Freeman’s book, Strategic management: a stakeholder approach, in 1984. Through CSR activities – donations, community work, ‘green’ operations, etc. – organisations look beyond shareholder value alone in search of positive outcomes for all stakeholders (consumers, employees, communities, the environment).

Providing technology is only part of the contribution that ICT companies can make, experts suggest. The industry is uniquely placed to help local communities around the world, to nurture talented people, and to help developing countries find innovative solutions to the pressing challenges they face.

In 2010 alone, the ICT industry contributed betwen 30% and 40% to the economic growth of developed countries.

Hosted at the European Parliament from 6 to 9 February, the exhbition, entitled ‘ICT4CSR: Enriching life through communications’ tells a story of how ICT provides fertile ground for companies to nurture ideas, talents and people which eventually come to fruition in the form of better (digital) working conditions, safeguards for the environment, and myriad ways for enriching society.

Thus, in the right hands, CSR is much more than a company’s way of easing its conscience, the fair suggests. To organisations that embrace it fully, it becomes a way of life, a way of operating with integrity and a way to promote the harmonious and sustainable development of the economy, society, and environment.

Unusual digital dividend

Governments worldwide are investing in the huge potential of digital communications technology to connect people, transcending boundaries and bringing communities together to benefit one another. Europe is no exception.

“It’s my dream to get every European digital,” wrote Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, on her blog. “And that means everyone needs to be covered by fast broadband connections.”

The Digital Agenda for Europe focuses on ICTs’ capability to reduce energy consumption, support ageing citizens’ lives, revolutionise health services and deliver better public services. Its targets include broadband of at least 30Mbps for everyone by 2020 with half of European households subscribing to connections of 100Mbps or higher.

The widespread rollout of very fast, ‘always on’ internet provides solutions to a number of local, regional and global challenges. For instance, access to education in remote villages. With satellite broadband solutions and advances in e-learning, village children can benefit from home schooling using interactive, multimedia lesson plans.

“Having access to the internet and other ICTs will not just be the privilege of the few,” commented MEP Robert Sturdy during the opening of the exhibition. “I truly believe that smarter, greener, targeted ICT can change the way we work and live, for the better, no matter which corner of the world you are from.”

A 10% increase in broadband penetration will improve GDP by 1.3%. And high-speed internet also enables businesses, especially small ones, to remain competitive and allows consumers to take advantage of advanced online services that improve their quality of life, from e-commerce to e-government services.

 

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Arab spring and Turkish autumn?

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Is Turkey truly a role model for the Arab Spring or is it actually a secular democracy in its autumn years?

Wednesday 8 June 2011

In the midst of the Arab Spring, Turkey is being looked to as a role model for post-revolutionary Arab states: a large, mostly Muslim country that has moved from military domination to civilian rule, led by a popular democratically elected government. Surely, conventional thinking goes, the so-called ‘Turkish model’ is a template for countries like Tunisia, Egypt and a post-Gaddafi Libya or a post-Saleh Yemen.

But as people in many Arab countries look forward to a new democratic dawn, many Turks are wondering if their secular democracy is not moving into its autumn years.

In recent months, as Tunisians and Egyptians celebrated the overthrow of their authoritarian regimes, Turks watched as police rounded up journalists, bloggers and military officers. As Arab revolutionaries coordinated anti-government protests over the internet, the Turkish government announced new internet regulations that critics say will increase censorship and restrict freedom of expression.

Many secular Turks worry that opposition to years of authoritarian rule in the Arab world is running parallel to rising authoritarianism at home. And they fear what will be next if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wins the upcoming general election on June 12, as is widely expected.

Since coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan has sought to curtail the power of the meddlesome military – long the guardian of Turkish secularism – and the country’s militantly secular judges. A former radical Islamist who was once jailed for inciting religious hatred and whose party was previously banned, Erdoğan has reincarnated himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), publicly espousing a moderate, democratic brand of political Islam. As such, he has framed his efforts to trim the influence of the secular military as a step toward full-blooded Western-style democracy rather than a step away from secularism.

Outside Turkey, Erdoğan, in his new incarnation, has been widely applauded. A constitutional reform package that was approved in a referendum last September won praise from Western officials and the European Union, which Turkey is trying to join (though obstacles on both sides have recently cast shadows over the membership process). The reforms, which Erdoğan will seek to implement should he win the 12 June election, allow for previously untouchable army officers to be tried in civilian courts – in line with EU norms – and put an end to the legal immunity of top military officials implicated in a 1980 coup. It also increases the number of judges on the Constitutional Court – Turkey’s highest – and on the powerful Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

Inside Turkey, Erdoğan, who grew up in a poor Istanbul neighbourhood, became a semi-professional football player and went on to serve as mayor of the city in the 1990s, remains popular in low-income urban areas and in the country’s conservative rural Anatolian heartland. He is credited with bringing jobs and economic growth, taming formerly rampant inflation and doing more than any previous leader to move Turkey along the road to EU membership.

But in fast-modernising areas of major cities and coastal towns, many secular Turks question his aims.
They see the army, which has had a hand in the overthrow of four governments in the last 50 years, not as a threat to democracy per se but rather as the guardian of Turkey’s secular political order, a role it has played since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, himself a senior army commander, established the modern republic in 1923 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

For them, Erdoğan’s efforts to curtail the military’s power risks opening the door to Islamisation. And they worry that the independence of the courts, which have strictly upheld the secular Constitution, will be undermined by the increase in the number of judges, more of whom will be appointed by the president and parliament, currently under the control of Erdoğan’s AKP.

Opinion polls suggest the AKP will easily win the 12 June election, picking up around 45% of the votes, a similar percentage to in the last election in 2007. The main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) with its new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, is on track to garner around 30% of votes, 10 percentage points more than in 2007. Despite that, the AKP stands a chance to increase its strength considerably and win an absolute majority in the 550-seat parliament if the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) drops below the 10% threshold needed to enter the chamber. Hit by a series of sex scandals – made public in videotapes distributed over the internet that have so far led to the resignation of four party members – the MHP currently looks likely to win 13% of votes, opinion polls suggest.

If the MHP fails to maintain sufficient support to enter parliament come election day, the AKP will all but certainly pick up enough seats to push its constitutional reform package – and many other laws – through parliament unchallenged. That has put secularists on edge in light of the events that have followed the constitutional referendum.

In February and again in April, dozens of military officers – among them 30 serving generals – were arrested for allegedly plotting a coup in the so-called Balyoz (Sledgehammer) case. And, over the same period, journalists were detained and blogs closed down for allegedly supporting another group of similarly likeminded coup-mongers in a separate case known as Ergenekon. Critics, among them law professors, political analysts and rights groups, say that the evidence in both cases looks flimsy and, in some instances, may have even been fabricated. Some have likened the investigations to a witch-hunt against opponents of the AKP.

“The Ergenekon investigation became a political witch-hunt tinged with obtuse paranoia in which a single, centrally coordinated – and manifestly fictional – clandestine organisation was accused of responsibility for every act of political violence in Turkey in the last 25 years,” writes Istanbul-based political analyst Gareth Jenkins. “Those who questioned the prosecutors’ claims – and the numerous breaches of due process, including the apparent fabrication of evidence – were subjected to public smear campaigns; in several cases they were arrested and charged with being members of Ergenekon themselves.”

Having already tamed the country’s largest media conglomerate, Doğan, with draconian fines for alleged tax fraud, the arrest of journalists, bloggers and the closure of an internet portal, Oda tv, which was critical of the AKP, are increasingly being seen as attempts to silence dissent and muzzle free speech.

With more than 50 journalists taken into custody in recent months, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country, ahead of China and Iran, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
“Journalists and editors remained targets for prosecution. Legitimate news reporting on trials was deemed ‘attempting to influence a judicial process’ (and) reporting on criminal investigations was judged as ‘violating the secrecy of a criminal investigation’,” Human Rights Watch noted in its most recent World Report.

Members of the European Parliament pressed the issue in April when Erdoğan visited Brussels. Specifically, he defended the arrest of several journalists, a raid on the offices of leftist-liberal daily Radikal and the seizure of a book (banned by the government but widely circulated over the internet), all linked to the Ergenekon affair.

The book, titled The Imam’s Army and written by arrested investigative journalist Ahmet Şık, could be explosive, Erdoğan appeared to suggest: “It is a crime to use a bomb but it is also a crime to use materials from which a bomb is made. If informed that all materials needed to construct a bomb have been placed in a certain location, wouldn’t the security forces collect these materials?”

The government’s attacks on press freedom, combined with Erdoğan’s increasing hostility to Israel and warming relations with Iran, have undoubtedly tarnished relations between the NATO ally and Europe and the United States. Turkey’s chances of joining the EU anytime soon are looking increasingly slim and are likely to only get slimmer if the Erdoğan government continues down its current path.

Confiscating books, closing websites and blocking internet content is not new in Turkey: the government barred access to YouTube in 2008 over a video that was deemed to be insulting to Ataturk, a criminal offense under Turkish law. It lifted the ban two years later when the content was removed.

Previously, US officials had complained about the “absurd” trial of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk for writing about the death of up to one million Armenians in 1915, a deeply neuralgic issue in Turkey.  “It will take much work to convince the Turks that freedom should cover the right to criticise and open guarantees to protect that right,” wrote former US Ambassador Ross Wilson of the Pamuk affair in a 2005 cable made public last year by WikiLeaks.

In the latest – though not entirely surprising – twist, the Turkish government has refocused its attention on the internet, announcing plans to implement new regulations that will effectively give it even more control over what content Turkish surfers can see. Under a regulation entitled “Procedures and Principles Regarding the Safe Use of the Internet” that is due to go into effect on 22 August, internet users will be given four filtering options to choose from: “family,” “child,” “domestic” and “standard”, each of which will give them access to a certain set of websites. The government claims that it is taking the step in order to protect children from pornography and uphold “family values” but it has not made clear which websites will be blocked and the most open “standard” package is still expected to maintain the restrictions Turkey already imposes.

“There is no time in Turkey when we do not face new censures and pressures. There are many barriers put in front of the right of people to be informed in Turkey,” the main opposition CHP said in an online statement, comparing the internet restrictions to the censoring and imprisonment of journalists. “You close websites, we will open them,” the party said, promising the change if it wins the forthcoming election.

In 2009, the government stopped releasing figures on the number of blocked sites (most of which are restricted arbitrarily by government officials without court orders), but it is now believed to be in excess of 8,000. Most of them contain pornographic material, though websites linked to Kurdish rights groups, blogs critical of the government and even some foreign media sites are also blocked.

“Depending on the government, depending on the ministers, you can be put on the blacklist,” says Nadire Mater, the head of the Turkish human-rights website Bianet. “This is not a democracy.”

Under the new measures, attempting to access restricted sites – using proxy servers abroad, for example, as many Turks previously did to watch YouTube – could lead to arrest and hefty fines. Erdoğan’s government has tried to persuade Turks that the filtering system is similar to that offered in some European countries, while failing to point out that no Western democracy bans websites to the extent that Turkey already does.

Internet campaigners and human rights groups say the move will put Turkey on a par with China and is inconsistent with the provisions on freedom of expression in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which Turkey has signed.  “We will be behind censorship software just like in China. We will not have the chance to stay out of it,” warns Serdar Kuzuloğlu, an IT reporter for the Radikal daily.

The planned restrictions on the internet drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Turkish cities in protest on May 15. They carried banners warning that the new regulations portend the “death of the internet” in Turkey. Many may well worry that they are also witnessing the death throes of their secular democracy.

©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved. Published here with the author’s consent.

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When two tongues collide

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

No this isn’t a perverse way of describing French kissing, but a new theory of how two languages can peacefully co-exist in one country.

Friday 11 March 2011

Analysing the pattern of populations speaking Castilian, the most common language spoken in Spain, and Galician, a language spoken in Spain’s North West region, the researchers used mathematical models to show that levels of bilingualism in a stable population can lead to the steady coexistence of both languages.

The findings, published in the New Journal of Physics put pay to an earlier theory that, in competition, the weaker or minority language would inevitably die out. Here, Welsh is often cited as an example. The researchers fed historical data into their model, which took into consideration elements of similarity between the languages and the number of bilingual speakers.

Jorge Mira Perez, a researcher familiar with the study at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain suggests the similarity factor is critical to the peaceful coexistence. “If the statuses of both languages were well balanced,” he says, “a similarity of around 40% might be enough for the two languages to coexist.” The findings suggest that even in unbalanced language ‘divides’ a higher degree of similarity (say up to 75%) would help the weaker tongue survive.

UNESCO publishes a so-called ‘Atlas of the world’s languages in danger’. According to the atlas, half of the 6,000-plus languages spoken around the world today will disappear by the end of this century, if nothing is done to prevent it.

“With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also importantancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages,” says UNESCO.

The Spanish researchers suggest their work could inform policy-making and educational programmes aimed at preserving cultural heritage of this nature. Personally, I’d like to put their new model to perhaps the toughest test of coexisting languages – Belgium.

After a little investigation, I am unreliably informed that Dutch and French have much more in common than expected. Although they hail from different roots – Dutch is Germanic, while French is a Romance language – there is significant cross-over, especially French to Dutch. But these so-called loanwords have mostly come via the Netherlands, not Belgium, as you’d expect, due to the years of cultural and economic dominance exerted by French speakers until the first half of the 20th century.

For centuries French was a language of nobility throughout Europe and the Dutch spoken in the Netherlands was heavily influenced by this period. But as Belgium’s upper and upper-middle classes would have spoken mostly French, the Dutch spoken in the country managed to remain less ‘tainted’, you could say. Check out a long list of French words of Germanic origin.
So to the situation today in Belgium, while neither language is under threat per se, they are it seems threatening to each other. Many would say the language divide is largely to blame for the patent lack of ‘peaceful coexistence’ between the regions or peoples who speak them; the Flemish speakers mostly in the north of the country and the French speakers of the south.

Tiny Belgium has recently broken a record as the country going the longest without forming a government following a federal election, stealing the title away from Iraq! Though very complex to explain, one of the basic causes of the division is language and the use of it in official settings in certain designated language territories around the capital Brussels.

There is no apparent solution to this politico-linguistic conundrum. Lawyers, politicians, philologists, linguists and even kings have all been brought in at different intervals to sort out the mess. May be it’s time to ask the physics and maths nerds to have a go. Couldn’t hurt.

 

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Ray O’Reilly.

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