Even after 173 years of nationhood, the Belgian state appears as implausible as ever. In a country united by pragmatism and divided by language, will Belgium be torn apart by the force of words or held together with the power of good sense?
Belgium celebrated its national day on Monday 21 July. As the nation kicked back its heels to enjoy the festivities, the royal family clocked in for their most important day's work of the year. While the strain of public life showed on some of the more obscure royals who snoozed in the aisles, King Albert II delivered his tenth anniversary address.
As is the custom, the easy-going Albert spoke in both French and Dutch. On the occasion of his 10 years on the throne, the king took the opportunity to express national pride and unity. But with no common language, no national newspapers or broadcasters, and an increasingly powerless federal government, the oneness of Belgium he sought to exalt was an extremely complex creature to pin down.
In fact, the royal family are one of the few threads holding the country's complex identity in place. Groping around for another symbol, he turned to sport. He referred to two rising Belgian icons – Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne – as symbols of national unity, and wished both of them luck as they battled for Belgium in the Fed Cup.
The sports-mad king was perhaps not just waxing lyrical because of Juju and Kimmy's historic moment – if lacklustre hour and a half –on the Roland Garros centre court in Paris, delivering him the first all-Belgian grand slam final (and title), exclusive access to the royal box and the opportunity to hand out the trophy.
I'm no monarchist and I certainly don't think that an elegant backhand or a killer serve should personify national identity. However, I can see the beautifully parallel careers of the tennis wonders – one a Fleming, the other a Walloon – both playing under the tricolours can raise the spirits, if not the essence, of modern Belgium.
Although the two enjoy a friendly rivalry and have such contrasting personalities, they have got on well since childhood. And the fact that they are tied so closely – Kim is the world's number two and Justine is number three – does not give a chance for regional envy or gloating to surface.
Nevertheless, the two young icons are daughters of their time and are living manifestations of the language fault line along which the country is slowly drifting apart: in public, Justine speaks French or English and does not speak Dutch, while Kim speaks Dutch or English, and prefers not to speak French. In fact, English is increasingly becoming the lingua franca in Belgium.
Post-modern states of mind
To my eyes, Belgium, as a nation, can only be described as post-modern. The once central state apparatus is gradually being deconstructed and its competencies slowly devolved to the regions.
This devolution has resulted in a unique parallel system of government where power is divided geographically into regions and linguistically into communities. ‘Regions' satisfied Walloon ambitions for greater regional economic power while ‘communities' met Flemish aspirations for greater cultural autonomy.
The latter innovation came into existence to resolve the thorny issue of bilingual Brussels, which is predominantly French speaking but is historically and geographically Flemish. The settling of the status and borders of Brussels was the most ambitious constitutional reform Belgium had undergone since it was established in 1830.
And, just as a revolt at the unlikely venue of the opera house paved the way for Belgian independence in the 19th century, the tiny village of Voeren/Fouron brought about the collapse of the national government in 1987 and sparked the reforms that would turn Belgium into a federal state.
‘Federal' in Belgium has a special meaning. Whereas in most countries it means increasing centralisation of power, here it has meant the exact reverse. However, the most radical reform was to exclude the ultimate supremacy of national over regional government. This decoupling of hierarchies has led to the rather surreal situation of each region setting its own foreign policy.
It's hard to miss the apparent paradox of Belgium, while being one of the founder members of the European Union and home to most of its institutions, is concurrently dismantling its own instruments of state.
However, it can be argued, that, in a unifying Europe, national boundaries are becoming less relevant. Strangely enough, the very fact that Belgium is at the heart of a larger evolving animal could be facilitating its own devolution.
One should not necessarily lament the passing away of the centralised Belgian state. This gradual devolution was born of a pragmatic awareness – a Belgian compromise, no less – that nationalistic tensions could quickly flare up into violence if they were not effectively dissipated.
Like a couple whose marriage was on the rocks, Belgium decided to go to counselling and reinvent their relationship. Now the two sides have more breathing space and are increasingly able to do their own thing. But this has led to a growing level of estrangement.
Now crunch time is approaching, and the disgruntled spouses have to decide whether they are willing to give union another chance under new terms or whether they should start proceedings for a divorce.
On the face of it, divorce might be the best option to end this weird union. But language is not everything. For historic and cultural reasons, Flemings are not willing to countenance becoming part of the Dutch-speaking Netherlands and, similarly, Walloons do not want to join France. In fact, although language divides Belgians, it also unites them in their respective distrust of their linguistic cousins across the border.
Since Belgians do not want to become part of another country and each region is too small to survive effectively on its own in the big, bad world, it is in the interest of Flemings and Walloons to stick it out together.
For the marriage to work, Belgians need more to bind them than a royal family, a passion for sport and a taste for beer, chocolate and fries. Apart from Brussels and its environs, people living in one region have very little awareness of what's going on in the other and very little contact with its people and culture – in fact, it's almost like being in two different countries.
In order to help overcome this in the short term, the regional media needs to give more attention to issues in the other part of the country. But the biggest barrier to greater mixing and understanding is language. Belgians need some way to bridge the language divide in order to make Belgium feel more like a single country.
One effective way to ensure that future generations move closer together is to introduce a system of bilingual education in which children receive instruction in a mix of their mother tongue and the other language.
Canada has successfully implemented bilingual education for years. In addition to promoting better social cohesion between communities, such a system has actually been shown to improve the academic and linguistic aptitude of students.
With the language barrier penetrated, a new generation of bilingual Belgians will move around the country more and intermix to a greater degree, enhancing the sense of shared nationhood.
Although the musical variety performance under the Justice Palace on 21 July underscored the cultural schism separating Belgians, it, nonetheless, demonstrated how joint cultural events can do their little bit to bring people closer – as was exhibited by a group of teenage Walloons who were delighted to discover that Hooverphonic was a Flemish rather than an English band.
Perhaps Belgium should follow the example of some of its musicians. Urban Trad nearly stole the show in the kitsch world of Eurovision by demonstrating, with their wordless song, to Europeans – who are also divided by language – that people share something beyond words.
Through bilingual education and more intermixing as cultural equals, Belgians can make this bicultural marriage work by putting language in the backseat.
This article appeared on Expatica in July 2003.