The impossible country Part one: How did we get here?
Belgium as a state is very much a paradox. At the same time, it is one of the most boring in Europe, but from a geopolitical point of view, can be very interesting to study. The country today houses many important international institutions such as NATO, the European Commission and the European parliament. Nobody ever seems to know much about the history of Belgium, other than being a speed bump for two German invasions of France, and the questionable actions of King Leopold II in Africa. Another aspect that seems to confuse many people is how divided the country is and how ineffective and complex the politics of Belgium are. This article seeks to explain the historical and political factors that have led Belgium to where it is today, as a country divided geographically, politically, and culturally.
The defeat of Napoleon in the fields of Waterloo in 1815 was a defining moment in the history of Europe. The collapse of a continental hegemon and the subsequent decisions of the victors shaped the future of Europe for the better and for the worse. The entirety of the Low countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) had been under French control since 1789 and a decision had to be made on who would take control of them. So was born the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, uniting what we know today as the Benelux.
The Benelux, although small and compact, had and still has a multitude of languages and religions. In the Netherlands for instance, the population speaks Dutch and is traditionally a protestant country. In Flanders, the population speaks Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, but in contrast, the Flemish are traditionally Catholic. The Walloons speak French (and in certain parts Wallon, a dialect that differs more from French than Flemish differs from Dutch) and are traditionally Catholics, and then Luxembourg, is also Catholic but where they speak Luxembourgish, a mix of German and French. Now, after reading all of this it may not be a surprise to hear that grouping all of these different cultural groups into one “United Kingdom” might not be the most stable of states.
Bring on the year 1830, the year of the Belgian revolution. On the 25th of August, the Monnaie theatre in Brussels was set for a performance of the opera: La muette de Portici in celebration of King Willem the 1st’s birthday and 15 years of rule over the United Kingdoms of the Netherlands. This particular opera had been banned since July of the same year, due to its performance following the July revolution in France, where King Charles X was overthrown. In a similar fashion, after the performance of La muette de Portici in Brussels, riots, shoplifting, and eventually a revolution ensued. After months of fighting, the Belgian declaration of independence finally came on the 4th of October 1830.
The appearance of a new independent state in the heart of Europe was of course of great concern to the great powers of the time, so on the 20th of December 1830, the London Conference brought Austria, the United Kingdom, France, Prussia, and Russia together to discuss the fate of Belgium. Although everyone except the French was against an independent Belgium due to fears of it just being annexed by France, essentially no one was bothered enough to do anything about it. In the end, Belgium got support from the UK to be a buffer state between France, the Netherlands, and Prussia. And thus, Belgium was born.
After asserting its independence and getting its very own king, Leopold the first ascended to the throne on the 21st of July 1831, which marked the end of the revolution and cemented the 21st of July as Belgian national day. After all of this, surely Belgium would be established as its own, standalone, independent, united, and stable state. Sadly not, as externally, the Dutch did not recognise Belgium’s independence and launched a failed 10-day invasion of the new country. And internally, it was already clear that Belgium was in for a bumpy ride, as the dominance of the French language over the country would be imposed, despite the very sizeable Flemish population. In fact, from 1831 up until 1898, French was the only recognised national language of Belgium.
Now, let’s fast-forward to 1914 and the first World War. Belgian neutrality had been assured since 1839, but the German plan to invade France involved going through Belgium. The German occupation was incredibly bloody, now known as the Rape of Belgium, where many war crimes were perpetrated throughout the country, particularly in Liège, Leuven, and Dinant. The eventual defeat of the Central Powers in the first world war led to what would be even further complications in the governance of Belgium, as the German districts of Eupen and Malmédy would be annexed by Belgium after the war. This meant that after having both Flemish/Dutch-speaking and French-speaking parts of the country, Belgium would now have a German-speaking minority as well.
The francophone domination within Belgium would continue until World War 2 when the Germans invaded again, but this time, the occupation would have different impacts than the first. Although there were also many atrocities committed by the Nazi German regime during the Holocaust in Belgium, a new policy by the occupiers would have a lasting impact on the country. This policy was “Flamenpolitik”, based on the pan-Germanist ambitions of the Nazi regime. The Germans recognised that Dutch speakers in Belgium were undermined and saw them as fellow Germanic people. They sought to encourage the Flemish separatists by privileging Dutch-speaking Belgians during the occupation in order to help erase the support for a Belgian identity.
The impact of “Flamenpolitik”, although only enacted during the 4 years of occupation, would have a lasting effect on the psyche of the Flemish, as this was the first time in the history of the Belgian state that Dutch speakers were treated better than their francophone counterparts. This can be observed in the increased zeal of Flemish separatists in the second half of the 20th century. For instance, 1967 was a big year in terms of Walloon-Flemish tension. That year saw a Dutch version of the constitution finally passed by parliament but also the controversial split of the university of Leuven.
The catholic university of Leuven was founded in 1834, although there had been 2 universities in its place before dating back to the 15th century. The new university, though, was founded as one of the first institutions of the young Belgian state and was, therefore, a French-speaking university for the French-speaking upper classes. The obvious problem with this is that Leuven is situated in the heart of Flanders. In fact, the university would only start having lectures in Dutch in 1930. Only in 1962 were the Dutch and French-speaking sections of the catholic university of Leuven given their own autonomy with one united governing body, reflecting what would soon become the model for the federal state of Belgium. Tensions had been rising and finally, in November of 1967, thousands of Flemish students and activists marched in Antwerp in favour of splitting the university. The protests spread to Leuven, where banners with the slogans “Walen buiten” (Walloons out) and “Leuven Vlaams” (Flemish Leuven) were brandished. The split finally happened in the summer of 1968 when the Walloons founded the université Catholique de Louvain (The catholic university of Leuven), ironically not in Leuven. The split was a compelling illustration of everything wrong with the handling of Flemish/Walloon tensions in Belgium. For instance, in a king Solomon-esque move, the books of the university were split equally in half. This meant for instance that the Flemish university would have volumes 1 and 3 of a certain book and the Walloon one would have volumes 2 and 4. Seeking “equality” in this way is extremely ineffective and reflects a deeper problem in managing the two biggest regions of Belgium.
The federalisation of Belgium started as a result of the split of the university of Leuven. From 1970 to 1993, many reforms were put in place that now define the governance of Belgium. Since 1993, Belgium has been split up into 3 linguistic groups: Francophone, Dutchophone, and Germanophone, and 3 geographic regions: Wallonia, Flanders, and Brussels all ruled over by one central federal government. Each linguistic group and region have their own parliament with different rules and areas of responsibility. The intertwined and complicated nature of Belgian governance now becomes apparent, but I will go more in-depth into that in the second part of this article on the economic challenges that Belgium faces.
The history of Belgium has been short but marked by important internal strife. Some today are surprised as to how Belgium has survived and many question if it will be able to in the future.