Splitsville for Belgium?

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme submitted his resignation July 14, citing the inability of his coalition government to successfully divide powers between the Flemish and French-speaking communities. Leterme had set a deadline of July 15 for the four-month-old coalition to agree on constitutional reforms to grant greater autonomy to the two regions. Belgium’s King Albert II is said to be “weighing” the resignation.

Ethnic nationalist groups have pushed for the prosperous northern region of Flanders to become more autonomous, sparking accusations of separatism in the poorer francophone southern region of Wallonia. Last year, the country faced a voting-rights dispute over similar issues of linguistic regional autonomy after June elections failed to produce a cohesive government. Talks to form a coalition government lasted more than six months, leading to concerns that the Belgium would separate into different countries. (Jurist, AFP, July 15)

There would be a certain perverse irony if Belgium turned out to be the first Western European country to break up, following such post-Communist examples as Czechoslovakia and (*gulp*) Yugoslavia. In her left-wing travel blog The Political Landscape, Judith Mahoney Pasternak ruminated July 7 on the uniquely bourgeois and civilized aspect of Belgium and the Low Countries—summed up in the fact that the icon of Brussels is not a lion, unicorn or twin-headed eagle, but Manneken Pis, “the little boy who pees”:

What kind of world capital, I wondered, embraces a peeing little boy as its symbol?

There’s no question that the “little boy who pees” is Brussels’ most beloved emblem (thanks to the Belgian Tourism Office for the translation). From time to time, the city dresses him in fancy costumes, which are then kept in the municipal museum. All over town, arrows point to him as chief among the important sights. The chocolate shop next door (this is Belgium—there’s always a chocolate shop next door) is even named after him.

The bronze statue by JerĂ´me Duquesnoy has been standing at the corner of the rue de l’Estuve/Stoofstraat (as the capital of a two-language country, Brussels and all its signs are bilingual in Dutch and French) since 1619, when it replaced an earlier stone version. Its origins are lost in myth, but one story is that it represents a little boy who saved Brussels by urinating on the lit fuse of an attacking army’s bomb.

After a few days in Brussels and much wandering around narrow cobbled lanes and grand squares, I got at least an inkling of an answer: Brussels is the capital of a culture that cherishes more than grandeur the small details of daily life. Its signature dishes are frites—what we call french fries—and waffles, its most famous poet the cabaret singer Jacques Brel, its public art more likely to celebrate comic book characters and mayors than kings and conquests.

In that respect, Belgium is rather like the other Low Countries, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; think, for example, of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” or most of the work of Vermeer. Yet that answer only begs another question: How did the Low Countries get that way?

[H]istory gives pointers and suggestions. The Low Countries did share Europe’s propensity for conquests—there were the Dutch East Indies and the Belgian Congo (the latter having been one of the most appalling instances of European empire-building). But the Low Countries’ history varied in some fundamental respects from that of their more grandiose neighbors, Britain and France. Britain was unconquered for centuries; France was defeated more than once but emerged each time as a proud nation.

In both, as feudalism metamorphosed into mercantilism during the Renaissance, and then into capitalism, the ancient aristocracies vied desperately for power and prestige with the new merchant and business classes. During that same crucial era, however, the Low Countries weren’t independent nations but possessions of the Hapsburgs—the Holy Roman emperors and Kings of Spain. The Netherlands didn’t achieve independence until 1648, and Belgium not until 1839. And at independence, neither had a home-grown ruling nobility or landowning class.

So when, with independence they threw themselves into the business of business, there was no genuine royal or landed class to fight the merchants—and no one to say that business was one whit less respectable than land ownership. Respectable it was—to invent, hustle, trade and profit—and respectable it remained. Today in Brussels, the main square, the famous Grande Place, is not the site of a palace, but the site of the city’s carefully preserved City Hall and 17th-century guild (trade association) halls.

The Manneken Pis is only a few meters away.

So Brussels is an appropriate capital for the EU, with its vision of peaceful commerce and the continent finally getting over its multitudinous centuries-nurtured nationalistic squabbles. If Belgium now finally succumbs to the global rage for ethno-separatism, the implications could be far greater than the fate of one small country with a fondness for chocolate…

See our last post on Belgium.