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Belgium: society, character and culture

An essay on the Belgian identity

Situation of the country

The "peaceful anarchism" of Brussels architecture may well be the feature that best characterizes Belgium as a whole. During its history of over 2000 years, the region has almost continuously been occupied by foreign powers: from the Romans to the Spanish, the Austrians, the French, the Dutch and the Germans. This has made the Belgians critical of any form of authority, and laws, rules and regulations are not taken very seriously (tax evasion is one of the national sports). This individualistic, anti-authoritarian attitude is perhaps best exemplified by the famous literary figure of Thyl Uilenspiegel, who mocked the Spanish authorities during the 16th century occupation.

The governing of the country is very much complicated by the particular structure with three language communities (Flanders in the North, Wallonia in the South, and a tiny German speaking region in the East), and the multilingual, multicultural and multinational status of Brussels. The language in Wallonia is French (although there still exists a not officially recognized "Walloon language"). The language in Flanders is Flemish, which is officially the same language as the Dutch which is spoken in Holland. In practice, the differences between Flemish and Dutch (mostly pronunciation, also vocabulary and expressions) are comparable to the differences between British and American English, and are just big enough so that Dutch TV sometimes add subtitles to Flemish spoken movies. Although Brussels is surrounded by Flemish territory, the majority there speaks French. Flanders comprises about 55% of the 10 million of Belgian inhabitants, Brussels 10 % and Wallonia the remaining 35%.

There have been a lot of political conflicts between the two main linguistic communities, but the language problem, which is the issue that has received most publicity outside Belgium, is (at least in my view) much less important than it seems. Since the federalization of the state the linguistic conflicts seem to have very much diminished, now that politicians are no longer capable to blame difficulties on the "other side". There have never been any real conflicts between Belgian (Walloon and Flemish) people, as opposed to conflicts between Belgian politicians. The best illustration of that is that even during the most heated episodes, no one has ever been killed or seriously injured in clashes connected with the linguistic conflict. It suffices to consider similar situations in other countries where conflicts exist between cultural or linguistic communities (e.g. Yugoslavia, Canada, Northern Ireland) to conclude that such peacefulness is not the common rule.

Belgium has, since the Middle Ages, always been one of the richest and most developed regions in the world. Just look at the historic churches, town halls, and pieces of art, in cities such as Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp to get an idea of the wealth during the mediaeval and Renaissance periods, when only the North of Italy could rival its splendour and artistic development. During its second golden age, the half century before World War I, Belgium was in absolute terms the fourth economic power in the world. If you take into account that the other industrial powers had a 5 to 10 times larger population, the achievement is impressive. This wealth was not due to natural resources, which are practically absent, but to industrial production and trade, which is facilitated by Belgium's central position in Western Europe, and the presence of many land and waterways.

Although it is fashionable in some quarters to view Belgium as an "artificial state", put together by the European powers after Napoleon's defeat, history shows that the region which is now called Belgium has been almost continuously under a single rule since at least the 16th century, when it got separated from Holland during the reformation. Before that period (and for a few years after the defeat of Napoleon), Belgium and the Netherlands were united, forming the "Low Countries", a remainder of the third, central part of the Frankish empire, Lotharingia, that formed a corridor between France and Germany. There has historically never been a clear split between the Walloon and Flemish provinces. Insofar that there was a division in counties and duchies (Flanders, Brabant, Liège/Limburg, ...), the divide was East-West rather than North-South as it is now. (this is clearly seen on a set of historical maps of the wider German region). The "Flemish" painters and polyphonists who were famous throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance often were of Walloon origin (for example the painter Rogier Van der Weyden/Rogier de la Pasture and the composer Josquin des Prés).

The Belgian identity

The many contacts with various cultures made Belgians tolerant and flexible. On the other hand, the many foreign rules, the skepticism towards government and authority, the internal linguistic split, and the fact that the country was too small to engage in internationally ambitious enterprises (Belgium's only colony, the present Congo, was in fact donated by its king Leopold II, who had privately colonized it), have led to a relative lack of national pride and self-confidence. Belgium may well be one of the least nationalistic countries in the world. On the positive side this leads to modesty, to openness to external influences and to unwillingness to engage in offensive actions, or even to engage in war at all unless it is purely defensive. On the negative side, it means that opportunities are missed because one does not dare to take an initiative, on the assumption that the country is not big or powerful enough to start an ambitious project, or to do something better than the others. Belgians may be one of the few nationals who will criticize their country, rather than make publicity for it, among people from other countries.

This self-criticism leads often to distorted pictures of the country abroad. Since Belgium is not sufficiently important for most foreign media to send journalists there on a long term basis, and since the Belgian reality is anyway very complex and counter-intuitive for people living in different types of culture, the media tend to rely on reports by Belgians for their news about the country. Since these "self-reports" tend to focus on everything that goes wrong, from which the media, as they always do, select the most spectacular aspects, the image you get of Belgium in foreign newspapers is often one of a country on the brink of social and economic collapse. This image is held up in particular by those who dislike the process of European integration, and who see Belgium, home of the European "government" (the Commission), as an exemplar of everything that is wrong with the European Union.

This image is completely off the mark, though. Belgium is not only one of the richest countries in the world, but as shown by statistics from the World Bank, averaged over a 10 year period (1985-95) its economy has been growing faster than any of the other rich countries, with the exception of those in East Asia. While the Asian economies have collapsed in the meantime, the Belgian economy continues to grow at a healthy rate. Also the different political and social problems are easily put into perspective: whatever the disagreements on the political level, there has not been any violence in the streets. No one has died because of political conflicts. Even the few large protest demonstrations that Belgium has known (e.g. against nuclear missiles, or for reform of the justice system) were remarkably dignified and peaceful. There have been no large, national strikes for the past 20 years or so, and the Belgian political system is quite stable, with only small changes now and then in the ruling coalition.

The only "danger" for the foreseeable future is that the two language communities would grow further apart, becoming largely autonomous, so that the Belgian state would only remain as a minor administrative level between the regional level and the European Union level. The probability that Flanders and Wallonia would separate completely (like in the "velvet divorce" between Czechia and Slovakia), making Belgium disappear, is quite small, though. The reason is that none of the two communities is prepared to give up Brussels, which because of its multilingual status cannot be cut up into a Flemish and Walloon part.

The Belgian's lack of pride also leads to the lack of a clear image for the country abroad. Other comparable small countries have easily recognizable images: for example, Switzerland is immediately associated with banking, clocks and mountains, Holland with tulips, cheese and wind-mills. For Belgium, on the other hand, no clear associations spring to mind. This is due partly to the lack of image-building and marketing, partly to the fact that the Belgian culture and landscape is extremely varied, and cannot be summarized in a few symbols.

To my opinion, it is not due to the lack of a national identity, though. That national character is rather subtle, and not easy to formulate in a few words. Though Flemish and Walloon cultures differ in several respects (as could be expected, the Flemish are closer to the more disciplined, Northern European, Germanic culture, and the Walloon to the more life-enjoying, Mediterranean, Latin culture), they have more things in common than most are willing to admit. A clear indication is that, although on the basis of language Wallonia seems to fit in with the neighbouring France and Flanders with the neighbouring Holland, very few in either Flanders or Wallonia have ever dared to suggest that their region should leave Belgium and join the more powerful neighbour state. Not even the German-speaking part, which was annexed after the first world war, is willing to rejoin the wealthy unified Germany.

What all Belgians have in common is a love for the "good life", which they find in their excellent food and drink, comfortable housing, reliable medical and social services, highly developed traffic and communications infrastructure. Belgians are not the type wanting to impress other people with their achievements, or to convince others of their righteousness. They tend to be rather reserved or introverted in their first contacts with other people, but are sincerely warm and friendly once you get to know them better. They are happy when they can enjoy a safe and comfortable life, together with their family and friends, and they put a high value on privacy. They have a clear aversion towards moralizing, towards telling other people how they should or should not behave (an attitude for which they critize their neighbours in Holland), and they take "live and and let live" as the basis for their philosophy. R. Hill, in a book on different European characters, describes the Belgians as "open-minded opportunists", noting their pragmatical attitude.

An anecdote illustrating this attitude was reported by a British officer commanding Belgian troops during the first world war. Whereas soldiers normally are supposed to follow orders without questioning, the Belgians would first ask why they were supposed to do something particular. Only after they got an acceptable reason they would execute the order. This stands in contrast to the often absurd manoeuvres undertaken by British, French and German troops, where thousands of lives were sacrificed in order to gain a few meters of terrain. This attitude may explain why the losses in human lives were much smaller among the Belgians than among other nations, even though a large part of the battles took place on Belgian territory ("Flanders' fields").

Another character trait noted by Hill is a "democratic" attitude, in the sense that Belgians make very little distinction between classes or social strata. It is not because you are a professor, a noble man or a rich banker that you will be treated with special respect or privileges. Everybody has the right to be taken serious, and to get a good education and a decent way of living. On the economic plane, this egalitarian philosophy is illustrated by the fact that Belgium has the lowest percentage of poor people in the world.

Quality of life

The skepticism towards government, the lack of pride about one's own achievements, and the general "anarchistic" way of doing things may create the false impression that life in Belgium is not well-organized. Though Belgians dislike discipline imposed upon them by superiors, bureaucracy, ideology or religion, they compensate by hard work and self-discipline. In spite of regular changes of government, Belgians trains do run on time, and the administrative services do help people generally in a fast and effective way.

Belgian workers are the most productive in the world. According to German statistics (1992), industrial productivity (amount of goods produced per worker) in Belgium is some 20 % higher than in the next most productive country, the neighbouring Holland, and well above that of the industrial giants Japan, Germany and USA. This high productivity is not limited to industrial work. Although in overall GNP per capita, Belgium only ranks within the 10 or so richest countries, in GNP produced per hour worked, it is first. This productivity is due to a generally high level of education resulting in highly skilled labor, extended automatization, shift work that minimizes idle time, and low absenteeism. Although employees have relatively much vacation and free time, and can easily take time off for illness without risking to lose their jobs, few working days are actually lost. This is also due to the excellent system of low cost medicine and the tradition of solving industrial conflicts by negotiations. Somewhat surprisingly, given the well publicized strikes, industrial unrest over the last 15 years in Belgium is one of the lowest in the European Union.

Thanks to the open market, the good distribution channels and the strong consumer requirements, one can find the most diverse and high quality goods in the shops at relatively low prices. The high production and consumption standards have led to the publicity slogan "This is Belgian" being used as a quality label (and not, as one might imagine, as an appeal to nationalistic feelings, such as "Buy American"). The association of "Belgian" with "high quality" is slowly diffusing to neighbouring countries, especially in the domains of food, drink and housing. More unexpectedly, Belgians (such as the "Antwerp Six" group) have made inroads in top ten fashion design, a domain which was almost exclusively under the control of French, Italian and Japanese designers.

Although a few spectacular murders and robberies have grabbed the public attention and crime rates have been increasing, the crime rate in Belgium is still quite low. The British ministery of Foreign Affairs calculated that Brussels is the safest capital in the world with respect to the risk for murder. With a ratio of 0.4% per 100,000 inhabitants (4 murders per million) Brussels is situated in front of Rome (1.7) and London (2.1), and far before Moscow (18.1) and Washington (69.3). A 1990 UN crime survey found that Belgian cities scored among the best for risks of assault and frightening threats.

All this, together with the generally peaceful atmosphere, and the effort put into developing the basic things in life (Belgium is one of the few countries where there is no housing problem, because almost every Belgian family tends to build its own home) would put Belgium very high on a "quality of life" ordering of countries. In international polls, Belgians always tend to come out among those most satisfied with their life and least inclined to emigrate to another country. This is in sharp contrast, but not in contradiction, with the very critical attitude which Belgians exhibit towards their country and government. (one can only conclude that they would be even more critical when living in another country).

The things that are especially noticed by foreign visitors are the excellent food, and the very dense concentration of restaurants and pubs, everywhere in the country. Not just the quantity but the quality of restaurants is exceptional: Belgium is the country with the highest number of Michelin stars (the most acclaimed gastronomical distinction for a restaurant) per head of the population. Given this overwhelming competition, it is not surprising that Belgium is the only country in the world where the fast-food giant McDonald's has been consistently losing money. Belgian cuisine, which is related to the French one, but with some very distinctive touches, offers many dishes worth trying. A well-known speciality are the Belgian chocolates which are sold all over the world. And then there is the national dish, "French" Fries ("frites"), which, according to legend, were invented in Belgium, not France, and which are supposed to be better here than in any other place in world.

Especially the beer (see Belgium: beer paradise) is a national speciality: there are hundreds of different types with distinctive tastes, which are all served in their own specially made glasses. Beer, for Belgians, is about as important as wine is for the French. It is a pity that the international marketing is not better developed, because everybody drinks Dutch, Danish or German beers, whereas the Belgian ones (which are much richer in variety and taste) are known only by the real beer lovers. Recently, though, Belgian speciality beers are getting more and more popular, not only in the neighbouring France, Holland and UK, but even in the USA.

Problems, Problems...

In order to relativize this quite rosy picture of Belgium, let me also mention the most serious problems that are to be solved. The budget deficit has, after many economies, finally gotten under control. However, it has led to a government debt, which, as a percentage of GNP, is the highest one in the industrialized world (OECD countries). The Belgian state as a whole has no external debt, though (in contrast to for example the U.S.A). This can be explained by the fact that Belgium has one of the highest savings percentages in the world. The debts of the government are more than compensated for by the credits accumulated by Belgian companies and households, which are eager to invest their money in government bonds, as they offer a high and reliable interest. The balance of payments for Belgium has been consistently positive over the last decades. This may in part explain the ease with which the government has been relying on borrowed money.

Another problem that is often mentioned is the high percentage of unemployment. However, if unemployment is calculated according to international norms (where people are polled whether they are actually looking for a job, instead of counting how many people are entitled to benefits), the unemployment rate is almost half of the official one, and comparable to the presently low US rate. In particular Flanders experiences at present a sharp decrease in unemployment. Given the demographic evolution, it seems likely that there will soon be a problem of lack of people to fill the job openings, rather than one of unemployment. The well-publicised factory closings (such as the closing of the Renault car factory in Vilvoorde, which reached the international headlines) do not contradict this trend. They are merely the side effect of the on-going transition to an information society, where low-skilled industrial jobs are gradually replaced by high-skilled jobs in the service sector. Two years after the Renault closing, which came as a shock to many people, practically all former employees had found a new job.

Another recurrent problem is the integration of the many Islamic immigrants (mostly Morrocans and Turks). It is often difficult for these people, many of whom are lowly skilled and have poor knowledge of the language and culture, to find good jobs. This has led to a few riots in quarters with predominantly immigrant populations, and to problems of drug use and petty crime among unemployed young men. This, more frighteningly, has reinforced the popularity of extreme right parties with an anti-immigrant agenda (although it seems that their share of the vote has presently peaked). Although economic immigration has basically been halted, Belgium, like other European countries, experiences a problem of growing numbers of Third World and Eastern Eureopean people that are either demanding asylum or entering the country illegally. This puts the authorities in a difficult situation, where they have to choose between forcefully repatriating people to go back to a miserable life or risking a rising flow of poor immigrants.

The most talked about problem of the last few years is the urgently needed reorganization of the police and justice system. A number of high profile cases with police bungling have made it clear that the traditional systems were not prepared to the fast paced world of the end of the twentieth century. Parliament has recently passed some laws which propose far reaching changes, especially for the police. However, according to insiders, the biggest problems reside not in the police, which had already been quietly modernizing over the last few years, but in the courts and justice system, which still use 19th century tools and methods to tackle 21st century problems. It is to be hoped that the reforms of justice will be profound enough to eradicate this problem.

The Belgian way of problem-solving

In cybernetical terms, the Belgian system might be described as highly self-organizing. The political system is based on discussion and compromise between different groups of interest, without a clear central control (the king has no real power, and the prime minister is mainly the person who is best suited for implementing the agreements). For example, socio-economical problems are mostly avoided by preparing "collective labor agreements", where trade unions and employers reach a compromise on wage increases in the coming period. Only when unions and employers cannot reach consensus, the governement will intervene by proposing a compromise.

A special expression, "a Belgian compromise", has been invented to design the typical solutions derived in this way: complex issues are settled by conceding something to every party concerned, through an agreement that is usually so complicated that nobody completely understands all its implications. In spite of the apparent inefficiency of these settlements, the compromises do work in practice, because they stop the existing conflicts, and thus allow life to go on without fights or obstructions. The practical ambiguities and confusions that arise out of the compromise are usually solved on the spot by the Belgians' talent for improvisation.

The experience gained in negotiating these intricate multiparty, multilingual and multicultural problems has led to an unlikely new export product: Belgian political expertise. At a certain moment, the presidents of the four largest political groups in the European Parliament, socialists, christian democrats, liberals and rainbow, were all Belgian, as was the president of the European federation of trade unions. The Belgian prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, demonstrated the expertise he gathered in this kind of problem-solving when he succeeded in untying the Gordian knot of assigning some dozen different European institutions to the different member states of the European Union (a problem which had eluded the previous British and Danish presidencies of the European Community) by on the spot creating a new institution, so that every country could carry something home. This made him the front-runner in the race for becoming the new president of the European Commission (the "head of government" on the European level). The only reason he did not get the post was because of a veto by the British Conservatives, who apparently were afraid that he might be too successful in the on-going drive to European integration.

Another example of this peculiar way of problem-solving, which reached the international newspapers, was the royal question. All laws accepted by Belgian parliament must be signed by the king before they can be applied. Normally this is an automatic procedure, but in the case of the law legalizing abortion, the former king Baudoin, on religious grounds, concluded that his conscience did not allow him to approve the law. The government discovered a small paragraph in the constitution stating that approval of the king is not needed in situations where the king is incapable to govern, a provision for exceptional circumstances such as mental illness of the ruler. The compromise reached between government and king, was that the king was declared incapable to rule for just one day, enough to pass the law without his signature!

Though people who highly respect formal rules might be shocked by such a pragmatic treatment of a sensitive issue, the problem was solved in a for everybody acceptable way: the king's conscience was kept intact, and the democratic decision was implemented with a minimum of delay. A change of the constitution is planned in order to avoid similar problems in the future.

Art: between the real and the surreal

Like the other domains of culture and society, Belgian art moves between the two poles of practical materialism and open-minded rebelliousness. The corresponding artistic styles that are most typically Belgian are realism or naturalism, which tries to depict life as it is in all its vivid, down-to-earth details, and surrealism or symbolism, which explores other worlds, where the normal rules do not apply. What both poles have in common is their rejection of formalism or ideology, and a desire to question accepted wisdom, often in a humorous way. Belgians instinctively distrust any system that tells them how they should think, behave or produce art. They are also not fond of sentimentality or Romantic idealization, where the concrete details that make life so complex are ignored in order to promote heroism or gracefulness. The lack of sympathy for abstract systems may explain why Belgians have made relatively little contributions to music, the most formal of all arts, and have instead focused on the visual arts and literature, which allow you to directly depict (sur)reality.

These characteristics already come to the fore in the 15th century, when the "Flemish primitives" revolutionized painting. In contrast to the Italian school, whose paintings are characterized by an idealized elegance, Flemish masters such as Van Eyck surprise by their extremely elaborate, life-like pictures, such as the Arnolfini wedding,where every detail is where it should be, including the curls of hair of the little dog and the reflection of the painter in the mirror that hangs behind the couple being portrayed. Still, the medieval landscapes in the background and the spiritual, symbolic intent of many paintings give them a dreamy, almost mythical character.

This first generation sets the tone for the artists that follow. Some towering figures of the following generation are Bruegel, whose well-known images of dancing and eating farmers illustrate the Belgian's down-to-earth enjoyment of life, and Bosch, whose apocalyptic but humorous pictures exemplify surrealism and its questioning of everything, including the laws of nature themselves. The fact that these two poles of the down-to-earth and the surreal are not that far apart is shown by some paintings of Bruegel that were obviously inspired by Bosch's nightmarish visions. The 17th century is dominated by Rubens, who added sensuality to the range of pleasures of the flesh that had been depicted in painting.

The Romantic 19th century in Belgium is dominated by symbolism or idealism, genres that try to transcend everyday reality. Some typical exponents are Fernand Knopff, whose work is exemplified by a painting of an elegant, languorous panther with the head of a woman, and Félicien Rops, with his satanic-erotic illustrations. On the opposite side of this more decadent, surreal strand are naturalists, such as Constantin Meunier, who criticize society by depicting the grim reality of working class life. The real and the surreal meet in the work of James Ensor, with his sensual depictions of every-day objects and sinister caricatures of bourgeois society, the "School of Latem", with their ethereal landscapes, and Permeke, with his powerful, expressionist pictures of farmers and laborers.

Surrealism proper starts in the 1920's. Its most famous Belgian exponents are René Magritte, who is perhaps the most reproduced artist of the 20th century, and Paul Delvaux. Magritte's creative genius is revealed by his impossible, but haunting combinations of ordinary, very realistically depicted phenomena, such as a locomotive steaming out of a chimney piece, or a castle built on top of a rock that hovers above a stormy sea. Delvaux's sense of beauty is somewhat more traditional, with his dream-like landscapes of Greek temples and old-fashioned train stations, populated by skeletons, statuesque women, investigative scientists, and the little man-in-the-street with his bowlar hat that is also a favorite character of Magritte.

Literature: the independent investigator

Representing and questioning everyday reality is also the underlying theme in much of Belgian literature. We already find it in the Middle Ages with the fable of the sly fox "Reynard", who poked fun at the establishment represented by self-important but not so smart figures like Nobel, the lion-king, Bruyn the bear and Isengrim the wolf. In the 19th century, this theme is revived in a more realistic setting by Charles De Coster, with his both dramatic and comic novel about Thyl Uylenspiegel, who rebelled against the Spanish oppressors by mocking them, helped by his friend Lamme Goedzak, a Bruegel-like character whose highest pleasures consist in eating and sleeping.

The symbolist movement finds its expression in poets such as Emile Verhaeren and the Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck. Naturalism and its criticism of society by the depiction of the sometimes dramatic, sometimes endearing, life of ordinary folk is represented by Flemish authors such as Streuvels, Timmermans, Elsschot and later Boon and Claus. Surrealism is a major inspiration for the poet Henry Michaux, and for the novelists Johan Daisne and Hubert Lampo, who exemplify the typically Belgian school of "magical realism". Like the paintings of Delvaux and Magritte, their novels start with the description of ordinary folks in ordinary situations, which, however, are gradually invaded by mystery, by weird coincidences and impossible happenings that seem to point to some parallel world or reality beyond ordinary appearances.

What distinguishes these Belgian literary styles from their counterparts in other countries, such as Zola's naturalism, or the "magical realism" of Kafka and the Latin-American authors, such as Marquez, is their absence of fatalism. Although reality may be very hard to live with, and surreality impossible to comprehend, the individuals in Belgian novels can make a difference. They are not mere toys of fate, or cogs in a machine they cannot control. Although they will never be able to grasp everything, they do manage to reach better understanding through exploration and observation.

Similar themes run through the more popular literature, and even through comic strips, the merging of literary and visual art at which Belgians excel. Georges Simenon, with his famous character, inspector Maigret, represents the naturalistic pole. Both his detective and his more literary novels enthrall by their accurate, though sympathetic observation of people and captivating rendering of the atmosphere, rather than by a sophisticated plot. On the fantastic end of the scale, authors like Thomas Owen and especially Jean Ray (aka John Flanders) turn their detective stories into gothic novels, where the investigation of a mystery uncovers untold horrors.

The detective, researcher or reporter who investigates a mysterious situation is perhaps the prototypical hero in Belgian story-telling. That hero has neither superhuman powers nor passionate Romantic ideals. It is rather an ordinary person, perhaps even a child (like in most comic strips), who is just a little smarter and more curious than the others, and therefore manages to find out things that remain hidden for those that don't look beyond appearances. In comic strips, some of the more well-known heroes of this kind are the world famous Tintin, Blake and Mortimer, Suske and Wiske, and Spirou. It is perhaps also not a coincidence that the British writer Agatha Christie's most famous character, the detective Hercule Poirot, is supposed to be Belgian.

Copyright© 1998 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Dec 23, 1998 (modified)
June 1991 (created)

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