When We Stop Laughing at Belgium, We Might Want to Cry

Equalization, Frontier Centre, Worth A Look

Poor Belgium. If it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented. Somebody, after all, has to serve as the butt of jokes about intellectually-challenged clodhoppers. As the country passed its record 150th day this week without a legitimate government, it solidified its role as a hapless global Newfoundland. Belgium might be headed for breakup, but all the rest of the world seems to do is laugh.

Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldenberg last month told his readers they were “living in an unprecedented historical moment. For the first time, Belgium has managed to be interesting without getting invaded by Germany or abusing an African colony.”

The BBC’s Monty Python crew put things with typical cruelty decades ago in their sketch about a competition for the best derogatory term for Belgians. An early entrant couldn’t think of anything more derogatory than “Belgians.”

The top picks, delivered to roars of laughter by Michael Palin: “the Sprouts,” “the Phlegms” and the winner (drumroll, please) “Miserable Fat Belgian Bastards.” Ouch.

Back to the L.A. Times’s Goldenberg: “It’s an Iraq with better weather and waffles.”

Actually, even the weather isn’t all that good. As a correspondent in Europe nearly 30 years ago, I made regular trips to Brussels, and what stuck in the memory are good restaurants, grey skies and chilly rain.

Oh yes, one other thing. That would be the implacable mutual antipathy of the two groups that made up the Belgian state – the Dutch-speaking Flemish (60 percent of the population of 10.5 million) and the French-speaking Walloons. They had nothing in common but beer, chocolate and a king. They still don’t. Maybe frites.

The dislike and non-comprehension are based on a weird, rigid division of the country into parallel unilingualisms. A line across the middle of the map marks the linguistic frontier. North of it everything happens in Flemish, south of it in French, and that means everything – all the signs, all the services, all the social intercourse, and you’d better get with the program if you have other ideas. (Brussels itself, north of the line, is officially bilingual but mainly French speaking, which causes all sorts of heartburn; “the ulcer,” Belgians call it, which is exactly what it looks like on the map.)

Shared institutions or Canadian-style bilingualism were unknown. The national political parties were divided along language lines. Even social and sporting clubs had to be either Flemish or Walloon to receive aid from the country’s two distinct cultural councils. Bilingual co-operation was positively discouraged.

“It’s absurd,” said a Canadian diplomat. “I belong to the Alpine Club. We’re just a bunch of guys who like to climb, but we have to be split in two.”

It looks more and more like Belgians might take the next logical step and go their separate ways. That sentiment is most pronounced in the burgeoning Flemish north, based on a prosperous economy and impatience with the drag of rusting Wallonia. Polls have reported 43 per cent of Flemish voters currently in support of a “velvet divorce,” á la Czechoslovakia, with 66 per cent believing independence is inevitable.

Dysfunctional is too mild a word for what is going on among the politicians – or more precisely, what is not going on. The country’s numerous fragmented parties have not been able to agree on a new government since the elections of June 10.

This week the deadlock passed the previous record of 148 days without a legitimate administration, set in 1988. Part of the problem is a system based on proportional representation that perpetuates a “political class” whose members are almost immune to defeat, no matter how poorly they serve the country.

So the world is laughing at the poor, constipated Belgians who can’t get anything together. But maybe a bit of weeping is in order, too, particularly on the part of Canadians. For separatism can be contagious. The former Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia have been only middling success stories, but the breakup of modern, western Belgium after 176 years might send a different message.

Not to mention Spanish Catalonia or Scotland, which after 300 years of union with England is becoming more bumptious and independence-minded by the month. Separation by either of these countries, or all, could have unfortunate echoes here at home that hardly have to be spelled out.

So while we’re chuckling at Belgium, we might weep a quiet tear, too. It’s not all fun and games.