GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

L’union fait la force. Eendracht maakt macht.

“What is the Belgian identity?” I asked my host father, Yves.
He laughed. “What Belgian identity?”
According to the secessionists of the N-VA, there exists none. The Flemish people have their own weathered, long-standing culture of hard work and strong identity, something a Walloon could never understand. Even Bruxelles, the paragon of Belgian unity and solidarity, is a foreign land that holds disproportionate influence; there may be jobs in Bruxelles, but no home for the Flemish. And to the Walloons, les Flamands are hostile, reactionary, and altogether too nationalistic for their own good. They are uncompromising in their old provincial politics, unable to embrace their neighbors to the south and open their eyes to the grand vision of a united Belgium.
It has been almost 200 years since the founding of Belgium, yet there is little unity between the two regions of the country. According to Yves, the Walloons and the Flemings only agree in three areas: the Belgian monarchy; their mutual dislike of the Netherlands, Germany, and France; and football. Only when Belgium is competing will you see these two groups come together as true Belgians, drinking and celebrating the victories of the Red Devils. Politically, economically, and culturally, the two sides to the Belgian coin are as disparate as could be. Despite two centuries of cultural integration, intermarriage, and interregional movement, somehow Belgian identity is so weak that the N-VA holds a plurality in the federal government.
Historically, attempts at building a strong relationship between the two regions have been thwarted by one side or the other. When the Flemings decided to teach their youth French, Walloon did not reciprocate, and as soon as the Walloons found Flemish worthwhile to learn, the Flemings turned to English. And each time one region finds economic success, it scoffs at immigration from the other, forgetting that the balance has shifted to tip in either favor multiple times in the past. Even now, in 2014, there is a political fuss to keep the Flemish identity of its schools intact, because there are simply too many French-speaking children in attendance.
Belgium was a nation created on paper, and perhaps it is naive to expect a national unity that has no real historic or cultural foundation. But to me, looking at Bruxelles is enough to believe in the dream of a unity– even if it may be more synthetic than organic– and the successful coexistence of different peoples. Here, half a dozen cultures live together, aware of the divisions between them, yet willing to work past them. As Yves put it, because there is so little agreement between the two groups, the Belgians have become experts at compromise, and when NATO or the EU finds it difficult to negotiate, they look to the Belgians to lead the way to solidarity and compromise. Yes, history may foster culture, and ethnic ties may foster harmony. But there is still reason to hope for a strength, tempered by the fires of conflict, that will hold the country together through hardships, no matter the source or the intensity.
Maybe Belgium is too young to have a united, distinct identity, but perhaps one day it will be one unparalleled in compromise, understanding, and unity.


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1 Comment

  1. Jarrod Hayes

    Excellent post Daniel! I wonder what a parallel here btw Brussels and Germany as a relatively recently unified country?

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