BRUSSELS — Americans can’t imagine the Fourth of July without a huge helping of red, white and blue and flag-waving.
But as Belgium marks the day it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1831, an observer of the festivities organized in downtown Brussels could be forgiven for thinking the country’s official emblem is Spiderman or Dora the Explorer, as balloons with those figures vastly outnumber the black, yellow and red Belgian flags. There are a few cheers and whistles from assembled onlookers as the royal family, led by King Albert II, drives by at the head of the annual military parade, but their reaction is more perfunctory than passionate.
Belgians are by nature a modest bunch, but this is the one day even they are supposed to beat their chests with national pride — right?
Not so much.
“In Belgium, they hang out the flags on two occasions,” joked Jan Hertsens, who was on the sidelines of the parade, but not actually watching. “When the king dies or when they win a major soccer tournament. And both of those happen with about equal frequency!” Hertsens was visiting his home country from San Francisco with his American wife, Cynthia Shields. Shields said she was surprised by the lack of demonstrative national spirit. “We (Americans) would be all dressed in red, white and blue and looking kind of goofy but it’s not like that here!”
(The Belgian royal family's attire can veer toward goofily patriotic, however. See above.)
Hertsens insisted it’s the politeness of Belgians that prevents rowdiness in their revelry.
But there are many observers who would attribute it to something less benign, saying there’s no feeling of “Belgian-ness” because there’s no real “Belgium”: The country combines three linguistic and cultural groups, the Dutch-speaking Flemings, the French-speaking Walloons and a small percentage of German speakers.
Official relations between the majority Flemings and the minority Walloons are often very tense. Many Flemings feel their wealthier region should secede from Belgium. There have been times when the functioning of the entire federal government has been frozen by disagreements between the linguistic groups: The country went without a national government for 196 days in 2007-2008 because the two sides could not agree on an agenda.
Flemish journalist Paul Belien, founder of the conservative Brussels Journal, is a vocal advocate for splitting the country up. Among his published comments on this topic, Belien calls Belgium an “artificial state,” says it “is a perversion and the world would be better off without it” and “Belgians do not exist as a nation.”
The divisiveness of the Belgians got more attention than it otherwise would have during the recent prolonged government deadlock thanks to one particularly clever expression of exasperation.
In mid-September 2007, just three months into the crisis, Belgians found their country up for auction on eBay. “For Sale: Belgium, a Kingdom in three parts. Possible to buy it as a whole, but not advisable,” the listing advertised. It went on to throw in delivery, but pointed out that it was not only a secondhand product, but came with an additional cost of $300 billion in national debt. Bidding got up to 10 million euros (about $14 million) before eBay took the listing down.
The posting was the work of Gerrit Six, a former journalist turned independent social commentator who says he wanted to show Belgians that their country was valuable and that they should want to keep it. By offering it up to the highest bidder? “That’s just my ambivalent way,” Six chuckled in a recent interview, saying that he’d written the description “in 12 minutes … on a Saturday evening after half a bottle of Bordeaux.”
That’s how, but why? “Nobody was interested in Belgium. I did a great job for this country — and for free!” he said. “I should still send the bill to the ministry of foreign affairs.”
But Six is very serious about the problems facing Belgium as an entity. “Maybe I’m a minority but for me language doesn’t matter if we understand each other. When no other essential issue is discussed because we first have to settle the linguistic conditions, that’s a very sad situation,” he said. “It could be different if we had politicians with more imagination. You tell me where to find them.”
He said he wishes for someone like U.S. President Barack Obama to come along and make Belgians say “yes, we can” instead of “no, we can’t.”
If Belgians bragged, they could point out that they have “a fabulous country,” he said. “We could be a little bit more proud about the fantastic things we have in culture and film and music, fashion, our kitchen, which stands up with a French kitchen.”
Back at this year's National Day celebration, Laurent Bogaert was celebrating with his wife and two young children. Bogaert personifies Belgium. He has a Walloon mother and Flemish father and grew up speaking French at home but was educated in Dutch. Married to a French speaker, his children will learn both languages.
Bogaert finds the political fighting over language “so annoying,” but beyond that is not pessimistic about Belgians’ perception of their country. He said most Belgians actually do appreciate what a great quality of life they have. “As long as we can enjoy it, why make publicity about it?”
As for the importance of National Day, Warrant Officer Alexandra Baes, on duty at one of the Army publicity activities for children, said she wishes Belgians would accord it more significance. “It’s one day that we can all feel part of the same country,” she said, then noted that there’s only one military and nobody questions who they are defending. “The feeling in the Army is: We are Belgian.”
More on Belgium:
This is not a museum
Celebrating Memorial Day in Belgium
Brussels: A city divided into rich and poor
A boy who never grows old gets bigger