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On National Day, Belgians barely lift a flag.
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.