Belgian Sorrows

‘I shall not forget the evening I spent in the luxurious restaurant in the Grand Place… beyond its windows the Belgian people went about their usual lives: eating chocolates, crashing their fine cars and wondering whether Belgium was really a country at all’. So recounts the protagonist of Doctor Criminale (1992) Malcolm Bradbury’s satirical novel examining the state of Europe after the fall of the wall. A decade earlier, the Belgian novelist Hugo Claus had given a more pessimistic prognosis for the future of Western Europe’s most unlikely country in The Sorrow of Belgium (1983), where collaborationist Flemish nationalists, despotic nuns, and degenerate policemen make up the central characters. For Claus, the country’s fractures were plain to see. Communist militants were attacking pro-NATO businesses, former military personnel went on rampages in Belgian supermarkets. Two years before in fact, Walter Van Den Broeck had gone as far as writing a fully-fledged scenario of the break-up of Belgium in The Siege of Laken (1980), with soldiers occupying the Grande Place and the royal family seeking refuge in a forest chalet.

Bradbury’s Belgium is, of course, still here. In the 1990s the country split into three new regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels-Capital), siphoning policymaking off to the regional level. By 2011 it had broken records for the longest government formation in modern history, only resolved by a grand coalition à la belge which ended in a resounding separatist victory in the north for the New-Flemish Alliance (N-VA). In the first lockdown season its death toll broke all comparative records; hospitals and care homes were overrun. Last month, regional governments announced a collective retightening of restrictions, with new mask mandates in public spaces and a French-style corona pass. Brussels has barely reached a vaccination rate of 60%, while Flanders and Wallonia head towards the OECD average. The pandemic has re-enflamed older regionalist tensions, with even some staunch Belgian unionists now contemplating the dissolution of the federal social security system – the crown jewel of Belgium’s industrial working class.

Despite all this infighting, an endearing picture of Belgium persists abroad. As The Economist noted earlier this year, Belgium is ‘the world’s most successful failed state’ with Belgians ‘almost as rich as Germans and better off than Britons or the French’. Health services are excellent, wages are high, asset price inflation has never dropped. The abnormally high suicide rate and regional inequality between Wallonia and Flanders aside, Belgians remain well educated, wealthy and secure (‘the country is at peace’, Tony Judt noted in a 1999 report for the New York Review of Books, ‘if not with itself then at least with everyone else.’). More than anywhere in Scandinavia, the country appears as the ideal location for a sheltered, safe, social-democratic paradise.

Yet Belgians’ prosperity has hardly immunized them against a deep sense of disaffection and unease. Belgium’s traditional party democracy is imploding, state capacity is waning, and an emboldened far right is on the rise. In May, a fugitive military corporal named Jürgen Conings went on the loose, hunting for the prominent virologist Marc Van Ranst who previously advised the government on its lockdown policies. The underfunded Belgian military went on a frantic search. Muslim parents withdrew their children from school, tanks cruised through the forests.

The soldier’s body was found in a woodland by his house in late June. He was first spotted by a ranger who promptly sold snapshots of his corpse to international journalists. Later in the day, the local liberal mayor noticed the stench on his weekend bike ride, recognising it because of an earlier habit of digging up burial sites (few inquired further). Both macabre and surreal, the episode was Belgian to the core. It also proved a major ordeal for the new coalition government led by liberal prime minister Alexander De Croo, who replaced an interim predecessor that had been ruling by decree since the start of the pandemic.

Tens of thousands expressed their support on Facebook for Conings’s vigilantism. Most turned out to be relatively wealthy exurban households, occupying a village society without villages. Desperately poor in the nineteenth century, the Flemish were hoisted into the new Fordist middle class by the 1960s and have remained there since. The last became the first in post-war Belgium, but the Flemings never overcame the trauma of a century of linguistic repression, and still suffer from an inferiority complex of Freudian proportions.

For a long time, the Christian Democrats (CD&V) presided over electoral fiefdoms in the Flemish countryside. Party, church and the local history society provided cohesion as the Flemish made their entry into modernity. But this ‘precious fabric’ – a favourite phrase of Bart De Wever, phlegmatic leader of the N-VA, lifted from Tory theorist Theodore Dalrymple – has now been eroded, eaten away by thirty years of consumerism and digitalisation. Flemings no longer look to their local clergyman for voting advice; a new outspoken citizen has leaped into the void without a party card, laptop at the ready. Flanders’ Christian Democrats still had an impressive 130,000 members in 1990; they now count a meagre 43,000 and are polling under 10%. In the same period, the Socialists plummeted from 90,000 to 10,000 members.

No party however has gone through a more unwieldy transformation than the Flemish Socialists. In the south, the francophone Socialist Party rules unencumbered with a membership base larger than its French counterpart in a region of barely 4 million inhabitants. Its Flemish outfit is much smaller. In September 2020, its chairman Conner Rousseau announced a new name for the party: the slick sounding Vooruit (Forward). Elected on a platform of modernisation, Rousseau has followed his namesake in stressing the necessity of direct democracy and of turning his party into a ‘network’. He has also managed to pacify the warring clans within his party. Primarily though, Rousseau has combined vaguely patriotic appeals with loud lamentations about declining state capacity in the age of COVID.

The end result looks more like a Belgian Five Star movement than the conservative Danish Social Democrats. At a recent party conference, Rousseau appeared behind a red curtain, his silhouette projected onto a large screen overhead. When the futuristic music stopped, Rousseau was supposed to dramatically appear, but he got stuck in the curtain; a belated smoke bomb went off as he entered the stage. ‘We’re back bitches’ was his cry. The results of this gamble are unclear: Vooruit is polling only two percentage points higher, just behind the ailing Christian-Democrats.

Belgian politics thus evinces a curious combination of political turmoil and stasis. In many ways, the country’s political centre has fallen out; for the first time in Belgian history, the mainstream bloc dropped under 50% in the European Parliament elections. In Belgium, the party families that classically populated the state since 1893 – the three ‘pillars’ of liberals, socialists and Christians ­– have now lost their joint majority. If anyone was looking for a model of ‘post-classical’ democracy, this is it. Belgium’s twentieth century is well and truly buried. In an interview with a Sunday paper, Christian-Democrat leader Joachim Coens also pondered a transformation of his vehicle into a ‘party-network’ which would consult non-members and organize citizens’ assemblies. He mentioned Samen (Together) as a possible new name; ‘Forward Together’ now became a possible coalition option.

Vooruit has come up with its own variant of what Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti have termed ‘techno-populism’. On one side we have Rousseau, dancing with rappers on his TikTok account. On the other, we have Frank Vandenbroucke, federal minister of public health and luminary of the Socialist Party, who since 2020 has served as the nation’s father figure – the bearer of bad news for a nation eager to return to normal. A Trotskyist in his youth, Vandenbroucke went into government with the Socialists in the 1990s but left after a scandal concerning money for helicopter purchases, during which he notoriously was asked to burn the offending banknotes in a forest. He relocated to Oxford for a PhD with G. A. Cohen and Anthony Giddens, rebranding himself as a staunch social security reformer and supporter of workfare policies. Now, he has returned as the guardian of a more protective and pastoral state.

As in other European countries, protectionism has steadily grown across the spectrum, not least given the mounting cost of energy prices. At the request of EU authorities, Belgium finalized the liberalization of its energy markets shortly before the 2008 crash. This effectively created an oligopoly which forces users to switch providers based on confected deals every two months. Facing a winter of price hikes, even the leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats came out in favour of renationalization, clarifying that he shared the communist line.

Condemned to cohabitation with former sister parties, Belgium’s traditional parties are alarmed above all by the rise of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), which now polls at a menacing 26%, pushing the separatist bloc over 50%. The party was originally formed in the late 1970s as a response to the Egmont pact, one of the country’s attempted compromises between secessionism and federalism. Its initial ambition was that of a separatist pressure group: it would win a plurality and push for a republican break. By the early 1990s, however, inspired by the social nativism of Jean-Marie Le Pen, it began to mutate into a broader anti-systemic force, turbocharging its anti-immigrant rhetoric and issuing open calls for their expulsion. In a country reeling from the Dutroux affair – where a Walloon serial killer was repeatedly able to elude police, spawning the so-called ‘White Marches’ against a dysfunctional justice system – and slotted into the Maastricht order without a clear popular mandate, this message was bound to resonate. In 1991, the party broke through its electoral ceiling on so-called ‘Black Sunday’.

Formerly known as the Vlaams Blok (‘Flemish Bloc’), by the early 2000s the party was forced to rebrand after it was found to have breached anti-racism laws. The new Flemish Interest caused trouble for the traditional parties for a few years but was subsequently surpassed by the more neoliberal nationalism of De Wever’s N-VA, who were able to capitalise on the communitarian stalemate after 2008. The N-VA though was inexperienced when it entered government in 2014. It came out battered and bruised, unable to deliver on its pro-market promises and hamstrung by the veto of southern socialists.

The Vlaams Belang has proven all too adept at exploiting this defeat. Unlike the parties of other hard right impresarios such as Viktor Orbán or Éric Zemmour, the Belang continues to have a solid and wide local base, complete with cafeterias and youth clubs, motor gangs and gymnastic outfits. Its young leader Tom Van Grieken presents himself as the far right’s ideal son-in-law. Since 2015, the party has managed to mobilise its older civil infrastructure for digital outreach: no party spends more on social media. The young, independent MP Dries Van Langenhove – not an official member but elected on the party’s ticket – runs a podcast where he urges followers to abstain from masturbation and remain fit, part of his long-term attempt to preserve the white race (Van Langenhove first achieved notoriety as a member of a far-right chat group at the University of Ghent, posting the usual photos with semi-automatics and frog memes).

Vlaams Belang has also proven effective at exploiting Flemish unease towards a newly assertive, primarily millennial anti-racism and ecologism. Above all, the Belang obsess over the former liberal Antwerp politician Sihame El Kaouakibi, who was accused of embezzling public funds for her private start-up last year. With its distinctly Belgian mode of ethnic brokerage politics, El Kaouakibi represents a new entrepreneurial elite with migrant roots. Another prominent target is the queer student Anuna De Wever (no relation), who has led several school strikes for the climate in the past two years.

Ethnic minorities like El Kaouakibi still face a wall of prejudice, and by any standard the nation is far behind when it comes colonial self-examination. Visitors at music festivals still occasionally sing chants about ‘cutting hands in the Congo’. Some years ago, the refurbished Africa Museum – completed by Leopold II after he handed over his personal Congolese dominion to the Belgian state – held an Africa-themed gathering in its gardens where partygoers came clad in blackface, pith helmets and leopard skins. The museum later issued an apology; even the British Telegraph picked up on the scandal. Belgium’s ‘Great Awokening’ is, in every way, uneven and combined.

Some parameters have begun to shift, however. In April, a radio presenter at the mainstream MNM station was attacked with a vial of acid in a park in Antwerp. Some weeks before, she had featured in a general-interest television programme in which she showed a photograph of her grandfather. The man was later revealed to be Gerard Soete, one of the mercenaries charged with disposing of the captured independence leader Patrice Lumumba, killed on joint orders of the Belgian crown and the CIA in 1961. In the late 1990s he had been approached by Belgian journalists to talk about his involvement in the affair. During an infamous interview, he opened one of the bureaus in his Brussels apartment and got out a box filled with ivory-white teeth – ostensible remains of the acid treatment applied to Lumumba’s disfigured body (The author Ludo De Witte reached the same conclusion in his 1999 The Assassination of Lumumba). In January 2016, a tooth purportedly belonging to Lumumba’s body was confiscated at the residency of Soete’s daughter. His granddaughter said she knew next to nothing of her grandfather’s previous life.

Leopold’s ghosts clearly still haunt the national patrimony. Several of his statues have been defaced in the past year and the current king recently issued a carefully worded apology to the Congo for the atrocities committed during his reign. With a country that never experienced a significant influx of post-colonial immigration, such activism is bound to remain minoritarian – and, more dangerously, unlikely to marshal votes. Looking forward to 2024, De Wever has stated his willingness to move beyond constitutional niceties. ‘I hardly believe’, he declared in an interview with a local newspaper, ‘that anything can be done in a legalistic way anymore. The country is completely jammed’. Instead, he invoked the need for ‘a new coup, a new Loppem moment’ – referring to when the Belgian king convoked socialist and liberal party leaders after the First World War in the village of Loppem, without Catholic consultation. The meeting ratified full male suffrage, new social security mechanisms, and the promise of a Dutch-speaking university.

De Wever’s bombast is more a sign of desperation than fortitude. Above all, he finds himself outflanked by a resurgent far right, capitalizing on his broken separatist and nativist promises. In the centre, Flemish employers’ associations are dissatisfied with his failure to introduce regressive cuts to unemployment benefits and social services. Socially liberal voters uneasy with the party’s intensifying anti-immigration, meanwhile, are deserting the N-VA for the Greens – the party left government in 2019, after all, in protest against the signing of a UN-backed global migration agreement, the so-called ‘Marrakech pact’. The growing communist PVDA/PTB – the last unionist party of the country – meanwhile has issued its own alternative program for 2024, clearly distinguishing its unionism from ‘the “Belgique à papa” which sent children to work in the mines – the Belgium of Leopold II and of colonisation, of the Société Générale, of collaboration and discrimination’.

It is unlikely that De Wever can push for a Catalan-style conflagration in 2024. There is no haughty federal authority which would dispatch troops to Antwerp, as Madrid did with Barcelona. And the constitution’s parity requirements between Flemings and Walloons make a unilateral declaration of independence extremely risky.

It has become a commonplace to describe Belgium as an ‘impossible’ nation, a state living on borrowed time. Destined for Kleinstaaterei or upward absorption into federalist Europe, the country appears as little more than a relic of bourgeois Europe – an ‘accident of nineteenth-century history’, as De Wever likes to say. Many Belgian professionals share a quaint enthusiasm for this Belgian non-identity, seeing it as the ideal model for Habermas’s ‘post-national’ age. A motley collage of Brussels mussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme, René Magritte and the Red Devils football team is often the best marketing teams can come up with.

Belgian reality is far more prosaic, however. Like its Red Devils, the country relies on national champions and star players to deal with its endemic crises – but it never musters enough team spirit to truly overcome them. Belgians are wealthy and secure but have little sense of how they might collectively mobilize that wealth and security. Stuck between federalism and regionalism, Belgium’s successful failed state is left to decompose without ever fully imploding. Chroniclers have of course been predicting the death of Western Europe’s most unlikely country for several decades now. Anno 2021, however, it feels more likely that obituaries will be composed for the United Kingdom before its overseas neighbour.

Read on: Anton Jäger, ‘Rebel Regions’, NLR 128.