How Belgians Agree to Differ

Equipped with the best team in a generation, Belgium has been infected by soccer mania in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil, as I witnessed during a recent visit home to Ghent. The Red Devils, as the national team is sometimes known, seem to be everywhere: in the media, in sold-out sticker albums and even in a Red Cross blood donation campaign. In a country where flag-waving is generally anathema, the soccer version of the national banner is ubiquitous and its colors — black, yellow and red — are smeared on cheeks or dyed into wigs.

But the devil, as always, is in the details. Despite the apparent surge in national pride, the regional, federal and European Parliament elections to be held on May 25 are more likely to highlight the reality that Belgium has, in effect, become two separate states.

The divisions separating Dutch-speaking Flanders from Francophone Wallonia extend to politics, culture, identity and consciousness — at least at first sight. In Flanders, polls forecast that the neoliberal, secessionist Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie will top the ballot with a third of the vote. In contrast, in Wallonia, it is the leftist Parti Socialiste that is likely to walk away with a third of the vote, putting it in first place.

Over and above the apparent right-left split between the prosperous north and the struggling south, there is the linguistic chasm. Belgium has had neither national parties nor national media for decades, while education, too, has been regionalized. This has contributed to the drifting apart of the country’s constituent parts and a rise in distrust.

This gradual fading of “Belgium” is symbolically embodied in the endangered status of the quintessential Belgian: the bilingual Bruxellois, or Brusselaar, who had a foot on each side of the language frontier. Today, though Brussels remains officially bilingual, its residents are mostly Francophone, with a minority of Dutch speakers. Beyond Brussels, English is becoming an unofficial lingua franca for Flemings and Walloons alike.

As a naturalized citizen who has been a Belgian for nearly a decade, I find this slow disintegration a shame — partly because I appreciate the eccentric appeal of this country, which has an understated cool despite a reputation for being dull. Also, for people like me, of immigrant backgrounds, it is often easier to identify as Belgian because it does not carry the same ethnic baggage that Flemish or Walloon does. In fact, with some two-thirds of the population of Brussels being of foreign origin, the ethnic complexion of the capital has shifted substantially — as is exemplified on the soccer pitch. Take, for example, the Congolese-Belgian footballer Vincent Kompany. As at home speaking Dutch or French, he captains the national squad and acts as a unifying figure.

A common wisecrack is that Belgians feel a sense of shared nationhood only when abroad, where they become ambassadors for national traditions (notably, some of the world’s best beer and chocolate). And many Belgians I know have reconciled themselves to the prospect that they will outlive their country, assuming it would split into separate sovereign states. Yet polls show that clear majorities on both sides want Belgium to survive intact, despite the bickering among the regions’ political class.

Moreover, although the political divergence of Flanders and Wallonia is very visible, a recent survey conducted by the Flemish public broadcaster VRT revealed that a majority of Belgian voters have broadly similar political positions and views. In the view of the political scientist and newspaper columnist Dave Sinardet, “Whether it relates to socioeconomic, ethical, immigration or environmental issues, you need a magnifying glass to see the difference between Flemings and Walloons.”

This would come as no surprise to anyone who has lived among the two. I have long held that Flemings and Walloons have more in common with one another than they do with either the French or Dutch, both of whom are viewed with suspicion.

One characteristic that both Flemings and Walloons share is a penchant for striking “Belgian compromises,” a form of settlement by which all sides concede something in return for something else, creating a complex web of gains and losses in which there is neither victor nor vanquished. Although this political art form has enjoyed less success in recent years, it has ensured that this conflict of more than a century has never erupted into violence. Come Election Day, this Belgian, for one, will use his ballot not only as a small squirt of glue to help hold Belgium together, but also as a vote of confidence in its multicultural future and capacity for tolerance.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist currently based in Jerusalem.

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