Belgium gets a bad press. A small country—the size of Wales, with a population of just ten million—it rarely attracts foreign notice; when it does, the sentiment it arouses is usually scorn, sometimes distaste. Charles Baudelaire, who lived there briefly in the 1860s, devoted considerable splenetic attention to the country. His ruminations on Belgium and its people occupy 152 pages of the Oeuvres Complètes; Belgium, he concluded, is what France might have become had it been left in the hands of the bourgeoisie.1 Karl Marx, writing in a different key, dismissed Belgium as a paradise for capitalists. Many other exiles and émigrés have passed through the country; few have had much good to say of it.

I am neither an exile nor an émigré, but I too had the occasion recently to spend an extended period in Belgium. Unlike most temporary visitors to the country, however, I was not in Brussels, but in a small Flemish village not far from Bruges; and in contrast to most of Belgium’s transitory foreign residents today I could claim at least a slender bond to the place since my father was born there, in Antwerp. Daily life in rural Flanders is uneventful, to say the least; it is only with time that you become aware of the uneasy, troubled soul of this little corner of the European Union. Belgium has much to commend it beyond the self-deprecatingly touted virtues of beer and waffles; but its salient quality today may be the illustration that this small country can furnish of the perils now facing states everywhere.

You do not have to be there for very long to be reminded that during the past decade Belgium has been a cornucopia of scandals. The latest of these, mass poisoning of the local food chain through the leakage of dioxin (a highly toxic substance) into chicken feed and pig swill, briefly emptied the village supermarkets last June—though English-speaking visitors were firmly assured that the health risks were negligible compared to those associated with British beef or genetically engineered American corn. But before dioxin Belgium had had other scandals: money laundering, graft and kickbacks in high places, political assassinations, kidnapping, pedophilia, child murder, police incompetence, and wholesale administrative corruption.

All of this has happened in a tiny, prosperous region of northwest Europe whose national capital is also the headquarters of “Europe” (whose bureaucracies are largely segregated from Belgium in an unsightly glass and concrete ghetto). But half the population of the country—the Dutch-speaking Flemings—have divided and federalized it to the point of near extinction, while the other half, the French-speaking Walloons, have no distinctive identity; not surprisingly, there have been suggestions that Belgium might do better just to melt away. Would it matter? Who would care?2

Whether Belgium needs to exist is a vexed question, but its existence is more than a historical accident. The country was born in 1831 with the support of the Great Powers of the time—France, Prussia, and Britain, among others—none of whom wished to see it fall under the others’ sway. The territory it occupies had been (and would remain) the cockpit of European history. Caesar’s Gallia Belgica lay athwart the line that would separate Gallo-Roman territories from the Franks. When Charlemagne’s empire fell apart in the ninth century the strategically located “Middle Kingdom”—between the lands that would later become France and Germany—emerged as a coveted territorial objective for the next millennium. The Valois kings, Bourbons, Habsburgs (Spanish and Austrian), Napoleon, Dutch, Prussian Germans, and, most recently, Hitler have all invaded Belgium and claimed parts of it for themselves, occupying and ruling it in some cases for centuries at a time. There are probably more battlefields, battle sites, and reminders of ancient and modern wars in Belgium than in any comparably sized territory in the world.

Belgians, then, could be forgiven for a degree of uncertainty about their national identity. The state that came into being at the London Conference of January 1831 was removed from the control of the Dutch, furnished with a newly minted king from Germany, a constitution modeled on the French one of 1791, and a new name. Although the term “Belgium” had older roots (the twelfth-century chronicler Jean de Guise attributed it to a legendary monarch, “Belgus,” of Trojan provenance), most of the inhabitants of the region identified only with their local community. Indeed, urban or communal loyalty lay at the core of whatever was distinctive about the place. From the thirteenth century onward, Flemish towns had come together to fight off the fiscal and territorial claims of lords, kings, and emperors. Even today Belgium is the only country in Europe where identification with the immediate locality trumps regional or national affiliation in the popular imagination.

The new Belgian state rested on a highly restricted suffrage that confined power and influence to the French-speaking commercial and industrial bourgeoisie; in practice it was held together not by any common feeling of Belgianness but by hierarchically organized social groups—“pillars” (piliers in French, zuilen in Dutch)—that substituted for the nation-state. Catholics and anticlericals in particular formed distinct and antagonistic communities, represented by Catholic and liberal political parties. These parties, in turn, served not just to win elections and control the state but to mobilize and channel the energies and resources of their “pillar.” In each case an electoral constituency doubled as a closed social, economic, and cultural community.


With the emergence in the 1880s of a socialist party that sought to control the growing industrial working class, the “pillarization” of Belgium into liberal, Catholic, and socialist “families” was complete. From the late nineteenth century until the present, Belgian public and private life has been organized around these three distinct families—with antagonism between socialists and Catholics steadily displacing in significance the older one between Catholics and liberals. Much of daily life was arranged within hermetically separated and all-embracing nations-within-a-nation, including child care, schooling, youth groups, cafés, trade unions, holiday camps, women’s groups, consumer cooperatives, insurance, savings societies, banking, and newspapers.

At election time, especially following the expansion of the suffrage (extended to all men in 1919, to women in 1948), governments could only be formed by painfully drawn-out coalition building among the parties representing these pillars. Such coalitions were typically unstable (there were eighteen governments between the world wars and there have been thirty-seven since 1945). Meanwhile political, judicial, civil service, police, and even military appointments are made by “proportionality,” which is to say that they are assigned to clients and friends within the pillars through a complex and corrupting system of agreements and deals.

Some of this story is of course familiar from other countries. The “culture wars” of Imperial Germany and the parliamentary instability of Fourth Republic France come to mind, as does the proporz system of public appointments in Austria today and the clientele-driven venality of postwar Italy (two countries likewise born in uncomfortable and contested circumstances). But Belgium has two distinguishing features. First, the pervasive system of patronage, which begins in village councils and reaches to the apex of the state, has reduced political parties largely to vehicles for the distribution of personal favors. In a small country where everyone knows someone in a position to do something for them, the notion of an autonomous, dispassionate, neutral state barely exists. As Belgium’s current prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, said in the mid-Eighties, Belgium is little more than a party kleptocracy.

Second: below, above, within, and across the social organizations and political divisions of Belgian society runs the yawning fault line of language. In the northern half of the country (Flanders, Antwerp, Limburg, and much of Brabant, the region around Brussels), Dutch is spoken; in the southern half (“Wallonia,” which stretches from Hainault in the west to Luxembourg in the east), French. Living in the village of Zedelgem, close to the much-traveled tourist sites of Bruges and Ghent and just twenty minutes from the frontier with French-speaking Hainault, I encountered many Dutch speakers who cannot (or will not) speak French; a much larger proportion of the French-speaking population of the country has no knowledge of Dutch. Brussels, officially “bilingual,” is in practice a French-speaking enclave within the Dutch-speaking sector. Today these divisions are immutable, and they correspond quite closely to an ancient line dividing communities that fell respectively under French or Dutch rule.3

Their origins, however, are fairly recent. French, the court language of the Habsburg monarchy, became the language of the administrative and cultural elite of Flanders and Wallonia during Austrian rule in the eighteenth century. This process was reinforced by the French revolutionary occupants and their Napoleonic heirs. Meanwhile the peasants of Flanders continued to speak (though less frequently read or write) a range of local Flemish dialects. Despite a shared language base, Flemings and Dutch were divided by religion; the Flemish Catholics’ suspicion of the Protestant ambitions of the Dutch monarchy contributed to their initial welcome for an independent Belgian state. Domination by French speakers was reinforced by early-nineteenth-century industrialization; impoverished Flemish peasants flocked to Wallonia, the heartland of Belgium’s wealth in coal, steel, and textiles. It is not by chance that many French-speaking Walloons today have Flemish names.

The Belgian state was Francophone, but French was not imposed—the 1831 constitution (Article 23) stated, in effect, that Belgian citizens could use the language of their choice. French was required only for government business and the law. But when a movement for Flemish-language rights and a distinctive Flemish identity began to assert itself in the mid-nineteenth century (beginning with the 1847 Declaration of Basic Principles of the Flemish movement), it had little difficulty demonstrating that in practice Dutch speakers, or the speakers of regional Flemish dialects, were at an acute disadvantage in their new state. They could not be tried in their own language; secondary and higher education was de facto a Francophone near monopoly; and French-speaking interests looked after themselves at the expense of their Flemish co-citizens. When American grain imports began to undercut and destroy the home market for Flemish farmers, the Brussels government refused to establish protective tariffs for fear of retribution against (Walloon) industrial exports.


The conflation of linguistic rights and regional interests was thus present from the outset in Flemish resentment of “French” domination. Once a suffrage reform in 1893 gave the vote to a growing body of Dutch-speaking citizens from the north, most of whom were solidly organized within the Catholic social and political “pillar,” the state was forced to compromise with their demands. By 1913 Dutch was officially approved for use in Flemish schools, courts, and local government. In 1932 a crucial step was taken, when Dutch became not just permitted but required in Flemish schools. The union of language and region—the creation of two administratively distinct unilingual territories conjoined only by the overlap in Brussels—was now inevitable.

This process, implicit in the language legislation between the two world wars, was delayed by World War II. As in World War I, radical Flemish activists tried to take advantage of the German occupation of Belgium to advance the separatist cause. On both occasions, German defeat set them back. After World War II in particular the memory of the wartime collaboration of the ultra-separatist Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (VNB) discredited the Flemish case for a generation. At the same time the postwar punishment of (disproportionately Flemish) collaborators rankled, as did the abdication of King Leopold III in 1950. The King’s ambivalent behavior during the war had discredited him with many Belgians, but a referendum in March 1950 produced a national vote of 58 percent in favor of keeping him (among Dutch-speaking voters, 72 percent voted for the King). However, demonstrations in Wallonia and Brussels, where a majority wanted to see Leopold go, forced him to step aside in favor of his son Baudouin, leaving many Flemings resentful of the way the vote, and their preference, had been overturned.4

What finally doomed the unity of Belgium, however, was the reversal of economic fortunes. Where once French-speaking Wallonia had dominated, it was now in precipitous decline. During the Fifties 200,000 jobs were lost as the mines of the Sambre-Meuse region closed. Coal mining, steel making, slate and metallurgical industries, textile production—the traditional core of Belgian industrial power—virtually disappeared; Belgian coal production today is less than two million tons per year, down from twenty-one million tons in 1961. Only the residue of what was once the continent’s most profitable industrial conurbation remains, in the decrepit mills of the Meuse valleys above Liège and the gaunt, silent mining installations around Mons.

The country that built the first railway in continental Europe (from Brussels to Malines), and that still has the densest rail network in the developed world, now has little to show for it but an unemployment rate, in Wallonia, among the highest in Western Europe. In Charleroi and the neglected industrial villages to its west, middle-aged men gather listlessly in dingy, decaying cafés; they and their families owe their subsistence to Belgium’s generous and vigorously defended welfare system, but they are doomed to a superan-nuated existence of extended, invol-untary retirement and they know it.

Flanders, meanwhile, has boomed. Unencumbered by old industry or an unemployable workforce, towns like Antwerp and Ghent have flourished with the growth of service technology and commerce, aided by their loca-tion at the heart of Europe’s “golden banana,” running from Milan to the North Sea. In 1947 over 20 percent of the Flemish workforce was still in agriculture; today fewer than 3 percent of Dutch-speaking Belgians derive their income from the land. There are more Dutch speakers than French speakers in the country (by a proportion of three to two), and they produce and earn more per capita. This process, whereby the Belgian north has overtaken the south as the privileged, dominant region, has been gathering speed since the late Fifties—accompanied by a crescendo of demands from the Flemish for political gains to match their newfound economic dominance.

These demands have been met. Through seven revisions of the constitution in just thirty years, the Belgian unitary state has been picked apart and reconstructed as a federal system. The results are complex in the extreme. There are three “Regions”: Flanders, Wallonia, and “Brussels-Capital,” each with its own elected parliament (in addition to the national parliament). Then there are three “Communities”: the Dutch-speaking, the French-speaking, and the German-speaking (representing the approximately 65,000 German speakers who live in eastern Wallonia near the German border). These, too, have their own parliaments. The regions and the linguistic communities don’t exactly correspond—there are German speakers in Wallonia and some French-speaking towns (or parts of towns) within Flanders. Special privileges, concessions, and protections have been established for all of these, a continuing source of resentment on all sides. Two of the regions, Flanders and Wallonia, are effectively unilingual, with the exceptions noted. In officially bilingual Brussels, 85 percent of the population speaks French.

There are, in addition, ten provinces (five each in Flanders and Wallonia) and these, too, have administrative and governing functions. But real authority lies either with the region (in matters of urbanism, environment, the economy, public works, transport, and external commerce) or the linguistic community (education, language, culture, and some social services). The national state retains responsibility for defense, foreign affairs, social security, income tax, and the (huge) public debt; it also administers the criminal courts. But the Flemish are demanding that powers over taxation, social security, and justice shift to the regions. If these are granted, the unitary state will effectively have ceased to exist.

The politics of this constitutional revolution are convoluted and occasionally ugly. On the Flemish side, extreme nationalist and separatist parties have emerged. The Vlaams Blok, spiritual heir to the VNB, is now the leading party in Antwerp and some Dutch-speaking suburbs north of Brussels. The traditional Dutch-speaking parties have consequently been forced (or tempted) to take more sectarian positions. Similarly, in Wallonia and Brussels, politicians from the French-speaking mainstream parties have adopted a harder “community” line to accommodate Walloons who resent Flemish domination of the political agenda.

As a result, all the mainstream parties have split along linguistic and community lines: the Christian Democrats (since 1968), the Liberals (since 1972), and the Socialists (since 1978) all exist in duplicate, with a Flemish and a Francophone party of each type; the Christian Democrats dominate Flemish politics, the Socialists remain all-powerful in Wallonia, and the Liberals are prominent in Brussels. The result is further deepening of the rift between the communities, as politicians and electors now address only their own “kind.”5

One of the crucial moments in the “language war” came in the Sixties, when Dutch-speaking students at the University of Leuven (Louvain) objected to the presence of French-speaking professors and classes at a university situated within Dutch-speaking Vlaams-Brabant. Marching to the slogan of “Walen buiten!” (“Walloons Get Out!”), they succeeded in breaking apart the university, whose Francophone members headed south into French-speaking Brabant-Wallon and established the University of Louvain-la-Neuve. In due course the university library, too, was divided and its holdings redistributed, to mutual disadvantage.

These events, which occurred between 1966 and 1968 and brought down a government, are still remembered among French speakers—just as many Flemings continue to meet annually on August 29 in Diksmuide, in West Flanders, to commemorate Flemish soldiers killed in World War I under the command of French-speaking officers whose orders they could not understand. The memorial tower erected there in 1920 carries the inscription “Alles voor Vlaanderen—Vlaanderen voor Kristus” (“All for Flanders—Flanders for Christ”). On the Belgian national holiday—July 21, which commemorates Leopold of Saxe-Coburg’s ascent to the throne in 1831 as Leopold I of Belgium—flags are still hung out in Wallonia, but I did not see many in the tidy little villages of Flanders. Conversely, the Flemish authorities in 1973 decreed that they would recognize the date of July 11 in celebration of the victory of the Flemish towns over the French king Philippe le Bel at the battle of Fleurus in 1302.

The outcome of all this is absurdly cumbersome. Linguistic correctness (and the constitution) now require, for example, that all national governments, whatever their political color, be “balanced” between Dutch- and French-speaking ministers, with the prime minister the only one who has to be bilingual (and who is therefore typically a Fleming). Linguistic equality on the Cour d’Arbitrage (Constitutional Court) is similarly mandated, with the presidency alternating annually across the language barrier. In Brussels, the four members of the executive of the capital region sit together (and speak in the language of their choice) to decide matters of common concern; but for Flemish or Francophone “community” affairs they sit separately, two by two. Whenever money in Brussels is spent on “community” affairs—schools, for example—it must always be apportioned exactly 80:20, in accordance with the officially fixed ratio of the respective language groups. Even the automatic information boards on interregional trains switch to and fro between Dutch and French (or to both, in the case of Brussels) as they cross the regional frontiers.

As a consequence Belgium is no longer one, or even two, states but an uneven quilt of overlapping and duplicating authorities. To form a government is difficult: it requires multi-party deals within and across regions, “symmetry” between national, regional, community, provincial, and local party coalitions, a working majority in both major language groups, and linguistic parity at every political and administrative level. And when a government is formed, it has little initiative: even foreign policy—in theory the responsibility of the national government—is effectively in the hands of the regions, since for Belgium it mostly means foreign trade agreements and these are a regional prerogative.


Just what remains of Belgium in all this is unclear. Entering the country by road you could be forgiven for overlooking the rather apologetic signpost inscribed with a diminutive “België” or “Belgique.” But you will not miss the colorful placard informing you of the province (Liège, say, or West-Vlaanderen) that you have just entered, much less the information board (in Dutch or French, but not both) indicating that you are in Flanders or Wallonia. It is as though the conventional arrangements had been inverted: the country’s international borders are a mere formality, its internal frontiers imposing and very real.

The price that has been paid to mollify the linguistic and regional separatists and federalists is high. In the first place, there is an economic cost; it is not by chance that Belgium has the highest ratio of public debt to gross domestic product in Western Europe. It is expensive to duplicate every service, every loan, every grant, every sign. The habit of using public money (including EU regional grants, a rich source of provincial and local favors) on a proportional basis to reward clients of the various pillars has now been adapted to the politics of the language community: ministers, state secretaries, their staffs, their budgets, and their friends are universal, but only in Belgium do they come attached to a linguistic doppelgänger. The latest government, top-heavy with carefully balanced representation of every possible political and regional interest, is no exception, illustrating, as one political commentator put it, the “surrealist inflation of portfolios and subdivision of responsibilities.”6

But the cost of Belgium’s peculiar politics goes beyond the charge on the Belgian franc (a lingering token of nationality, foredoomed by the coming of the euro). Belgian insouciance in the face of urban planning—the gross neglect that has allowed Brussels to become a metaphor for all that can go wrong in a modern city—is not new. Baudelaire in 1865 was already commenting upon the “tristesse d’une ville sans fleuve” as the burghers of Brussels buried the local stream under tarmac and cobblestones. But the disastrous “urban renewal” of the 1960s, and the soulless monumentalism of the “Europe” district of Brussels today, bear witness to a combination of unrestrained private development and delinquent central authority that is distinctively federal in nature—there is simply no one in charge, even in the capital.

The Dioxin Affair in the summer of 1999 (“Chickengate” to the delighted editorialists of Le Monde) illustrated the same problem. The troubling feature of the scandal was not just that one or more suppliers of animal feed had ignored the usual sanitary precautions and leaked a lethal substance into the food chain. It was also that the government had known about it for weeks before telling either the European Union or its own public; and when the news did come out, the government in Brussels had no idea what to do about it or how to prevent a similar occurrence in the future. The main concern of the Belgian government was how to appease and recompense infuriated farmers for the animals that had to be destroyed and the sales that were lost: many Flemish farmers belong to the Boerenbond, a powerful organization of Flemish agribusiness, which is part of the Catholic “pillar” of Flemish politics, and was thus a power base of the Christian Democratic prime minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene.

In the absence of government oversight the striking incidence of high-level corruption and graft is no surprise (Baudelaire again: “La Belgique est sans vie, mais non sans corruption“). Belgium has become sadly notorious as a playground for sophisticated white-collar criminals, in and out of government. At the end of the 1980s the Belgian government contracted to purchase forty-six military helicopters from the Italian firm Agusta and to give the French company Dassault the job of refitting its F-16 aircraft; competing bidders for the contracts were frozen out. It later emerged that the Parti Socialiste (in government at the time) had done very nicely from kickbacks on both deals. One leading Socialist politician who knew too much, André Cools, was killed in a parking lot in Liège in 1991; another, Etienne Mange, was arrested in 1995; and a third, Willy Claes, a former prime minister of Belgium, sometime (1994-1995) secretary-general of NATO, and foreign minister when the deals were made, was found guilty in September 1998 of taking bribes. A former army general closely involved in the affair, Jacques Lefebvre, died in mysterious circumstances in March 1995.

The Dassault/Agusta affair was es-pecially significant not just for the links between government, politics, business, and graft, but because of the apparent involvement of organized crime—something already evident in a number of murders and kidnappings through the Eighties and early Nineties. These were followed by a series of highly publicized crimes against children, culminating in the truly awful affair of Marc Dutroux. In prison today on charges of murder, Dutroux was at the center of an international pedophilic network running what used to be called the “white slave trade,” procuring boys and girls alike for the pleasure of powerful patrons in Belgium and abroad. He and his accomplices, all based in the depressed industrial towns of southern Wallonia, were responsible between 1993 and 1996 for the kidnapping, rape, or murder of six girls, two of them starved to death in a cellar under Dutroux’s house. What stirred the public to anger was not only the crimes but the astonishing incompetence of the police charged with finding the criminals—and a widespread belief that some of those responsible for finding and prosecuting them had been part of a (homosexual) ring which continued to benefit from very highly placed protection.

Belgium’s police forces are characteristically many and divided. There are dozens of “communal” police forces, responsible only for their immediate vicinity. Then there is the Police Judiciaire—nationwide in theory, in practice divided by and run from local arrondissements. Finally there is the Gendarmerie, the only truly national police force but just 18,000 strong.7 These separate police forces do not cooperate—they don’t even share information. And in the Dutroux affair they were competitive—each trying to keep a step ahead of the other in the hunt for the abductors of the girls.

As a result they actually impeded each other’s inquiries. In addition, they were inept. When Dutroux, a convicted rapist on parole, was questioned by police at his home, the house (where the children were hidden and still alive) was never searched. Later, in April 1998, when Dutroux was already under arrest, he managed to escape from the gendarmes guarding him. That he was recaptured later the same day has done little to reassure many Belgians, now convinced that Dutroux, who has yet to be tried, is being protected by friends in high places. The investigation of his crimes was hampered most recently by the unexplained suicide, in July 1999, of Hubert Massa, the Liège public prosecutor responsible for preparing the case (he also led the investigation into the Cools murder case).8

The horror of the Dutroux affair triggered a deep anger and frustration in the Belgian public; in October 1996 300,000 people marched through Brussels to protest crime, corruption, incompetence, the heartless and ineffective response of the authorities, and the sacking of an overzealous magistrate thought to be too “sympathetic” to the victims. Since then parliamentary inquiries and administrative reforms have followed one another, to no obvious effect. But the embarrassing dioxin scandal of this past summer may have had more lasting consequences. In the elections of June 13 this year the Belgian voters finally threw Dehaene’s Christian Democrats out of office for the first time in forty years. The Socialists lost votes everywhere and the Liberals (loosely comparable to Germany’s Free Democrats in their business-friendly politics) came into government under Guy Verhofstadt—young (forty-six) by local standards and the first Liberal prime minister since 1884.

Moreover, the Greens (known in Wallonia as Ecolo and in Flanders as Agalev) have entered government for the first time, together with the Volksunie, a Flemish populist party founded in 1954 but somewhat moderated in tone since then. This breakthrough of such small, non-“pillar” parties, ending the throttlehold on government of the three established groupings, may be a passing reaction to the scandals, a protest vote and nothing more. The same elections also saw an increase in the vote for the Vlaams Blok in Flanders and Brussels; in the Antwerp districts, where it topped the poll, its rhetoric and even its posters eerily echo Jörg Haider in Austria, Christoph Blocher in Switzerland, and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. Like them, the Vlaams Blok uses nationalist rhetoric as a smokescreen for anti-immigrant and racist demagogy, and its growing support does not necessarily correspond to much real interest in its separatist program. But beyond the protests and the frustration something else is happening.

Belgium today is held together by little more than the King, the currency, the public debt—and a gnawing collective sense that things cannot continue as they have. Of course the desire for a political housecleaning, Italian-style, is quite compatible with demands for even more federalization—as radical Flemish politicians have not failed to point out, both the Agusta and the Dutroux scandals originated in Wallonia. But this argument no longer carries as much weight as it did—and risks the charge of cynical opportunism. The generation of the Sixties, now in power, continues to play the federalist and communalist cards; but recent polls suggest that most people, even in Flanders, no longer put regional or language issues at the head of their concerns.

This is especially true of new Belgians: the children of immigrants from Italy, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Morocco, or Algeria have more pressing concerns. Even those who identify strongly with Flanders (or Wallonia) don’t see a need to abolish Belgium, much less conjoin their fate to another country, or to “Europe.” Language politics, then, may have blown themselves out in Belgium—though there is a risk that those who have built political careers on them may be slow to appreciate the change.

For similar reasons, the old “pillars” are in decline. Younger Belgians see the world rather differently. They are not much moved by appeals to sectoral interest—the same prosperity that has underwritten the “Flemish miracle” has defanged the politics of linguistic resentment. What is more, Belgians no longer align themselves with a single party or community in every facet of their lives. Declining religious practice, the accessibility of higher education, and the move from countryside to town have weakened Catholic and socialist parties alike. In their place has come the rise of single-issue, “à la carte” voting. This is a desirable development—without the “pillars” Belgian politics and public life may well become more transparent, less cozy and corruption-prone. In short, they will cease to be distinctively Belgian. But what, then, will keep the country together?

One answer is prosperity. The obvious difference between Belgium and other, less fortunate parts of Europe where politicians exploit communal sensibilities and corruption flourishes, is that Belgium is rich. Brussels may be an unappealing, seamy city and unemployment may be high in Wallonia, but life for most people in Belgium is tranquil and materially sufficient. The country is at peace—if not with itself then at least with everyone else. If Belgium disappeared, many Belgians might not even notice. Some observers even hold the country up as a postnational model for the twenty-first century: a virtually stateless society, with a self-governing, bilingual capital city whose multinational workforce services a host of transnational agencies and companies.

Even the transportation system has a curiously decentered, self-deprecating quality. A major junction in the trans-European network, Brussels has three railway stations; but none of them is a terminus—trains to Brussels go to and through all three stations. The “Central Station” is, symptomatically, the least of them—obscure, featureless, and buried underground beneath a heap of concrete. As with its stations, so with the city itself: Brussels has successfully effaced itself. Whatever “there” was once there has been steadily dismantled. The outcome is an unaspiring anonymity, a sort of underachieving cultural incognito of which Sarajevo and Jerusalem can only dream.

But the scandals and their shadow won’t go away, with their dead politicians, dead prosecutors, dead children, escaped criminals, incompetent and corrupt police forces, and a widespread sense of neglect and abandonment. Last summer it seemed to many that the Belgian state could no longer perform its primary mission: the protection of the individual citizen. Swayed by political and economic forces beyond its control, caught between federalist decentralization and uncoordinated, incompetent government agencies without resources or respect, Belgium is the first advanced country truly at the mercy of globalization in all its forms. It is beginning to dawn on more than a few Belgians that in progressively dismantling and disabling the unitary state in order to buy off its internal critics, they may have made a Faustian bargain.

As we enter the twenty-first century, and an uncertain era in which employment, security, and the civic and cultural core of nations will all be exposed to unprecedented and unregulated pressures beyond local control, the advantage will surely lie with countries whose governments can offer some guarantees of protection and a sense of cohesion and common purpose compatible with the preservation of civil and political liberties. So Belgium does matter, and not just to Belgians. Far from being a model, it may be a warning: we all know, at the end of the twentieth century, that you can have too much state. But Belgium may be a useful reminder that you can also have too little.

This Issue

December 2, 1999