The Curious Case of Belgium

Written by: Lye Jae Vir (22-I1)

Design by: Rebecca Yap (22-O1)


The curious case of Belgium. When the name ‘Belgium’ is evoked, the images that come to mind are more often than not: Papa Smurf, Tintin and French Fries – assuming that is, if one knows it exists. But the purpose of this article is neither to raise the highlights of Belgian culture nor to emphasise its existence. Instead, the ‘curious case of Belgium’ showcases a more shocking and striking statement: The Question of Belgium’s Existence. 

At risk of giving the reader an initial impression of this article as overtly sensationalist and tabloid in nature, there is an immediate justification and rationale for asking this question. After the 2010 Belgian general election, the country was extremely politically fragmented, with no party able to form coalition governments due to general animosity between each other. In fact, no party won more than 20% of parliamentary seats, making the process of coalition-making even tougher as about three parties had to form a coalition. As a result, from 2010 – 2011, the country was unable to come together to form a government. Most significantly, Belgium now holds the record at 541 days for not having a government in peacetime because of this political impasse. However, this may further raise the question: What is the root cause of this political fragmentation? To understand this, the very underpinnings of Belgian society have to be dissected.

Depending on who you ask, the beginnings of Belgian divisiveness can be traced all the way back to the Roman Empire. But for the sake of brevity, the history of Belgium will be conveniently excluded. 

The humble origins of Belgium’s fragmentation can be found within the convoluted mess that is the map below.

A divided country indeed

 (Credit: r/MapPorn)

In Belgium, the country is predominantly divided into two major regions: the Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North (in yellow) and the French-speaking Wallonia in the South (in red). Belgium practices ‘devolution’ or delegating more power to regional governments in this instance. If counted just by colour, there are at least four unique governments on top of the federal one. 

Besides the institutionalised political fragmentation of Belgium, there are a lot of other aspects of these divisions too. Economically speaking, Flanders happens to be a lot richer, which has made a lot of Flemish people view the less well-off Wallonia as a liability that only drains Flemish funds. But politics and economics aside, these divisions can be found in every-day life too.

Very evenly divided along linguistic lines 

(Credit: Wikipedia)

There are no national newspapers or television channels, even most political parties are only found in their respective regions. In some sense, the country is a loose federation of two nations barely holding onto each other. 

These divisions have manifested themselves throughout the country, permeating straight into the existential core of Belgium. With the country unable to form a national government in 2010-2011, many individual parties felt compelled to publicly consider partitioning Belgium. A French party from Wallonia even publicly held talks with France on a union between Wallonia and France. Currently, in Flanders, the leading party is also pro-independence. These sentiments were even echoed all the way up in the upper echelons of power. Then Belgian Minister for Climate and Energy, Paul Magnette, suggested partitioning Belgium if the political crisis escalated. 

With all these bits of new-found existential-level Belgian knowledge, one may be inclined to think that it should not exist. For Belgium’s sake, one may consider the view that a country this dysfunctional should just partition for the good of all its people within. Maybe it should, or perhaps Belgium could keep trudging on into the sunset of nationhood. But I am no political pundit – at least not yet – and I believe that a country this dysfunctional that is still able to produce the Smurfs possibly possesses the ability to find a way out of this situation.

But besides my personal views on whether Belgium should exist, one may be compelled to ask: What is the significance of this to me, the average Singaporean?

Belgium and Singapore are very far away from each other

(Credit: Google Earth)

Ignoring the poor cropping of the image, Belgium and Singapore seem worlds apart. Completely different continents, histories and contexts. But there are some parallels we can draw between the two, and maybe some questions we can pose to ourselves too. Belgium, a linguistically, culturally and socially diverse country with these differences antagonised to the point of dysfunction. Singapore, in the not so recent past, was not so different from our neighbour a world apart. Our nation had deeply-rooted cultural and societal differences, but the whole island still appears to be very much part of the same country. 

So what happened? 

Before I answer that question, some relevant questions can be raised. The curious case of Belgium allows us to gain, perhaps, a clearer and better perspective on what exactly is a state. Is it a unified language? Culture? Identity? 

In some sense, for Singapore, our answer to that was a common identity. Singapore took a different path at the crossroads, choosing to make national identity take primacy over all other identities. Rather than institutionalising differences like Belgium, Singapore chose to create an identity that resonated with people from any demographic. Learning English, pursuing Mandarin instead of the other Chinese languages, these actions helped us avoid what Belgium is facing today – a crisis of national identity; what it really means to be Belgian. 

To the reader, you may walk away with a newfound respect for our country, maybe even a rejuvenated sense of patriotism. If not, maybe a deeper understanding of a country you had no intention of thinking about and visiting whatsoever. Disregarding all these, I hope at least that this article helped you appreciate – even if only just marginally – the ‘curious’ in the curious case of Belgium. 

References

BBC. (2022, December 13). Belgium profile – media. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-17208922 

Connolly, K. (2020, October 3). Why Belgian struggle for identity could tear country apart. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54378950 

The Federal Government. The federal government | Belgium.be. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.belgium.be/en/about_belgium/government/federal_authorities/federal_government 

r/mapporn – belgium’s regions explained. Reddit. (202AD). Retrieved  from https://www.reddit.com/r/MapPorn/comments/ojgc2x/belgiums_regions_explained/ 

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, November 21). Mass media in Belgium. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_media_in_Belgium

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, November 7). Partition of Belgium. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Partition_of_Belgium Yglesias, M. (2014, June 30). The case against Belgium. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2014/6/30/5855352/the-case-against-belgium