Notional National Day

Today is once again Belgian National Day! A day off work! Military parades in Brussels! General joy and jubilation!

Or not. At least not that last part, for it’s hard to get very enthusiastic about a country which a while ago broke the world record for operating without a proper, approved government after its last elections (which happened at the beginning of June, 2010). Instead we have newspaper editorials marking the day like the one impishly offered by Liesbeth van Impe in the Nieuwsblad, entitled Fear and Cynicism. And as the latest in a long line of formateurs (politicians appointed by the king to cobble together a workable governing coalition), a bow-tie-wearing dude called Elio di Rupo, finds himself having to deal with squabbling political parties and scheduled negotiation-meetings that fail to convene, the prospect continues to hang over the country that a split-up might be the only solution left.

Hmm . . . a National Day for a nation on the verge of separating roughly down the middle. Don’t know about you, but that reminds me of 150 years ago and July 4, 1861, when all of the states that were to make up the Confederacy had seceded, and blue and grey armies were headed towards each other on respective sides of the new internal border. Especially since that day was described recently in an excellent New York Times piece, one in its “Disunion” series marking that 150th anniversary.

OK, there are no Flemish and Walloon armies mobilized and headed for each other, and it’s a sure thing there never will be – for one thing, the rest of the EU would never allow it. And while the very real cultural differences separating the two sides here are accentuated by different languages in a way that was never the case between the American North and South, the crucial difference between the two situations is that, in Belgium, it’s not the case that one side senses an existential threat to one of its main economic asset-classes (i.e. Southern slavery – not that the North was truly aiming to enforce abolition; it’s a complicated question, but most historians agree – see the NYT piece as well – that it was Union, not the destruction of slavery, that motivated the North to mobilize against the seceding South).

Indeed, it’s actually the differences between these two situations that are the most enlightening, and there may well be another crucial one here. Check out the Nieuwsblad title again: Fear and Cynicism. Then read that NYT piece on July 4, 1861; whatever there was in North and South public opinion way back then, there was precious little fear and absolutely no cynicism. The South wondered whether it really should celebrate the Fourth, as it mobilized to protect what it saw was its legitimate choice to declare independence and go its separate way; the North, on the other hand, celebrated the Fourth with steely determination to remind itself why it shortly had to take up the grim task that awaited it of bringing the Southern states back to heel.

The Flemish-Walloon dispute that threatens to rend Belgium in two is very different. It is safer from the prospect of bloodshed, as mentioned; but then it is also cheaper, more petty, more ignoble. It doesn’t really have to do with property, or certainly with questions of freedom, but it does have to do with money, with base accusations of one side sponging off the other and with the resentments coming the other way those give rise to. And it’s about long-held grudges, about memories of past slights, about revenge against a French-speaking Establishment that dominated business and government for most of the state’s 181-year existence (until recently), and which sent a largely Dutch-speaking rank-and-file to die in the trenches during the First World War for a nation they had little enthusiasm for even then.

So that now, Ms. Van Impe writes:

The equilibrium in this land seems lost for quite a while now. For the fourth time in five years we celebrate the National Holiday without an approved government. After more than 400 days of negotiations the chance of any improvement is distant.The land is in just a dreary state as the wavering summer. Cloudy, with chance of rain and local thundershowers.

Then again, to continue her weather simile, the Belgians will surely take that “wavering summer” (kwakkelende zomer) any day over the ferocious heat now rampant over former Civil War battlefields in the United States. Likewise, perhaps even a miasma of small-mindedness is preferable to outright internecine warfare. Just ask anyone from the former Yugoslavia.

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