Being Belgian means needing the other to define oneself

, by Quentin Martens, Louis-Alfons Nobels, Antoine de Lame, Sandrine Siegers

Being Belgian means needing the other to define oneself

Those who say “we have nothing in common, everything is driving us apart”, we ask : “who can nowadays truly claim to be Belgian?” Nobody. Everybody. Being Belgian: isn’t it having the humility to accept that the other is needed for defining oneself? Isn’t it accepting that one can not represent on its own a unique model?

We live in the age of multiculturalism. In the past, Belgians were the leaders of a multiple, complex, blurred, fragile and yet remarkably beautiful identity. Being Belgian is to accept of not being Belgian on your own. It means accepting that a part of ourselves escapes us. Being Belgian, is to recognise a part of stranger in ourselves. Jacques Brel used to say “A country isn’t something geographical.” Being Belgian is more than a reality, it is a set of mind.

There will always be reasons to tear us apart. Today, these are the linguistic issues, tomorrow these could be social inequalities or religious differences.

The “other”, by definition, is always different from us. To go towards the other is not a linguistic issue, it is rather an issue of mutual fulfilment which we achieve through travels, through our families, with our colleagues, in our couples. Isn’t the essence of life made exactly by all that?

Today, more than ever, our identities have to be defined. Yet, the Belgian identity has never been of a static nature. It always needed to be searched, invented and reinvented, and this since Belgium was born. This identity quest and its permanent redefinitions resulted in a creative identity. This is true for the French, Dutch and German communities living in Belgium, but also for Italians, Spaniards, Moroccans, Congolese and Turks who have chosen Belgium and contributed to its development. Without this fusion, melting pot, Belgium would not have been able to produce such extraordinary people as Toots Thielemans, Jacques Brel, Arno, James Ensor, Jan Fabre, Magritte and Hergé. Belgium is surrealistic, and yet it is a project which generations have dedicated their lives to.

Belgium the Mirror of Europe?

Europe is an ideal of living together. What happens in Belgium goes beyond it. What is at stake is much broader than its borders. Today, Europe needs Belgium. Not only as a Member State, but as a model of living together.

With its multiplicity, its diversity of cultures, its mixture of Latin and Germanic worlds, its linguistic richness, Belgium has always been and remains, one of Europe’s laboratories. After all, isn’t our history one of the most European one of all? We have always been at crossroad of civilisations. Whether we like it or not, we are a symbol. It is in our country and in our spirits, like the one of Paul-Henri Spaak, that the European ideal of unity was formed.

What happens in Belgium, the wariness of the other and the withdrawal into oneself, is a Pandora box for all Member States.

What happens in Belgium, the wariness of the other and the withdrawal into oneself, is a Pandora box for all Member States. Linguistic minorities exist everywhere in Europe, perhaps with the exception of Portugal. Tomorrow it will be Scotland, Catalonia or Slovenenian minorities in Austria that will follow the belgians’. How can we admire the peace project and the reunification with the Eastern European countries, celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of reunification and yet not be prepared to do what it takes to understand the other and to work together? If we Belgians are not able to live together, who would be able to do so in Europe? Europe is an ideal that we have partly inspired. If we lose that ideal, where is Europe going to?

Because of our history, because of the the reality marked by crises and doubts and because of the upcoming Belgian Presidency, we ought to set an example.

The inspiration of the leading consciences

50 years ago, while signing the Treaty of Rome, Paul-Henri Spaak exclaimed: “Let’s try to be for the future the source of inspiration we find in the immortal past.” It is legitimate to ask where the inspiration of the ruling classes lies today.

It is a fact: contacts and interaction between French and Dutch speaking people become more and more narrow. The media, universities, political parties, all have been split up. We are in an ever faster separating machine. We walk alongside without really knowing each other. But is this a reason good enough to give it all up? If we abandon our ideal of union and all that we have build together aren’t we lying to ourselves? Aren’t we then heading towards this loss of sense that the whole society is deploring today? These contacts need to be reinvented. All of us have to work on this: artists, academics, teachers, journalists, politicians, and the youth. It is the responsibility of and for all of us. Let’s try to turn our distress into a joint action.

After all, aren’t politicians bearing a big share of responsibility for the current crisis? Undoubtedly, being a politician is a difficult task, allegedly too often criticised and despised. But this function, which we too often despise, seems to lose more and more of its ideal. The proof is: politics does not inspire anymore nor does it gain the trust of citizens. As a consequence, citizen frustrations become more radical over the years. We are now approaching new elections. Isn’t this the best way to lose once and for all the trust and hope citizens had in their representatives? “New elections: but with what new faces?” What new voices? What new ideas?

Will the “egos” leave the room for humility, the mistrust for confidence and the disputes for dialogue?

We can’t leave in the hands of some politicians monopole of our common future to politicians..

Everything is yet possible. Jacques Brel was singing: “Often have we seen fire spur out of an old volcano we believed too old…

To a large extent, men and women shape the history of a country. Who is today ready to open their hands truthfully, to regain patiently the lost confidence, to listen and to humbly pave the way to follow? It is exactly what Belgium needs. Where are these real political consciences capable of speaking with respect, to really listen to each other and to hear the concerns of the other community?

In less than two months, Europe will offer to our country, to Belgium, the chance to be the face of the European project through the Belgian Presidency. It is an honour and a great responsibility. Once again, we ought to set an example. Let’s ask ourselves: “which face do we want to show to the world?

Let’s reject closure and intransigence. Let’s demand openness and understanding from our politicians. Let’s ask for real leaders, who deserve this title, not politicians. Let’s start to hope again. Only then shall we perhaps be able to see with new eyes what and who we are..

Because being Belgian is not about staring at each other. It is about picturing each other.


Image: Belgian Flag. Source: Bruno Desclee on Flickr.


Your comments

  • On 14 June 2010 at 13:40, by Koen Colpaert Replying to: Being Belgian means needing the other to define oneself

    Good article, although I don’t support the bottom line (title) and some of the paragraphs.

    I don’t agree with the romantic identity-constructing paragraph about Brel, Ensor, Fabre and the reference made to the past “where Belgians were the leaders of a multiple, complex, .. identity”. I do not inherit the attitude of my ancestors, nor do I carry a surrealistic behavior. At best I perceive surrealism (wether it is art, poetry or a political system) as ’normal’ cause it’s brought to me by the media and society. Exactly the same media that, as put in the article, are split up, and in that manner create different media landscapes, ’imagines communities’.

    There are better arguments to defend the survival of the current, federal Belgium; social-economic arguments, financial arguments, ... .

    I agree with you that we should “reject closure closure and intransigence”. Belgium should indeed ask itselve “which face we want to show to the world”, especially now, when we take up the presidency for 6 months. But, not as it is put in the first paragraph. What is being stated in that first paragraph (“without this fusion, melting pot, Belgium would not have been able to produce such extraordinary people as ...”) Exactly the same reasoning is used by separatist movements (eg. flamingants). Here again, history is begin used to approve a Belgian identity. Flamingants are doing exactly the same, the also get back to ’our history’ (eg. Guldensporenslag) to construct a common identity.

    I agree that Belgium (as mirror of Europe) is a unique model, a model of living together. Therefore I strongly support your second paragraph that Belgium functions as an example. But, although I do support the European parallel that is being made in the article, I don’t “need the other to define myself” . No, thanks.

    best regars,

    a Belgian European Federalist

  • On 14 June 2010 at 17:02, by Toni Giugliano Replying to: Being Belgian means needing the other to define oneself

    I find what is hapenning in Belgium fascinating and while I agree with the principle of unity in diversity which is the thrust of your article, I feel that you risk ignoring the problematic issues of Belgium which can’t be pushed aside. These issues need to be addressed. Why has the seperatist party won so comfortably in Flanders? And if the majority of the people of Flanders vote for separation, is that not their democratic right? While I do believe that Belgium is a great mirror of European integration at a national level, I also get the impression that it’s almost a ’forced’ co-habitation with too much friction between the 2 sides with constant desperate attempts to keep it all together. In addition, unlike most other federal systems, Belgium (with the exception of Brussels city) has only 2 federated entities - Flanders and Wallonia. This gives way to considerable confrontation.... Belgium unfortunately is not the world’s best example of a well functioning federal system. Anyway those are quick thoughts though I appreciate that the issue is one that deserves considerable discussion. Perhaps you could expand on the issue of increased support for seperatism and why that has come about. Thanks

  • On 17 June 2010 at 16:19, by Mashiya Replying to: Being Belgian means needing the other to define oneself

    It’s very heartening to read a positive message like this, written by people from all different parts of the country. I think that every country has sub-groups claiming to be different from one another. I also believe that one can keep on separating countries in ever smaller entities. But this wouldn’t mean it would work. To react to the previous poster: no it is not a democratic right to separate. Secession is not allowed in international law, unless a number of strict conditions are fulfilled, which isn’t the case in Belgium. An old (Flemish) politician said it a while ago: Flanders can separate, but people will continue to consider Wallonia+Brussels as Belgium and Flanders as “Kosovo of the North”, because for all the reasons Kosovo might have had to separate, it also needs to be recognized as a State! I believe that a lot of the success of the separatist party is due to certain people turning toward egocentrism in times of crises. It’s quite easy to blame everything that’s going bad on certain sub-populations. The NVA (separatist party) has also been hugely hyped in the media, the entire election was about them, and with a few sarcastic one-liners Bart De Wever won over almost one third of the public. I really wonder how many of them truely know his party’s program.

  • On 17 June 2010 at 18:02, by Cédric Replying to: Being Belgian means needing the other to define oneself

    No party wins an election by chance. There is always a reason. Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Poutin, each of them hasn’t been elected by mistake. I would like to believe the contrary but no. Voters are more intelligent than that, they have their reasons, and it’s not “all because of media”. Otherwise Belgium wouldn’t be a democracy.

    Secession is not a right in legal terms, but it is a right in political terms. Conversely, if Flanders breaks away, people will perhaps continue to consider Wallonia+Brussels as Belgium, but it won’t be Belgium in legal terms anymore. Because Belgium hasn’t ratified the Vienna conventions on treaty law!

    I really believe there is racism and discrimination behind the Flemish vote. What’s happening in and around Brussels is terrific, and I would like the small cosmopolitan community of Brussels to open their eyes and face what is a concrete discrimination on a large scale against EU citizens. Austria has lost its right to vote in the EU Council for far less than that.

    But do not make the mistake of thinking that all NVA voters are just selfish.

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