Belgian Awkwardness: Historical Roots
I’ve always wanted to write an article about Belgium. Now that I just got back from Brussels, it is the perfect time to write something about this strange country.
The Belgian government has been vacant for quite some time. This is a well-known fact. A country without a national government for so long, yet the country is not in total anarchy. You can find it nowhere but Belgium. The country hasn’t had a formal government since last June in 2010, making the longest record for a country without a government, seconded by Iraq (only 249 days). Northern Dutch-speaking Flemish just can not resolve in peace with their Southern French-speaking Walloon buddies, albeit literally being the same nationality. That looks quite strange in a modern country like Belgium at first glance. But to look a step further, I’d say it’s rather pretty predictable that things would turn out to be not working in Belgium. This political complexity goes back centuries. We should had foreseen it coming long time ago.
Since the demise of Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, Low Countries (including the geographical region of current Belgium) was closely associated with theFranks, the Germanic people who invaded and ruled France after the Romans. To this day, Dutch language (including Flemish Dutch) is the closest living language to the long-gone Old Frankish, which perished in France as a result of cultural assimilation to the much higher Roman culture (read the development of French language for more details here). Dutch, as a living relative to the Old Frankish, survived in Flanders and the Netherlands. Historically this was often explained as one of the profound impact ofTreaty of Verdun in 843AD among the grandsons of Charlemagne, which demarcated the Scheldt River as the border between the West and Middle Francia, what later became the territory of France and Holy Roman Empire, respectively. One could speculate that under different political influence, Northern Belgium retained their Germanic trace within the Holy Roman Empire dominion in the Medieval age, which defined the modern Flanders; whereas the South held strong ties with France, who went through the gradual assimilation process into the Latin culture, which the Romans have brough upon Gallia since the Caesar’s Gallic Conquest in 51BC.
Belgium, along with the rest of Low Countries, began to flourish in trade with the prominence of Hanseatic League in early Medieval age around 13-14th century (mostly feud states). Since 1405AD, Flanders and later roughly the whole Belgium have been annexed into the Duchy of Burgundy via the classic way in medieval Europe politics: royal marriage. Likewise, Duchy of Burgundy was partially annexed by the legendary House of Habsburg out of a marriage, in which Belgium was transferred to the dominion of Austrian Habsburg, Spanish Habsburg, and later Austrian Habsburg again (don’t even get me start how messy the European history is)…
Anyway, some pivotal information here from this ultra-twisting history: Soon after Philip II of Habsburg, King of Spain inherited the Low Countries (known as Seventeen Provinces) from his father Charles V of Habsburg, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain in 1556AD, protestants in Low Countries (then as sort of loose fiefdom confederation), also known as Spanish Netherlands, began to revolt against their Catholic Spanish lord in the north in 1568. This resulted in the consolidation of the loose linkage among seven northern provinces in the Low Countries, a.k.a the foundation of a new nation: The Netherlands (that’s why the nation’s name is a plural form). This was later known as the Eighty Years War (combined with the more infamous Thirty Years War in the end). After the war, Spanish Habsburg was able to maintain control in what was then called “Southern Netherlands”, which was roughly the geographical region of modern Belgium. Southern Netherlands were mostly Catholic (even in Flanders!) at the time and sided with the Catholic Spanish for such crazy wars among Protestant and Catholic. So Belgium in general parted with the Netherlands proper mainly because of the religious difference stemmed in the 16th century. As a result, Netherlands proper was able to consolidate their Germanic heritage from its own newly-established government; whereas Belgium was still under foreign dominion and susceptible to foreign influence, especially France. In 1581, the foundation of Ducth Republic in the North marked the separation of history of Belgium (Southern Netherlands) and Netherlands proper (Northern Netherlands). The term “the Netherlands” became the specific term for The Northern Seven Provinces ever since.
When the Dutch Republic in the north was swamped in defending their precious independence from Catholic powers all over Europe, Belgium (then Spanish Netherlands) was not a land of peace either. The French Bourbon, especially the great Louis XIV, had longed for the rich land of Spanish Netherlands. Consequentially the French in the 17th century had initiated several military campaigns in this region. That was a real messed-up time for Europe, constantly wars among every nation, especially in Low Countries. Wars after wars, years after years. War of Devolution, Franco-Dutch War, War of the Reunions, Nine-Years War… In 1713AD Belgium along with Luxembourg were transferred to Austrian Habsburg after the War of the Spanish Succession, marking the pause of French aggression in this region. Meanwhile, it was a great time for the French culture to spread handsomely in the Southern Netherlands. Nobles all over Europe were proud to speak French rather than their own language. Southern Netherlands, like other European regions, was no exception, especially in Wallonia.
Politically, the concept of Belgium as an independent sovereignty debuted briefly in 1790. The short-lived United States of Belgium was founded as a discontent to Austria’s political reform in Southern Netherlands. Belgian states wanted to maintain their decentralized political system, both the Dutch speaking Flanders and the French speaking Wallonia. It is noted that the concept of modern nationalism, that is one country one major ethnicity one major language, the basis of modern state, was not the fashion for the sovereignty in Europe until 19th century or even early 20th century. Medieval Europe was always about the kinship of the nobility. It has absolutely nothing to do with the ethnicity, the language the region possesses. In the case of Low Countries, the decentralized loose confederation of many fiefdoms had existed since early Medieval Age and they intended to keep it that way at the time. This is the basis why United States of Belgium could be created at the time, as both Flanders and Wallonia just wanted to get rid of Austrian centralization reform and remain the medieval political system. Though the independence was short-lived after a quick repression of the Austrian troops, the concept of a united Belgium remained, or rather the concept of the continuation of the loose decentralized confederation remained.
Later on the messy history continued. Right after the French Revolution in 1789AD, Southern Netherlands revolted against Austrian Habsburg again. As the same time the French started to hassle this important crossroad once again. The French army, under the First French Republic, invaded Austrian Netherlands and successfully annexed it into France. That was a time of constant upheaval and frequent change. On one hand France was going through a drastic period of enlightenment, when the idea of modern state, the concept of being French in France, started to emerge rapidly. This had greatly facilitated the penetration of French language in Belgium, which was then occupied by France. Nobles in Belgium at the time were mostly from the South and speaking French instead of Dutch at the time, which became the major force in the Belgium Revolution against the later Dutch governance in 1830AD. On the other hand, Belgium was inspired by the French Revolution and remained strongly of his own will of independence. All Belgians, regardless of the language they use, saw the hope to strive for a united sovereignty to protect themselves from foreign power. Any attempt from the outside that aims to alter the decentralized political tradition of the Southern Netherlands (Northern Netherlands broke the tradition themselves when fighting against the Spanish over 200 years ago) would meet with fierce resistance in Belgium. The French themselves, were no exception as the unfavorable foreign power in Belgium. The forcible suppression of the use of Dutch language over French (French nationalization process), particularly in Flanders, sparked the Peasants’ War in 1798AD. Though France managed to repress the revolt, the awareness of language identity, a key concept for modern nationalism, was spreading quickly at the time, particularly the modern Flemish movement for their Dutch-speaking identity.
Interestingly, after the downfall of Napoleon in Waterloo, Belgium in 1815AD, Belgium was engulfed by the United Kingdom of the Netherlands at the Congress of Vienna. This was actually the first time that all Low Countries (including Luxembourg) stood as a single independent sovereignty in history. However, after many years of resisting foreign power, Belgians no long saw themselves as part of Netherlands identity. Dutch was promoted as official and administrative language over French. The united kingdom was governed by a Protestant king at the time. These two facts very much touched the nerves of Belgian nobles, mostly French speaking from the south, and the Catholic clergy that remained influential in Belgium. So there began the Belgian Revolution in 1830AD against their “northern buddies”. It is noted that Flanders at the time was highly reluctant to side with the French-speakers and even the Catholic clergymen. The language identity for the first time overran their religious identity (Flanders being mostly Catholic) in the Belgian Revolution. However, it was again the French, who wanted Belgium so badly for so long, aided and supported the revolution against the Dutch and subdued the Flemish to subordinate in this revolution. At the same time, European powers were scared that France would annex Belgium again, which could impose profound threat to them (with the memory of Napoleon War still fresh). They soon found a German noble to be inaugurated as the king of Belgium in 1831. Nine years later, 1839AD, the Treaty of London was signed between Belgium and the Netherlands, which granted the independence of the Kingdom of Belgium.
The mistrust that snowballed over the years (Flanders to French influence and Walloon to Dutch influence) escalated even further after the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium. Flanders, in particular, was repressed and persecuted for their Dutch-speaking heritage. The newly established Belgian government was mostly controlled by the French-speaking Walloons and intended to go through a radical modern nationalization process. Eradicating the Germanic trace of Flemish population and enforcing one language (French) for Belgium was one of the key objectives for the then Belgian government. French was set as the only official language in the newly founded kingdom. Investments were heavily favored over Wallonia. Flanders, once a prosperous region, was heavily repressed culturally, economically and politically. One obvious example is that the Dutch version of Belgian Constitution did not exist until 1967AD, over 130 year years after its French version! Such mistreatment against the Flemish have greatly facilitated the growth of Flemish nationalism over French-speaking Walloon’s governance (instead of smothering Flemish identity). The tension between Flemish and Walloon went all the way through 20th century up to now. It is no surprise that after so many years of mistreatment Flanders want out of the Walloon-dominating Belgian political realm, especially when Flanders is doing much much better than Wallonia economically.
Belgium, from being the southern part of Low Countries, went through a long period of foreign occupation until its own independence. However, its independence is rather an assurance of the continuation of their decentralized feud-state confederation system. Modern nationalism in Belgium, under the odd years of various foreign occupation, did not manage to evolve a unified “Belgian” identity over the years. With the failed attempt to enforce a single language in the former city state alliance, nationalism emerged separately: the identity of Dutch-speaking Flemish first under French occupation in late 18th century; and the identity of French-speaking Walloon exerted under the Belgian Revolution against the Dutch in early 19th century. The concern over religious difference, which separated them from the Netherlands in the first place, was submerged by the Dutch and French language/culture conflict which fermented a distinguishable cultural and political dichotomy domestically (especially after years of systematic suppression of Flemish culture in Belgium). This is very odd for the development of a modern state. With the “minority” culture/language being over 50% of the total population in Belgium and its total economical superiority over majority region in the past decades, it’s a miracle that Walloon-dominant Belgian government could retain power for so long. I would not be surprised to see the failure of current Belgian political system albeit its constant reforms. In the current situation, Flanders has the advantages of almost every parameter over Wallonia. The autonomy, a trick to tame the restless minority in a modern state, clearly would not fulfill Flanders’ growing confidence and appetite. Based on its historical roots, since there’s never a single identity in the first place plus there is years of language/cultural ongoing tension, the partition would not be a drastic move to foresee, especially from Flemish point of view. After all, the existence of Belgium is a total awkwardness of a failed attempt towards a modern state. This is, however, nothing unique only to Belgium. Such examples could also be found in the dissolution of former Czechoslovakia and former Yugoslavia.