On 19 November, Tim King, Politico’s Brussels sketch writer, penned an article claiming ‘Belgium is a failed state‘, subtitled ‘Brussels’ nest of radicalism is just one of the failings of a divided, dysfunctional country’.
I’ve thought long and hard about this accusation, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the charge is simply false — unless we want to count the whole of the West as a failed civilisation. I’m not alone in this view. Former US ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman has argued that if Belgium is a failed state, the US is Afghanistan. He points out that, on the Global Peace Index, Belgium is the 14th safest country in the world. Having not visited all the other ‘safe’ countries, I can’t really comment on that, though I would say I was surprised to see it ranking above the Netherlands. For comparison, the United Kingdom is 39th. That is something I can believe.
I lived in Belgium for just less than ten years. I was working for a volunteer youth movement, so we lived in the ‘bad’ bits: Gilly in Charleroi, Ougrée Bas in Liège, the Brugsepoort in Ghent. My wife, before we got married, lived in Schaarbeek, where she learned to speak Turkish and was the guest of many Turks and Armenians.
Tim King makes a lot in his article about the district of Molenbeek — one my wife knew well — and how, anywhere else, this would have been sorted out long ago. This is the district linked with the extremists who attacked Paris. His argument is that its situation made the kind of radicalisation we’ve seen more or less inevitable.
In one aspect, he is right. Molenbeek, along with Gilly, Ougrée Bas, the Brugsepoort and Schaarbeek, could have been ‘sorted out’ much better than they have been.
However, I also grew up in Stechford, Birmingham, and I lived there for twelve years after we left Belgium. At one point, the Hodge Hill constituency, which covers half of Stechford, was the most deprived constituency in England. Mercifully, it isn’t any more. (Lest you think this will be a gush of self-pity, I now live in the marvellous Warwickshire countryside, not far from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.)
Denmark and the Netherlands are pretty consistently nice, but most of the Western world has its Molenbeeks and its Stechfords. We cannot blame the Belgians without looking at ourselves—a point that Gutman makes very well. It is safer to walk through Molenbeek than parts of New York, Washington and Los Angeles. I might add that it’s safer to walk through Stechford as well.
Tim King’s wider point is that Belgium is dysfunctional. It has multiple layers of federated governments which don’t necessarily work well together. It also had a period of 589 days without an elected government in 2010-11, because the French and Flemish language groups could not agree who should be in charge.
If you’re not familiar with Belgium, I should explain right now that French versus Flemish is the fundamental concept in Belgian culture. The southern, French part, know as Wallonia, though the Wallon language is actually extinct, covers a bit more than half of the area and has slightly less than half the population. The Flemish part, Flanders, which speaks ‘Zuid Nederlands’ for which there is no adequate term in English other than calling it ‘Flemish’ or ‘Dutch’, covers the north. It industrialised later than Wallonia, and so has less heavy industry but is generally more prosperous. The two meet in Brussels, where everyone seems to speak Flemish and French with amazing fluency, except in ethnic minority suburbs such as Molenbeek and Schaarbeek, where there are still many people who primarily speak Turkish or Arabic, and for whom most Brussels jobs are therefore unavailable.
By any Anglo-Saxon standard, not having a government for 589 days and having six or so layers of government with (as King points out) 19 communes just in Brussels, (itself about the size of Birmingham), Belgium’s civil organisation is chaotic. The oddness of the situation, and the fact that there are two police forces, has been frequently pointed out in such cases as the Marc Dutroux scandal, the assassination of André Cools in the 1990s, and the never-dying Belgian obsession with SRDA8, aka Operation Gladio. King describes an incident where a joyrider crashed outside his house, and the police recommended that he sort out the insurance with the other damaged vehicle’s owner. This he gives as an example of police incompetence. The funny thing is, more or less the same thing happened to me in Stechford.
Looking at King’s impressive list of articles (I couldn’t find a CV or bio), he’s obviously been writing about Belgium for a long time, and has covered the emerging news with a great deal of diligence. I wonder, though, just how embedded he is in Belgian culture. The Belgian way of doing things is to sort them out as between friends. Belgians are always threatening to call the police (especially if you’re a foreigner), but if a police officer does wander up, she or he usually tries to calm the situation, talk people out of escalating, assist with getting the traffic flowing or sorting out whatever problem there is, and leave the situation without having to take things further. British policemen have told me that they look to do very much the same sort of thing. Perhaps the difference is that Belgians are much more amenable to being talked down (a sweeping statement I know, but I’ve been observing both cultures for a long time). If someone is still cross, their friends usually try to calm them.
The fact that Belgium was able to survive, and, indeed, thrive for 589 days without a national government is a testimony to the fact that this can work at a national political level, not just at the level of arguments between neighbours. Equally, when seen in that light, Belgium’s multiple layers of government are part of its resilience, rather than a dysfunction or a weakness.
It is relatively easy to find things to laugh about in Belgian bureaucracy mainly because the Belgians themselves make laughing at bureaucracy part of their national hobby. The British do this, much to the bemusement of Americans, but the Belgians do it more. Despite the fact that most Belgians affect to have a low estimate of politicians, there are always enough people to fill up the various layers of elected office—by contrast with the UK, where many parish councils carry vacancies over a period of years.
What is a state for?
The question that King does not answer, in maintaining that Belgium is a failed state, is what a state is for. The implication of his article is that a state is for the prevention of terrorism. At least, it is Belgium’s inability to prevent radicalisation which caused the atrocities in Paris. I would question which state actually is able to prevent radicalisation. More importantly, it seems to me that if that is where the bar is set, then North Korea and Cold War era East Germany would be successful states.
Every year, the city of Ghent hosts the Ghent Festival. There are festivals right across Belgium, but Ghent’s is (depending on how you count) the biggest in Europe. Almost everything is free: bands, theatre, exhibition, street art, it lasts for nine days, and features a dazzling display of all kinds of everything. The city of Ghent owns most of the equipment used for the festival. So, what does it do with it for the rest of the year? The answer is, it stores it at the ‘Stedelijke Uitleendienst’ — literally, the civil lending service. Any local organisation can then book equipment, pay a small deposit, and take it away to run whatever events they see fit. This means that there is an all-year-round access to free lighting, PA equipment, marquees, and everything else you could want to run your own mini-festival. You can also get sport and exhibition equipment from the same place. Ghent is not unique in this regard.
We spent part of this summer in Antwerp. Along with all the other things we looked at, we went to a consultation exhibition on redevelopments to the town hall.
You may wonder what any right-thinking person was doing going to a consultation event in their holidays. However, the exhibitors had constructed a mini-museum taking visitors through the history of Antwerp, the history of the town hall in context, the original plans, famous events that had taken place there, and finally through to the proposals for renovating it.
Having run several consultations in the UK, I was staggered by the level of creativity which had gone into it, and by the sheer delight of the result. A good half of the visitors (charge, € zero) that day were from outside Belgium.
Belgium has invested in the arts to a staggering extent. In the UK, there is always a struggle to draw in new audiences and to make the arts relevant across all communities. In Belgium, art spills out onto the streets on a daily basis, both in the pure sense, such as the Ghent festival, and in the applied sense, such as the Antwerp consultation. Something like 3/4 of all the Graphic Novels published in the world come from Belgium.
Even the graffiti achieves a status rarely afforded in the UK. Where Banksy has had to contend with local authorities removing his work, Belgium has at times committed whole streets to it. The ghost village of Doel, scheduled for demolition for the expansion of Antwerp’s harbour, is a veritable museum of street art.
Belgium does not have an NHS, but it does have a state-organised and supported hybrid system with low cost health insurance which delivers more or less the same result. Many Belgians argue that it is better (I would argue the opposite, but that should hardly surprise anyone).
For centuries, Flanders and Wallonia were the battlefield of Europe. The landscape round Ypres was engulfed in the First World War, the Belgian cities were severely damaged in the Second World War. The battle of Waterloo was fought not far from Brussels. It was regularly occupied by enemy powers. Whereas every village in Britain has a war memorial, every town in Belgium has an ‘executieord’. The commemorative text is not ‘we remember the dead…’ but ‘on this site, the following were executed’. Every village in Wallonia, certainly in the early years I was there, had an annual procession of old men and women in black berets: resistance fights from the 1940s.
On the road between Ghent and Zelzate, there is a large lump of rusty steel on a pedestal, with the legend ‘First steel in Flanders — 1967’. When I first arrived in Belgium in 1983, they were still ploughing with horses on many farms. With that in mind, it should be no surprise that, everywhere you go, you see echoes of poverty. The house my wife lived in before we got married had no flushing toilet. I lived with some other lads in a house which would have been categorised in the UK as a slum.
That was the 1990s. I went back there recently. A great deal of it has been demolished, and replaced with modern housing, or with open, public spaces. Churches which are now surplus to requirements (Belgium has secularised much more rapidly than Britain) have been converted into concert halls, or donated to voluntary movements, including the next wave of contemporary churches.
If a successful state is one which protects all its neighbours against terrorists — Tim King’s argument — then not only is Belgium a failed state, but so are most of the states in the Western world. Terrorism is international, hard to predict. A country with 10 million people can’t afford to run its own GCHQ. Nor should it need to: that is part of the point of the co-operation on which I believe the future of Europe, including Britain, depends. If, on the other hand, a successful state is one which has been able to reinvent itself from having been the kicking-ball of Europe, and has created a society with low crime, safe streets, and where the arts and culture flourish, then Belgium is doing very well. There are more famous Belgians than you might think.
Not that we should be blinded by this: Belgium has a lot of work still to do on integration of ethnic minorities (and it is salutary for those who think that integration has gone too far to look at the Belgian experience), on sex trafficking, on financial fraud and on low-level political corruption. Every state, though, has its areas where it needs improvements.
The atrocities in France last month should make all of us reflect on how we can build a more integrated society. Blaming the Belgians, though, is simply foolish.