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February 20, 2012

Bruxelles: l’union fait–elle la force?

Grand-PlaceI spent last week, just another ‘crucial’ week for the Greek issue, in Brussels. It is not a city I particularly like. I have visited it often, but always for short, and always with the same grey indistinct weather, worse even than English weather, where it may rain more, but there is some variation on the theme at least. Maybe it's just because most times I just visit its two most soulless and immoral bits: the surroundings of Gare du Nord, with its 1970s World Trade Centre, the red-light district and the European Trade Union House (the reason of my visit is the last), and the European institutions – in whose corridors, last week, the default of Greece was taken as granted, with much shoulder shrugging.

The city centre is pretty, but not as much as other Belgian towns. Since Belgian independence, art is mostly restricted to concept rather than beauty, from art nouveau to surrealism and BD, the cartoons – the new Hergé museum in Louvain-La-Neuve is architectonically impressive but I didn’t have the time to see it and check what they made of Tintin’s reactionary and colonialist tendencies.

Herge MuseumNeither am I a fan of Belgian cuisine. Its large portions and generous fat-intake are comforting, sure, but I think it is largely overrated, overcooked (including the mussels), oversweetened (including the chocolate), and, of course, overpriced. Belgium has just been found to be the most expensive country in the Eurozone, after Luxembourg (I am not sure how Finland can be behind – mystery of European statistics). Of course, there are exceptions, the trappist beer and Pierre Marcolini’s chocolates, but even there, I prefer the less fussy British ales and the bitterer French chocolates (Christian Constant...).

Overpriced, I was saying. This is the headlines in Belgium, which is going through its own little sovereign debt crisis thanks to its debt at around 100% of GDP and a fresh downgrading by the visible dirty hand of the market, the rating agencies. The kingdom has been forced by external pressure to find itself a government after a year and a half of surrealist anarchy. Fortunately, it is a centre-left government, and not a technocratic one, but the pressure is here too on public expenditure, privatisation, and especially wage indexation, on which high prices are blamed.Chocolat

One thing I would in theory like of Bruxelles is bilingualism (or even more than bi-, given the penetration of English and 30% foreign population). I am fascinated by bilingual places, whether Montreal, Südtirol, North Wales or Catalunya. But apart from the cacophonic nature of Dutch (but Catalan is not much better), here bilingualism is more divisive then enriching. The new Prime Minister Di Rupo (who speaks Italian and English) is now taking Dutch lessons, but his faux-pas (like saying ‘recreation’ instead of ‘recession’) confirm Flemish perception of the Walloons treating Dutch as a second-class language, and thereby their refusal to answer in French. Similar fights occur in all bilingual countries and regions (Latvians just voted on Sunday to refuse Russian an official status), but here the division is deepest, with clear geographic borders between linguistic groups. One Dutch word I know is "apartheid"... and without making silly comparisons with South Africa, I am afraid the state of Belgium resembles right now the state of Europe as a whole: dialogue between deaf and façade agreements to satisfy external demands. The Belgian motto is l’union fait la force, unity is strength – which does not sound convincing whether in Belgium or in the EU.


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