What does it mean to be Belgian ?

Being Belgian means that the other is needed to define oneself

To 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 to define oneself ? Doesn’t it mean accepting that one individual cannot represent a unique national model on its own ? We live in the age of multiculturalism. In the past, Belgians were the leaders of adiverse, 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 state 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 discovered exactly this way ?

Today, more than ever, our identities have to be defined. Yet, the Belgian identity has never been had a static nature. It has always needed to be searched for, invented and reinvented, eversince 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, this 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 of all ? We have always been at a 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’s box for all Member States. Linguistic minorities exist everywhere in Europe, perhaps with the exception of Portugal. Tomorrow it will be Scotland, Catalonia or Slovenian 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 will be able to do so in Europe ? Europe is an ideal that we have partly inspired. If we lose that ideal, will Europe follow ?

Because of our history, because of 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 has become more and more fractured. 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, don’t politicians bear a great share of responsibility for the current crisis ? Undoubtedly, being a politician is a difficult task, and it’s possible they are criticised and despised too often. 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’s frustrations have 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 a monopoly of responsibility for our common future in the hands of some of these 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, normal 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.


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Auteurs

Antoine de Lame

Antoine de Lame a grandi dans la province de Liège, et habite actuellement à Bruxelles. Après des études de droit à Namur (FUNDP) et à Louvain-la-Neuve (UCL), il s’est spécialisé en « Etudes européennes » à l’Institut des Etudes européennes de l’ULB. (...)

Louis Alfons Nobels

Louis-Alfons Nobels est né à Turnhout, en Flandres, tout près de la frontière hollandaise. Il vit actuellement à Bruxelles, la capitale de notre pays, le cœur de l’Europe. Avant ses études universitaires, il a vécu un an au Brésil, à São Paulo, comme (...)

Quentin Martens

Quentin Martens a grandi en commune à facilité en périphérie bruxelloise. Il vit actuellement à Bruxelles, dans un des quartiers le plus cosmopolite d’Europe. Après avoir travaillé plusieurs mois avec les enfants des rues au Honduras, il a choisi (...)

traducteur

Sandrine SIEGERS

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