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Diplomatic World_nummer 56.


HERMAN DE CROO ON THE CULTURE AND HISTORY OF BELGIUM FOR DIPLOMATIC WORLD BELGIUM: AN EXCEPTIONAL WAY OF BEING A STATE … Belgium has been economically, culturally and scientifically strong throughout the years. We developed from an industrialized nation with stone, coal and steel into a service nation. Seven world expositions took place in Belgium: quite amazing for a ridiculously small piece of territory. The greatest number of embassies can be found in Brussels, which is a third more than in Washington, the ‘capital of the world’. Belgium’s discrete presence and the sheer activity happening on its ground is often underestimated. 46 Prof. dr. em. Herman De Croo Minister of State M.P. and former Speaker of the House Related to Belgium, there is a ‘golden mediocrity’, ‘a golden mean’ that makes us never exaggerate and never do foolish things, also in politics. Our manner is one of saying enough but not too much and in that way we metaphorically avoid spilling blood. I often say that in the north of Belgium they work too much, in the south of Belgium they enjoy things too much and in the centre we have found the perfect balance between working and having fun. Every weekend I am able to attend events at between ten or fifteen places. The sheer number is quite unbelievable to notice and is typically Belgian. There is a Burgundian way of living here, with people fully enjoying life and taking the small downsides in stride. Belgium has no hard sides on which you can hurt yourself. OCCUPIED BUT NEVER BEATEN The Belgian need for a freedom of choice, perhaps comes from the fact that we have always been occupied throughout history. Occupied, though never beaten. During the treaty of Verdun in 843, the empire of Charlemagne was split amongst his three grandsons. The division was applied the same way you would split up a piece of farm land: one strip to the West, one strip to the East, and one strip in the middle of Europe. When you look at this story and the further history of Europe, there has always been a ‘squeezing’ of this middle part of Europe. The West expanded east and the East expanded west, causing the middle section to constantly change. On the left side of that map you can see France, Italy, Spain and also Great Britain; the east is made up of the Austrian-German empire, with the Russians at the outside. The fluctuating middle part is what we are. Belgium has always been the place of encounter where

Barbara Dietrich and Prof. dr. em. Herman De Croo the major battles happened; the place to get a hold of, to get under your power and to occupy. In a certain sense, historically speaking, the territory of Belgium was the Grand Place where different people would meet and enjoy life but also the place where they would kill each other. We were occupied all the time though not always through war. There were occupants by marriage or bound by war. I believe that today we are still occupied: by the Flemish government, by the Walloon government, by the Brussels government, by the German speaking government and a few years ago by the Federal government. A Belgian has the unbearable but understandable reflex to feel occupied, which means he does not like power, he does not like the government, he does not like police, does not like tax controllers, and most of all does not like rules. That distaste of being controlled is in our DNA. Elected leaders are considered occupants in a way and without an understanding of a Belgian’s DNA, there is no way to understand Belgian society. Belgians are not cheating taxes, they just do not like to give too much money to the occupant. They know the money will be utilized but they have to give away their control in how it is used. A LIBERAL AND NEUTRAL NATION Why do people come to Belgium? What made big names like Metternich, Victor Hugo and Karl Marx settle here for a while? We are small, not nationalistic and unpretentious; all pleasant characteristics but there is much more to it. A good way to look at the attraction is in diplomatic terms. Our constitution, written in 1831, was the most liberal one in Europe. So much so that the Vatican put it on the index because we included freedom of religion in a time where Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in Europe. We also decided on freedom of schools, since the Jesuits were very influential in the middle class and they could train the teachers of the future. Finally, freedom of which language you could speak was also included. By 1845/1846, just before the revolt in France in 1848 against Napoleon, a great number of revolutionary people were living in Belgium, making newspapers and leaflets and then carrying them in secret to Paris. Things were so extreme, there came a law in Belgium to punish insults to foreign heads of state — one that was abolished only a few years ago. This law was passed to ensure Belgium could 47