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Diplomatic World_nummer 56.

48 still negotiate with

48 still negotiate with France and do business with other countries, despite their revolutionaries residing in our cities. This liberal attitude and constitution made it difficult for Belgium to find a king. The Congress of Vienna had taken place and we had to be careful not to offend any countries. For instance, Britain was not on board with us selecting the son of the French king. In addition, the influential Belgian families could not agree on who to pick out of their own crowd. Eventually, we decided on a Germanspeaking British widower, king Leopold I, who saved our young country thanks to the neutrality of that choice. Our independence has always been born from our neutrality, a unique position in Europe, and one that was hard to maintain. This enabled Belgium to escape the troubles of 1848 and the war between Germany and France in 1870. Despite all of this, we were brutally attacked in 1914 and were not respected in our declaration of independence. The neutrality that has been maintained for almost a century, has turned Belgium into a kind of international meeting place. It made us prosperous and it was the reason Leopold II had enough prestige to get a Belgian colony in 1909. Every country with ambition wanted a colony. Belgium got a piece of Africa that was 80 times the size of Belgium and 5 times the size of France. It was extravagant, even in the spirit of the time. A colonial past is no point of pride, but I want to indicate how extraordinary it is for a small country like Belgium to acquire such a large and rich colony. THE IMPACT OF THE WORLD WARS During the liberal age, Belgium became a place where you could feel safe and where the food was good. A place with no tensions with a French-speaking intelligentsia — even the schools in Flanders were French-speaking —, painters, writers, anything you could ask for. We became something special fostered by the great powers, a small territory that was industrialized with the great harbour of Antwerp and culturally rich. Then finally after the two brutal world wars, almost everything was taken away with a horrible occupation. Tiny Belgium incited the British government to join at the frontier, to defend Belgium. The USA joined in 1917, to help Belgium in a sense and to win the war. Now, over a 100 years later, among the many graves in Western Flanders a relatively limited number of Belgians were killed. The battlefield was located in our country and many died, but a great number of them were British and French. We have the biggest cemeteries of allied forces from the First World War and for British people — quite strange or reverse how the world works — it is a touristic destination to visit the cemeteries with tombs of tens of thousands of people killed during the Great War in the West of Flanders. After the First World War, Leopold III tried to negotiate with Sweden to create an axis of neutral countries to avoid the Second World War, as the Dutch had avoided the First World War. We were special in our geopolitical situation and in 1921 we created the international non-profit associations, of which there are thousands in Belgium. This was a technique to attract seats of railways, unions, and other associations here. It was already in the DNA of the country to try and attract others to this free, openminded setting with all the liberties, without nationalism, avoiding any dictatorship. We have always been a little bit complicated to rule but this is without danger to anybody. Leopold III and his advisors were aware that only by attracting people to settle their headquarters in Belgium, we would be put on the map. When Brussels and Antwerp were liberated during the Second World War, the Germans tried to destroy the harbour of Antwerp to avoid procurement for the 5 to 6 million allied soldiers. Germany was surrendering, so for 4 to 6 years Belgium was booming with supplying the allied troops in Western Europe. After the Second World War, American firms came to Belgium, knowing that we were the only way into Europe. Despite the political hazard, this was one of the things that increased our development and put Belgium back on the map, very soon after the Second World War. A FREE HOUSING MARKET After the world wars, most countries decided to nationalize houses or apply very strict building regulations. People had to live with two or three families in the same house from 1944 until 1947/1949. After that period, the new regimes tried to build state houses. Belgium did not do any of that. We let the house building market run free by subsidizing it. This created a booming construction industry, which is still one of the strong economic elements in its diversity today. In small firms, there is flexibility, ingenuity and a lot of other things that were practically invented by the Belgians.

Prof. dr. em. Herman De Croo When astronauts are turning around the world and they see an illuminated point, they say: that must be Belgium. This extraordinary fact is because since the Roman times, we have been living in one house next to the other until you meet the houses of the next village. This pattern of house building is linked to commuting and to putting industries next to cities. Belgians are more free and prosperous than ever before, with 80 to 90 % of the Belgians as the owners of their own house; something that does not exist anywhere else. The downside of this is that everyone wants a house that is different from the others. We have as many different styles of houses as there are families in Belgium. When your plane takes off from London, Heathrow, you see millions of people living in the same type of house. If you want to find something similar in Belgium, you have to look for social housing neighbourhoods and even there you can still see small differences in style. A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO EDUCATION A third point that made us prosper, next to keeping safe the harbour of Antwerp and not nationalizing the housing but instead leaving it free, was that we decided to create very good technical schools. We did not focus on universities like France, but also paid attention to the A4, A3, A2 and A1 technical engineers. With the A1 law (1937) we have created a lot of skilled workers, middlemen, team leaders and sea mine engineers. The combination of freedom of building and free possession of property, the expansion of the harbour of Antwerp with the arrival of hundreds of American firms, and the addition of skilled Belgian workers, all created the golden fifties and sixties. Even without a planned economy and theoretical approach we were utilizing the reverse of the handicaps the two wars had given us in 1914-1918 and 1940-1945. SOCIAL SECURITY AND FREEDOM OF CHOICE A final point that worked to our advantage was the period of exile to London that the Belgian government went through. During this episode, Lord Beveridge created our social security and it was implemented when the government came back to Belgium. We do not have waiting lists for hospitals, which is an unusual situation in Europe. In the UK, people have to wait for years before a certain surgery can be performed. 49