Hosting the institutions of the EU can be a double-edged sword. But Belgium’s unique federation has plenty to offer on the world stage through its liberal and energetic approach to diplomacy, plus growing influence in the worlds of art and sport.
Belgium has spent years in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In 2016 two terror attacks in Brussels left 32 people dead, and the world’s press was quick to blame the heavily decentralised system of governance and fragmented security apparatus. Prime minister Charles Michel was forced to deny he was at the helm of a failed state. A few months later the country’s unique political system – a lattice of regional parliaments and municipal authorities designed to keep the peace between French and Dutch-speaking communities – was in the news again. The French-speaking Wallonia region, with its population of just 3.6 million, held up the signing of a trade deal between Canada and the EU, prompting another round of Belgium-bashing.
But where the international media sees a failed state, Belgium’s citizens see a unique consensus. It’s one that has kept their young nation united since various linguistic communities with little in common cobbled together a country in 1830. And despite its internal divides, it packs an outsized punch on diplomatic and cultural fronts.
As the host of the European Union institutions (and the NATO headquarters), “Brussels” has become media shorthand for the EU. With Brexit looming, an excitable and growing press corps means the country gets more column inches than most, for better or worse. Belgium’s cultural exports are thriving abroad. From Tintin and the Smurfs to beer and chocolate, the nation knows how to sell its brand overseas. This proved true once again at last year’s World Cup with the outstanding performance of their football team, who came third.
A host of other young Belgians are making cultural waves abroad. Many represent the country’s ethnic minorities, including Belgian-Moroccan film-makers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who have been tapped for some of the biggest upcoming blockbusters in Hollywood.
But these successes mask deep problems with integration in the country. Young Muslims continue to complain of marginalisation: within the EU, the highest per-capita numbers of foreign fighters joining Isis were from Belgium.
The presence of Flemish separatist party the N-VA in the coalition government for the first time also brought politicians with nationalist tendencies into prominent roles – and prompted a hardening attitude towards refugees. The N-VA finally pulled out of the coalition in December after disagreements with the prime minister over migration, perhaps staking their ground ahead of federal elections in May. There are notable successes: Bart Somers was awarded mayor of the year for 2016 for his efforts toward integration and helping refugees in Mechelen. But his practice is not yet shared across the country.
In many ways, Charles Michel is the perfect Belgian prime minister. Fluent in French and Dutch, the expert negotiator has held his coalition government together for four years – no easy feat in fragmented Belgium. On the European stage, he has aligned himself with Emmanuel Macron as part a new guard of young, energetic liberals. The 43-year-old son of a former foreign minister was also praised for his handling of the terror attacks. But he may fall at the final hurdle: Flemish separatist party the N-VA abandoned his coalition government in December, leaving him leading a shaky minority government just months before elections.
Belgium’s diplomatic clout is a little like the country itself: understated and underrated. As an EU founding member and host to its institutions it is fiercely Europhile, but also has strong relationships elsewhere. This makes it an ideal mediator in the EU’s spats. The respected Didier Reynders is one of the world’s longest-serving foreign ministers, having been in his post since 2011. Not that he’s never made a bad move: in 2015 he shockingly donned blackface at a charity rally.
The New York Times was so taken with the galleries and art fairs in Brussels that it hailed the city as the “new Berlin”. But until May there was no landmark contemporary-art gallery. That changed when the Kanal-Centre Pompidou opened along a neglected quayside. Both the French and Dutch-speaking communities are collaborating on the project, which is a joint venture between the City of Brussels and the Pompidou in Paris.
Belgium finally seems to be facing up to King Leopold II’s reign in the Congo, in which millions of Congolese died. Earlier this year Brussels named a public square in honour of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese politician who was pivotal in transforming the Congo from colony to independent republic. And the recently refurbished Royal Museum for Central Africa now casts a more critical eye over Leopold’s murderous legacy.
There is no central tourism authority. As each region has its own office, campaigns are confused and disjointed. Tourists don’t care about linguistic divides, so Belgium needs to find a way to sell the whole country.
Belgium has some of the worst traffic in Europe, partly because of a proliferation of company cars due to the high basic tax rate. Efforts to tackle this have, so far, failed miserably.
The EU institutions bring jobs and prestige but Belgians view them as a nuisance. Better urban planning solutions, such as decongesting the traffic flow around the EU district, would help to reduce the impact of EU summits.
Renewed optimism after the eurozone crisis has been tempered by the threat of a trade war with the US and uncertainty over Brexit. Accounting firm Deloitte named Belgium as one of four European countries to be worst affected by Brexit, due to high exports. And at 1.7 per cent, GDP growth last year was below the eurozone average of 2.5 per cent.
Drink: Belgium knows how to make beer – and how to sell it. The International Trappist Association has expanded its brand even further beyond Belgian borders; it has now granted the hallowed trappist label to breweries as far away as Massachusetts.
Sport: Belgium’s footballers impressed at the World Cup with their team spirit, skill and lack of ego. Their campaign ended in the semi-finals but the team showcased multicultural Belgium at its best.
Food: Belgian cuisine may not be at the top of everyone’s dining bucket lists but the country ranks highly on the global scale of Michelin stars per capita. Even some of the capital’s French residents are starting to whisper that the food in Brussels may be better than Paris.
“Belgium has an incredible set of tightly knit communities. They can be hard for outsiders to penetrate, and resistant to change, but they offer levels of solidarity and resilience that are unusual in the western world.”
Political editor, Politico Europe
“The debate on the future of Belgium has taken a new turn. In the past it was only about greater splits but now refederalising competences is increasingly discussed.”
Professor, Free University of Brussels, and columnist
“Belgium invests massively in counter-terrorism – more than in addressing the root causes of radicalisation. But now is the time to really invest because we still have the Brussels attacks in mind.”
Senior research fellow, Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations
Belgium has had its share of recent troubles but it has done well to balance its different cultural communities. There was success with cultural exports in 2018, particularly in football. But Brexit could pose a big problem for the economy.