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Friday, 2 April 2010

Nigel's Charade - UKIP vs Belgium, Part II

1. The Retcon State

In last week's post we encountered the enlightened suggestion that Belgium is a nation bereft of a culture, a history or indeed any serious claim to existence. As I argued, this view is partially derived from the sense that Belgium, founded in 1830, is somehow much younger and therefore less authentic than the states surrounding it. England and France are able to trace a direct continuity between the feudal kingdoms of the early medieval period and their present day incarnations as democratic nation-states. This is in contrast to the inhabitants of the Low Countries, who though intimately involved with most of the major events of European history for the last thousand years, are regarded as distinct from modern 'Belgians'. It as though, following the Belgian Revolution of 1830, the centuries of Flemish-Walloon history preceding it had been retconned out of existence.

It's especially odd when we consider other European countries, 'younger' than Belgium which are world-famous for the dazzling cultural histories which preceded their modern formation. Italy existed only as a 'geographical expression' until its bickering territories were united in 1861, whilst Germany was bullied into being by Bismark's Prussia as late as 1871. Yet Ancient Rome, the medieval Papacy and the city-states of the Renaissance are integral to our image of modern Italy: indeed the country has been a kind of nation-sized museum ever since the days of the Grand Tour. More recent events, Italian Fascism for example have been handily stowed away in the margins of international memory. Germany of course has not been allowed to forget its recent past, certainly not by the esteemed gentleman of the British Press, nevertheless we are, in our more lucid moments able to talk of the 'country' of Gutenberg and Goethe, Beethoven and Kant, even though none of these men ever lived to see such as thing as Deutschland in a political sense.

Why then are the same standards not applied to Belgium? Partly, I think, because it has fallen victim to the notion, popularised by these men, that when a country declares its independence it is 'born', a process in which the entire awkward back-story of conquest, colonialism and any pre-exi sting national identity is conveniently erased. Countries which establish themselves through declarations of 'independence' from other states, as opposed to through unification by conquest, are rather more keen to repudiate their pasts, emphasising the new beginning over a shared historic identity. But exactly what has been forgotten, and why should it be remembered?

2. Some Awesome Things Done by Belgians

- Charlemagne was a Belgian. That's right, the guy who founded the Frankish Empire, dragging Europ e out of the Dark Ages by the scruff of its neck, was born near Li├Ęge in Eastern Belgium. Among Charlemagne's achievements were the establishment of the French and German monarchies, the revival of Latin literacy without which there would have been no Renaissance, AND the creation of standardised currency across his territory. Hang on...

A Carolingian livre

- The Belgians invented capitalism...kinda...

During the High Middle Ages Flanders was at the centre of the highly profitable wool industry. Its neat little port towns like Bruges and Antwerp drew raw materials, textile manufacturers and merchants to a single location at the heart of European trade. By creating a place where finance, commodities, means of production and means of exchange could all meet the Flemish effectively invented t he first modern market. (Interestingly Dutch-speakers would then go on on invent the first stock exchange in 17th-century Amsterdam, but that's another story).

Medieval Antwerp - the Wall Street of its day

- The Belgian Renaissance

On the eve of the Early Modern period Flanders was stinkin' filthy rich from all that wool trading. Where better place then than for Cosimo Medici to open a new branch of his international family-run bank? Cosimo, a noted patron of the arts with an eye for a bargain, commissioned his agents in Bruges to acquire Flemish artwork for his Florentine palazzi, no doubt ta king advantage of favourable exchange rates. The result was that Florentine artists were exposed for the first time to the work of Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes and Rogier van der Weyden which in turn significantly influenced the course of the Italian Renaissance. Cosmopolitan Antwerp was also the centre of international publishing during the Early Modern period, printing hugely influential texts such as Sir Thomas More's Utopia and William Tyndale's explosive English translations of the Bible.

Of course the Italians weren't just passive recipients of the Flemish style, which seems to have favoured uncompromising realism

- The Belgians helped defeat Napoleon

In perhaps the only instance in history in which Belgians have successively repulsed a foreign invasion, several Belgian regiments were present under Wellington's command at Waterloo in 1815. In the words of the Times of June 21st 1815: 'The Belgian troops maintained the high reputation for valour which they have at all times enjoyed.' This was actually rather nice of them since they were fighting in defence of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the artificial British-backed buffer state from which they would revolt in 1830. After a night at the opera.

- As well as capitalism and the Italian Renaissance, other notable Belgian inventions include:

Chips. Can't argue with that.

3. 'A government that actually worked would never have needed to exist in the first place' J.J. Rousseau

From 10th June to November 6th 2007 Belgium was leaderless. Following elections in June the parties with the largest share of the vote (with parties representing the two language blocs there are never overall majorities in Belgian politics) took a record 196 days to negotiate the form a governmental coalition. This was only an interim government however and there was a further year of chaos, featuring Prime Ministerial resignations - rejected and then accepted by the King, threats of partition from Flemish nationalists and a cabinet-breaking banking scandal. Nigel Farage makes mention of this unedifying episode when discussing Belgian ontology as evidence of chronic political instability.

Despite this 'crisis' Belgian society did not collapse, balaclavas and semtex made no appearance on the streets of Brussels, the quality of Belgian life did not falter. Apart from the politicians heaving at the deadlock, no-one seems to have noticed the country didn't have a government. Rock-solid Belgian stability, rather than instability seems to be what was demonstrated. Arguably the negotiations were allowed to persist for so long because the country was quite capable of looking after itself without policymakers and parliaments. How many other countries could have survived six months without political leadership and survived entirely unscathed?

I am unable to explain why Mr Farage should wish to deride a country which chooses to play out its inter-ethnic rivalries through the ballot-box and negotiating table rather than with murderous violence, as in most other states. Far from being a 'non-country' Belgium represents an ideal of civilisation which few other nations have managed to attain, however sizeable their nuclear arsenal or GDP.

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