Friday, September 28, 2007


Those who read The Brussels Journal every now and then will know that these days good part of the coverage is dedicated to, it is suggested, an inevitable if not imminent split of the Belgian nation.

Keen observers of European politics will be familiar with this recurring theme, the tensions surrounding it flaring up every time a general election is held. As a 42-year old Belgian, I must admit that never before I have known so tense an atmosphere with regards to the endless bickering between Flemings and Walloons, Belgium's two principal peoples (there is a small community of German-speaking Belgians in the extreme east of the country, but they don't really count in national politics). At the core of the current debate, which began after the June 10 parliamentary elections, is the so-called BHV dossier, the acronym BHV standing for Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde. Lack of progress in this dossier - of which the key Flemish complaint is that in certain parts of Flanders Wallonian parties can field candidates while the reverse is nowhere possible, is the reason why, three and a half-months after the elections, Belgium still has no government. We will come to this item later on, but suffice to say that the longer this stalemate lasts, the larger the percentage of Belgians - Flemings and Walloons alike - who will make the thought exercise of splitting the nation up. To be sure, it is not that far yet. Belgium is no Czecholovakia. However, a recent poll revealed that a good 40% of Flemings and around 10% of Walloons thought a secession was inevitable. Having witnessed the evolution leading to these percentages, I'd wager that neither this year, or the year after, or three years after, you will find the independent Republics of Flanders and Wallonia on the map. But in 25 years? If Wallonia doesn't change its ways, it might be possible.

Strange though it may seem, I, as a Fleming, and a proud Fleming at that, and even a Vlaams Belang member, am NOT in favor of Flemish Independence. First, because I believe that if Wallonia turns away from the Left, it will get (much) more prosperous and won't need Flemish subsidization anymore, thereby obliterating the main reason for a breakup. Second, because I get SO tired of an argument constantly used by the pro-Independence types, namely "that Belgium is an artificial nation".

Imho, it is not. Or, if it is, by no means more so than, say, Germany, Italy or the United States. In the following I will try to explain why Flanders and Wallonia, however antagonistic they seem to each other, have always had age-old bondages, liaisons, mutual interests and shared histories. In 1830, they were NOT lumped together by ignorant cartographers in London. It is rather that the latter simply confirmed ancient boundaries as the frontiers of a mixed germanic/latin household that had throughout the centuries lived in the same "house", be it most of the time under foreign rule. In fact, "all" that happened was that the household was finally allowed to make up its own "house rules".

In 57BC, in the time frame when Ancient Rome was making the transition from Republic to Empire, Julius Caesar, one of the three members of Rome's first Triumvirate and governor of Gallia Narbonensis in the south of what would become France, endavoured on the conquest of Gaul. It was a campaign which would last nine years and become one of the Republic's most expensive, a development of which the justification caused him much trouble. His account of the campaign is written down in his standard work Commentarii de Bello Gallico, and when I was a school kid, one of our first history lessons invariably highlighted a particular exerpt from it:

Gaul is divided in three parts, one is inhabited by the Belgae, the other by the Aquitanians, the third part by those who call themselves the Celts, but those we call Gauls. They all have other languages, institutions and laws. The Gauls are separated from the Aquitanians by the Garonne and from the Belgae by the Marne and the Seine. The bravest Gauls are the Belgae, because their culture and inhabitants are located far away from the rest of the province, because few merchants visit them, and because they are close to Germania, which is across the Rhine and with whom they are at war.

Ambiorix, leader of the Eburones tribeAlthough I would lie. The books left out the remark about the Belgians being bravest because they were the furthest away from civilization. Anyway, by defeating the Belgic tribes one by one, including the one I strongly suspect I am a descendant from (the Nervii), Caesar finally established Roman rule over what is present day Belgium and a considerable slice of northern France as well as one of the Rhineland. One of the last bitter pills to swallow for Caesar was the complete annihilation of an entire legion by the Eburones tribe under their leader Ambiorix. Caesar was no liberal and instead of finding out what it was exactly that had so pissed off the Eburones he decimated them, one of the earliest recorded genocides in human history. It was also one of the first ethnic cleansings, since he then had the pitiful remnants remaining in the area replaced with a friendly tribe, the Tungri. He backed up their presence with a military camp and the settlement became known as Tungrorum. Anno 2007, the place is known as Tongeren - Belgium's oldest town and the place where one of the inventors of the World Wide Web, Robert Cailliau, was born. As much as it might disturb good ole Caesar, today a large bronze statue of Ambiorix, wrought in a rather liberal interpretation, is adorning Tongeren's market square opposite the basilica. In 2005 Ambiorix was one of the contenders for The Greatest Belgian. In Flanders he ended fourth. In Wallonia, 50th. Tongeren lies just inside Flanders, you see.

Tongeren may lay inside Flanders, but only just inside it. Wallonia lies barely a couple of kilometers to the south. There is a reason for that, you know. The Romans constructed a very important road running in a faint arc southwestwards from Colonia (Cologne, see "Koeln" on the map to the right) in what is now Germany, over Bavacum (Bavay) northern France, to Boulogne-sur-Mer, at the Channel coast. As it happened, Roman - Latin - influence north of that road was less than south of it. The road more or less traced the fault line between the Latin and Germanic cultures. The origins of Belgium's linguistic divide can thus be traced back to a Roman road.

By the late 3rd century, a dying Roman Empire lost its grip on Gaul, although its cultural heritage would forever leave its mark, and a Western Germanic tribe known as the Franks filled the vacuum. Actually, already in 358 the Romans, gradually leaving the area which is by and large present-day Belgium, had entrusted the Franks with the defense of this northern border region, opting for some kind of peaceful coexistence instead of spending huge sums of money in a campaign they couldn't win anyway. Fifty years later, these same Franks had themselves to endure a subsequent invasion by yet another powerful Germanic tribe, the Vandals, which crossed the Rhine in December 406 and devastated much of Frankish Gaul. Somehow, the Franks withstood the Vandal onslaught, and as the latter proceeded further to the south a Frankish branch known as the Salian Frankish spawned the Merovingian dynasty, of which the most famous King was Clovis I. By the late 4th century, he had reunited much of Gaul north of the Loire river. As time went by, the Merovingian kings became weak and decadent, earning themselves the scornful soubriquet do-nothing kings, and in 751 the last one was deposed by his majordomus, Pippin the Short. This act was the formal end of the Merovingian dynasty, and the beginning of the Carolingian one, although the latter had been in charge for some time already: Pippins father, although nominally no king, was the famous Charles Martel, who stopped the Islamic conquest of Western Europe in 732 at the Battle of Poitiers, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Tours. In fact, although Pippin the Short was the first Carolingian king, the dynasty took its name from this Charles Martel, who earned his nickname (in modern English, "martel" means "hammer") by utterly devastating the muslim army and killing its commander, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, the Governor-general of what was then known as al-Andalus (Spain). Pippin the Short's son was... Charlemagne, better known in Anglosaxon countries as Charles the Great, the most famous Carolingian King, who transformed the Frankish kingdom in a veritable Empire covering most of Western Europe, large swaths of Central Europe, and northern Italy. You will forgive me a certain amount of chauvinism, but Charles Martel, Pippin the Short and Charlemagne were actually, erm, Belgians, since born in a place near present-day Liège which will certainly ring a bell among gun aficionados. I am, of course, talking about Herstal, which is the home of the Belgian small-arms manufacturer FN Herstal. In the context of our story, however, the most important thing is that under Frankish rule too, whether Merovingian or Carolingian, both areas which would become known as Flanders and Wallonia belonged to the same Frankish Kingdom, later Empire (see the outline of Belgium on the map above).

In 800 the great Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III, and his empire encompassed all of present-day France and the Low Countries, half of present-day Germany and and the whole of what is now northern Italy. Barely 43 years later, this gigantic Empire was broken up in three among Charlemagne's grandsons. The western part - mostly the better part of contemporary France - went to Charles the Bald, the eastern part - half of today's Germany - to Louis The German, and the central part - what would become the Netherlands, the Franco-German border region and northern Italy - to Lothar. The empire of Charles The Bald, who was the youngest of the three brothers, suffered most from Viking raiders, and one of the most prone areas was the so-called Pagus Flandrensis or Flanders Shire, the northernmost region around a settlement which would later be called Brugge - Bruges. The forestier, or Charles' deputy ruler in the pagus flandrensis, was a certain Odokar III, and he had a son named Baldwin (Boudewijn in Flemish). In December 861 Baldwin had the audacity to run off with the emperor's daughter, Judith. To escape Charles's wrath, the couple first fled to Lotharingia and from there to Rome, to seek protection from Pope Nicolas I. The pope must have been a liberal since he endorsed the relationship of the two frolicking youngsters, and he persuaded Charles The Bald to give the couple his blessing. Thus happened, and Baldwin and Judith officially married the year after. Baldwin was given the pagus flandrensis as a wedding gift and became the very first Count of Flanders, eventually to be nicknamed Baldwin Ironarm, for his success in repelling the Viking attacks (other sources claim however that it was because he once allegedly pinned a bear against a tree using a spear). An important element in his strategy was that he reinforced ancient settlements at focal river confluences, where the Vikins used to sail up the hinterland. Two such places were Bruges and especially Ghent, at the confluence of the rivers Scheldt and Lys. As for Baldwin's spouse Judith, she became our First Countess. Together they had four children, of which the second one succeeded his father as Baldwin II. A dynasty was born, which would only come to an end a thousand years later, in 1983, when Prince Charles, the brother of King Leopold III, died. He was the last Count of Flanders.

The 10th century saw the gradual demise of the Carolingian empires, and thus of centralized control. While in France and England, Europes oldest nation states, a monarchy retained some semblance of "national" rule, the real power in this period rested with some sort of subnational level, the counties and duchys. The basic tenet of societal structure was feudalism, whereby the king or the most powerful lords granted vassals possession of land in exchange for their fealty - support in times of war, from the Latin fidelitas. The land was called a fief, and the people on it were allowed to make a living off the fief's harvest and its natural produce in exchange for protection. During this period, around the milennium, local vassals managed to become extremely powerful in their own right, sometimes by conquering adjacent fiefs, sometimes by marriage. In fact, some became so powerful that they became a challenge to the King, and this is about what happened in proto-Belgium, where the 11th century saw the rise of powerful counties such as Flanders, Brabant, Loon, Namur and Hainaut. Somewhat apart from them, but not less important, was the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. In the first three entities , Dutch was spoken, and in the latter three, French, in accordance as you may recall, with the stronger Latin influence to the south of the old roman road linking Cologne with Bavay, and continuing to Boulogne-sur-Mer. While these counties acted as "mini-states" and where thus independent from each other, there was some element of bondage between them given the fact that they found themselves sandwiched between the aggressive "French" and "German" spheres of influence. Notice on the map above, how the loose collection of semi-autonomous counties and duchies starts to assume, as early as the 12th (!) century, the form of 21st century Belgium. For those who think the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking peoples of the region were always enemies, as today some would want us to believe, it may come as a surprise that in the Middle Ages, the County of Flanders was twice united through a so-called personal union with the "Walloon" County of Hainaut, namely from 1067 till 1071 and from 1191 till 1246. The "Walloon" Prince-Bishopric of Liège practically owned te "Flemish" County of Loon (a county in the present-day Belgian provinde of Limburg). And even without such formal alliances or administrative subordinations, there were plenty of contacts between what is now called Flanders and Wallonia. Also on the personal level, and the sheer proliferation of "Flemish" names in Wallonia and "Wallonian" ones in Flanders is testimony to centuries of widespread intermarrying.

By and large, the "Wallonian" counties (the very name of Wallonia does in fact not emerge until the 19th century) tried to get away from French and German influence (tutelage at best, armed incursions at worst) by going the soft way. Not in the north though, where armed conflict halted foreign influence and/or safeguarded the survival of Flemish language and culture. Actually, the case can be made that the fact that nowadays Flemish is spoken in an arc stretching from the North Sea to the Meuse river, is the result of two resounding military victories over powerful neighbors. To the east, the victory of Duke Jan I of Brabant over the Germans under the archbishop of Cologne at the Battle of Woeringen, 5 June 1288, meant that the Duchy of Limburg was wrestled from German control and added to the powerful "central Belgian" Brabantine duchy. In the West, the County of Flanders fought a long-drawn war with France and though it ultimately had to yield, its resistance meant that it never became a part of France the way other entities like the Languedoc, Gascony etc... did qnd eventually became part of the French kingdom.

Now, of all the counties forming "medieval Belgium", it was Flanders which would become the most powerful and wealthiest. This evolution had a lot to do with the emergence of its cities, such as Ghent, Bruges, Kortrijk, Ypres (Ieper) and Oudenaarde. Not without justification one can state that capitalism was invented here. From the 10th century on, the most entrepreneurial among the peasantry left for the cities, where after one year they were free men. In those cities, commerce and industry, particularly the cloth industry, soon took a high flight. A chief factor in this development was the trade with England, whereby large quantities of raw wool, which England had in abundance but was unable to process properly, were sent over the channel, turned into high quality clothing by Flemish craftsmen, and transported back. These tremendous - for the time - trade movements were the main reason why throughout the Middle Ages England and Flanders were close allies. By the late thirteenth century, the French King, Philip IV, nicknamed "The Fair", seeing that an ever more prosperous Flanders, by then only in name subordinated to the French Crown, was escaping control, decided to teach the Flemings a lesson. The war between France and England, broken out in 1294, provided the alibi to send a large army to the renegades, who had allied themselves with France's arch-enemy. At first France's invasion succeeded, and by 1300 the County of Flanders was under firm French Control and the Count, Guy of Dampierre, and his two sons, were imprisoned. In his place the French King appointed a landlord, Jacques de Châtillon, who very quickly made himself detested. After the imposition of one tax too many, a De Châtillon party of roughly 200 French was brutally murdered on 18 May 1302 in Bruges, an episode known as the "Brugse Metten". De Chatillon managed to escaped, and that same summer Philip The Fair, white with rage, sent the most splendid Knight's Army the French Crown had ever assembled to Flanders to extol revenge. It was utterly defeated on 11 July 1302 before the gates of Kortrijk, in southwest Flanders, in a Battle that lives on in history as the Battle of the Golden Spurs. One of the key leaders, leading the contingent from West Flanders, was Guy of Namur. Namur is in Wallonia. Today, it's even the capital of the Walloon Region. So the Flemings' most splendid victory ever, the news of which reached a shocked Pope Boniface VII one week later, was achieved under the (shared) leadership of... a Walloon.

(to be continued)