Just over a century ago, ‘plucky little Belgium’ stood against the might of the ‘Hun’ by refusing Germany free passage to invade France. Earlier this month, the plucky and even littler Belgian region of Wallonia took a brief stand against the combined might of the EU and Canada, by blocking the CETA trade pact under the federal provisions of Belgium's constitution. Yesterday, however, Wallonia gave in, 'extremely happy that our demands have been heard'. Viewed in the blear light of Brexit, the Walloon impasse, however temporary, suggests it won't be straightforward to get any deal past the 27 EU rump nations. But it also highlights blindspots in both Brexiters' and Remainers' thinking.
Out over the Toison d’Or the old bastard glooms. Shovel-bearded, he sits astride his mount, his 1000-yard gaze intent on the main chance. The socle bears his name, his regnal dates, and the legend ‘PATRIA MEMOR’: a stern summons to remembrance. As usual, though, with such biddings, the true call is for selective forgetting. It calls Belgians to remember the patrimony bequeathed by King Leopold II with riches milked from the empire in the Congo. In fact, to label Leopold’s venture ‘imperialist’ is, if anything, flattering.
It’s the season of the sere and yellow leaf, the fig hangs heavy on the bough, and here in Belgium it’s the rentrée académique. Down at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the bright yellow waffle van on the corner fills the air with the smell of ‘chocolate’ waffle additive, and makeshift blue canvas booths line the main campus boulevard. Student societies are offering newcomers various inducements to sign up. A free Bic seems a dubious swap for being spammed for ever by the Zombie Society, though it’s better than the carrot I remember one club offering when I was a student, a raffle ticket with a 1/nth (for n≈∞) chance of splitting a yet‐to‐be‐built cabaña in the Canaries for 37 minutes every February. It didn’t take long for some joker to add a large M at the end of the society’s ‘Win a Timeshare Condo’ slugline.
King Albert II of Belgium has mothballed his orb, vacating the gilded seat for his eldest son and heir, 53-year-old Prince Philippe, whose general aptitude and fitness for the job lie, by common consent even among Belgian royalists, somewhere south of a root vegetable’s. The thought that his new job might be better entrusted to a beetroot is unlikely to have crossed Philippe’s mind, but then, local royal-watchers suggest, not much does.
The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels has been called ‘the last colonial museum in the world’. It’s not hard to see why: in the marble lobby a statue celebrates ‘Belgium bringing civilisation to the Congo’; the Memorial Room lists the names of the 1508 Belgians who died in Africa between 1876 and 1908 but doesn’t mention the millions of Africans who perished during King Leopold II’s brutal reign in the Congo Free State; the painted wooden carvings from Tintin in the Congo that decorate the restaurant are in dubious taste, to put it mildly.
Last Monday, the Belgian prime minister handed in his resignation to King Albert II and another Belgian government fell. The cause: the withdrawal of a small Flemish party from the Christian Democrat Yves Leterme’s five-party coalition. New legislative elections have yet to be called but in the meantime Belgian politicians have managed to find something they can all agree on. On Thursday, the lower house of parliament voted almost unanimously (136 deputies out of 138, with two abstentions) to ban the wearing of the full Islamic veil, or niqab, in public places. The legislation doesn’t anywhere actually mention the veil – merely forbidding 'all clothing completely or mainly hiding the face' – but no one has suggested that it’s aimed at motorcycle couriers or people whose idea of a good night out is a masked ball.