The Dutroux affair, involving a paedophile ring, child-kidnapping and murder, might have surfaced in any country in the world. But would any other advanced, democratic country have been quite as slack as Belgium in taking action to track down the ring, and prevent further crimes? And is there something inherent in the way the Belgian state is organised which made the evident failure of the legal system almost inevitable? These are the questions which thousands of hitherto complacent Belgians are now asking, and they account for the enormous turn-out – around 3 per cent of the national population – for the ‘white march’ in Brussels on 20 October. In 16 years reporting on Belgium, I had never witnessed such a massive demonstration of public feeling. The crowd had come to express solidarity with the victims and their families, and anger at the manner in which their institutions and politicians had failed them. Not before time. For the paedophile crimes, however horrible, are only one of series of recent scandals. The list I have in mind is by no means exhaustive.

The Brabant killings: a series of apparently random attacks, in 1982-5, on supermarkets in Brabant (the area surrounding Brussels), which left 20 people (most of them customers) dead. They were killed by a gang toting riot-guns, who in most cases got away with only derisory amounts from the supermarket tills. Seven suspects were arrested, but released after a lengthy period without being charged: the lull in the attacks during the time of their detention was much remarked on. The raids were carried out with military precision, and it was widely believed that former, or even serving, gendarmes were responsible.

The murder of André Cools: the former Vice-Premier and leader of the French-speaking Socialist Party was shot dead in a car park in Liège in July 1991. Within weeks the police received a tip-off implicating another former Socialist minister, Alain Vander Biest, and several of his associates, but no attempt was made to interrogate them. Five years elapsed before they were arrested – that was in September, in the wake of the public outcry over the Dutroux case. They have been charged with plotting the murder of Cools; the two hitmen allegedly hired to do the job have been held in Tunis, where they have confessed to the crime. The Neufchâteau magistrate Jean-Marc Connerotte attempted to charge Van der Biest’s associates in 1994, but was promptly taken off the case by order of the Supreme Court. The same magistrate, to great public anger, was removed from the Dutroux case last month because he was thought to be biased against Dutroux and another defendant.

The Agusta and Dassault affairs: these involve allegations that the Italian company, Agusta, and the French company, Dassault, offered bribes to obtain contracts for military and aviation supplies in 1988-90. Five ministers or former ministers, all Socialists, have resigned over the affair, and three of them, including the former Nato Secretary-General Willy Claes, are facing trial on corruption charges, though the case is unlikely to be heard for at least another year.

The Inusop affair: Inusop is a public opinion research institute, affiliated to Brussels University, which carried out a series of surveys on behalf of government departments at the behest of the ministers concerned. Inusop’s director and deputy director were arrested in 1989, but only came to trial this year, when it was established that the Institute had over-charged the departments for the surveys, some of which were wholly fictitious, and had then passed the proceeds on to the election fund of the Socialist Party. Among those convicted was the former Socialist Vice-Premier Guy Coëme, who received a suspended sentence and was forced to resign his Parliamentary seat. He is also one of those facing trial in the Agusta case.

What these affairs have in common is that they remain unsolved or have taken an enormously long time to come to trial, that they have given rise to widespread suspicions of a cover-up and that, in most cases, senior politicians have been involved. Given the many examples of corruption at municipal level, the reputation of politicians as a species could hardly be lower, and there are fears that, as in Italy a few years ago, a whole generation of political leaders may have to be sacrificed.

There is no doubt that the political class has been badly frightened by the public response to the paedophile affair – and been galvanised into quite untypically rapid action. Even King Albert, an easy-going monarch who involves himself as little as possible in public affairs (unlike the more earnest Baudouin), has spent long hours listening to the complaints of the parents of the murdered and missing children and has called for a shake-up of the justice system. The Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, a canny left-wing Christian Democrat, who usually waits for a minimalist consensus to emerge among his cabinet colleagues before deciding anything, also met the parents on the day of the Brussels march and made four specific promises of urgent government action: the Dutroux investigation, he said, will go ‘all the way’, and all adults identified on the pornographic videos found in Dutroux’s home will be prosecuted; new laws will be introduced to improve the rights of the victims in criminal investigations; the Government will propose a Constitutional amendment ending political appointments to the legal system; Belgium will set up an independent European centre for missing children. Few people believed that the promises would be kept, but Dehaene lost no time in seeking support in Parliament to secure the necessary Constitutional amendment. This will need the backing of at least one of the opposition parties. Normally Constitutional changes take years to be effected, but Dehaene seems bent on driving the changes through in a matter of weeks.

Constitutional and legislative changes are necessary but not sufficient to purge the rottenness of the Belgian state. Attitudes and habits formed over many generations need to be shaken off if a fresh start is to be made. The key to the problem is the Belgian passion for compromise, elsewhere regarded as a means of achieving worthwhile ends, but too often, in Belgium, as an end in itself. Hence the evolution of the expression compromis à la belge, which usually means a cynical fudge.

This attitude has historical causes, going back well beyond the creation of the Belgian state in 1830. For much the greater part of its history Belgium has been ruled by foreigners – Romans, Franks, Burgundians, Spaniards, Austrians, Frenchmen and Dutchmen. Episodes of resistance were few. The pattern was one of adaptation to the requirements of the foreign occupiers in order to achieve as prosperous and agreeable a life as possible. The carefree peasants in Brueghel’s Village Wedding and the sumptuous bourgeois banquets in Rubens and Jacob Jordaens depict the rewards of this compliance. Not for the inhabitants of the Southern Netherlands the stubborn and heroic struggle mounted by their Dutch neighbours against Spanish domination.

The exception to this passivity was the uprising in 1830 which drove out the Dutch and led to independence. The revolution of 1830 was essentially a revolt against the rule of the Dutch king, and it was led by French-speaking Belgians. The large number of Dutch (or Flemish) speakers, then as now the majority of the population, played little part in the proceedings. Most of them were poor peasants, whose main preoccupation was to scratch a living.

The newly established Belgian regime was entirely dominated by the Francophone middle class. They imported a German-speaking king with a French wife, and established a parliamentary form of government largely based on the British model. The dominance of French speakers was reflected in the economic development of the country. Wallonia, the French-speaking part, was a cradle of the Industrial Revolution, and its thriving coal and steel industries made it one of the wealthiest regions in Europe. Flanders, by contrast, was a backward agricultural area, where the rhythm of life had hardly changed for centuries. Anybody who wanted to amount to anything in Belgium had to speak French. The law, the administration, the armed forces, the universities all conducted their affairs in the French language, and it was not until nearly sixty years after its foundation that the first speech in Dutch was delivered in the Belgian Parliament.

The First World War acted as the real watershed. Many British servicemen were dumb-founded to encounter conscripted Flemish soldiers unable to comprehend the orders of their French-speaking officers. The end of the war saw the introduction of universal male suffrage in Belgium, as in Great Britain. Thereafter, it was clear that the days of discrimination against Dutch-speakers were numbered. The granting of democratic rights would ensure that, sooner or later, the majority element would demand and obtain a position of equality, if not of supremacy.

The Second World War and its aftermath brought further developments, of which the most spectacular was the economic transformation of Flanders. Attracted by its proximity to the sea and to major ports such as Antwerp, by its surplus labour and low wages at a time of general labour scarcity, and by its relative lack of trade-union militancy, foreign capital flooded into the region, which later became one of Western Europe’s fastest growing high-tech centres. At the same time Wallonia, with its burden of old and decaying industries, was plunged into a recession from which it has still not totally emerged.

After centuries as the underdogs, the Flemings were the dominant group in the country, in both political and economic terms. Many Flemings continue, however, to feel a sense of inferiority towards their French-speaking compatriots, and have adopted a prickly, defensive attitude. This had the dismal consequence that Belgian politics has degenerated into a zero-sum game between the different language groups. If a Fleming is appointed to such and such a post, he must be balanced by a French-speaker in another, subsidies paid to steel works in Wallonia must be balanced exactly by subsidies to a shipyard in Antwerp, and so on. The Constitution was consistently amended to make sure that one language group or the other did not secure an advantage: exactly half the Cabinet must come from each group, while separate Parliamentary majorities are needed from Dutch and French-speakers before many laws can be adopted. Eventually, in 1994, the country switched to a federal system with a wide range of decision-making devolved to regional and linguistic community governments. This was probably a beneficial development, but it was only mutual suspicion and distrust which made it necessary.

Sharing out jobs and influence has not been restricted to language groups. Every political party and faction has wanted to have its cut, which has led to the politicisation of a host of public appointments in the police, the judiciary and public broadcasting. Ideology or cronyism rather than merit decides who is appointed. There are also far too many competing institutions for such a small country (ten million people). Belgium has 584 local police forces (19 in Brussels alone), few of which can command proper resources, and two national forces – the gendarmerie and the judicial police – each of which is jealous of its own privileges and loath to co-operate with the other.

One of the most appalling aspects of the Dutroux case is that the gendarmerie in Charleroi had collected a mass of damning evidence against him at a time when the two eight-year-old girls, Julie and Melissa, were still alive in the cellar of one of his many houses. This should have been forwarded to the judicial police in Liège who were conducting the inquiries, but the information never arrived, and the two little girls were left to starve to death while Dutroux served a three-month sentence on a car theft charge.

The Parliamentary enquiry into the affair may discover – as nearly every Belgian now believes – that Dutroux was protected by friends or clients within the gendarmerie. What is incontestable is that he would have been less likely to have slipped through the fingers of the justice system if there had been a single national police force. The gendarmerie, created by Napoleon, was originally intended as a paramilitary force. It was completely demilitarised some years ago, however, and it seems extraordinary that the opportunity was not then taken to amalgamate it with the judicial police.

Many of the people who marched in October did not have a clear idea of the reforms they wanted the Government to implement. Taking part was a necessary catharsis, following the months of agony which, it seemed, the whole nation had shared with the families of Julie and Melissa, An and Efje, Sabine and Laetitia and a dozen children who are still missing. Dehaene and his ministers do appear to have a fairly precise idea of what is required, starting with the depoliticisation of the judiciary. Yet institutional changes are not enough; the politicians must also learn to behave differently. And the Belgian people must develop a civic sense rising above the sectional interests which command their more immediate loyalties. In this respect, the march itself was an excellent beginning, bringing together – as has happened so rarely in the past – people from both language groups and every sub-division of the community. Belgians must also learn to move beyond compliance and compromise, and hold their leaders to account for the decisions they make. It is not easy to change old ways, but it is a racing certainty that if this does not happen Belgium will continue to have more than its fair share of scandals; it is even doubtful, although separatist tendencies are currently exaggerated, that the Belgian state will survive long into the next millennium.

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