Belgium in Brief: When is a Belgian not a Belgian?

Belgium in Brief: When is a Belgian not a Belgian?
Credit: Canva

What does it mean to be Belgian? It’s a question that many have posed, each time offering a very personal perspective on the idea of nationality and identity.

In a city where one-third of employees are not Belgian, the capital’s cosmopolitan credentials are undeniable. Yet though we are accustomed to hearing newcomer accounts of running the bureaucratic gauntlet and slowly submitting to an acceptance (if not immediate love) of “Belgitude“, we hear far less about how lifelong Belgians feel about national identity.

Of course, Belgium itself is a country divided, with regional differences marking national politics indelibly. This is most obvious in the linguistic frontier between Flanders and Wallonia, though one feels that the identity of each is more often presented as a distinction to the other rather than by defining themselves positively.

Nonetheless, a recent survey of Flanders residents went some way in revealing regional attitudes on the nebulous notion of national identity. Most striking was the widely-held opinion that being born in Belgium is a prerequisite to truly being Belgian. We should be careful of reading into this an ingrained distrust of outsiders, but on both ends of the political spectrum, there is a clear concern to protect and promote “Belgium-ness”. Whatever that is.

The concept of national coherence is itself inherently flawed, as major political rifts such as Brexit and other populist movements have shown. The idea that it is even possible to reach any sort of consensus on matters central to a region’s cultural and social heritage is not only far-fetched but also de-constructive.

In an effort to rebuild bridges so recklessly torn down, Belgium’s economic mission to London this week saw ministers making the case for Brussels as a cultural and economic crossroads of the continent. With the UK’s withdrawal from the EU largely founded on (some would argue bogus) fears of national sovereignty being watered down, Brussels Secretary of State for Foreign Trade and International Relations Pascal Smet offered an alternative and more conciliatory view.

Smet asserted that “The thing that unites all of us in Brussels, is Brussels” – an openness that is evident to anyone that knows the city. Yet whether this everyman’s logic can take root beyond the hyper-diverse capital is a far more delicate question.

Do you consider yourself Belgian? Let @Orlando_tbt know.

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