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Thursday, July 21, 2005


Not a lot of people know that

Today (Thursday) is the 175th anniversary of Belgium. Before you read any further, please rise for the Belgian national anthem.

July 21st is Belgium's national day and a public holiday. The country was founded in 1830 when it broke away from the Protestant Netherlands. Belgium's creation was the last act in the round of European boundary changes that followed the defeat of Napoleon.

The country was regarded as a joke in Britain until recently. Name ten
famous Belgians, we were asked (quite easy to do, actually). The derision has ebbed as more and more British people have spent weekends in Brussels, Antwerp, Gent or Bruges. More of us are getting to know Belgian beer, chocolate and food.

The story that Belgium has more Michelin stars per capita than France is actually true. In the 2005 editions of the Michelin red guides, Belgium (population 10.3 million) has 93 starred restaurants (3 X 3-star, 12 X 2-star and 78 X 1-star) or 111 stars. France (population 60.5 million) has 498 starred restaurants (26 X 3-star, 70 X 2-star and 402 X 1-star) or 620 stars. Work it out for yourself.

The high quality of the food (better even than France in my experience, and not just in Michelin-starred restaurants) provides a clue to the country's relative political stability. Despite its internal divisions, Belgium is one of the most prosperous countries in Europe and has the highest productivity per person-hour in Europe (OECD figures, not mine).

Foreigners are bemused by Belgium's language divide (there are three language groups; Flemish, French and German), the endless disputes and the Byzantine political arrangements intended to manage them.

The consequences can sometimes be
comical. One of the festivities planned for today was the provision of 15,000 free portions of 'moules frites' (mussels and chips). Unfortunately, ministers from the Flemish and Walloon regional governments fell out over sharing the cost of the chips and the region of origin of the potatoes. The Museum of Natural Sciences, which is hosting the meal, finally gave up and ordered the whole lot from McCain's.

Although Thursday will be a day of celebration (with or without the free chips), national identification in Belgium is low and there is a much stronger popular affinity to Flanders or Wallonia. It is easy to forget that, given the ethnic divide, Belgium could in theory have become another Bosnia.

While disputes between the language groups are common, however, they rarely extend beyond bickering at lengthy political meetings. The last time there was any serious violence was during street protests in 1961. What is Belgium's secret?

Widespread prosperity and a cunning system of government have a lot to do with it. But the main reason Belgians can't be bothered to start shooting at one another is that, on the whole, they'd rather be eating out.

Of course the enmity between the language groups, and the corrupt police appointments system resulting, meant that Dutroux (sp?) could rape and murder for 15 years unapprehended.
Corruption and incompetence among the police and judicial authorities were major factors in the Dutroux case - but not the language divide.
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