View from Flanders


By Alex Robertson

There is something very exciting for me on crossing the Channel and seeing France, even after doing it on an almost weekly basis for over 30 years of my life as I made my way back to whatever European country I was earning my crust in at that time.

And although on the surface everything seems much as it was, the same motorways, buildings and languages, there is an unmistakable feeling that things are about to change, and in a big way.

I am in Belgium this week and the next, in Flanders to be specific.  It is a part of Europe I know very well, and for which I have a deep affection born of having had it as a base for a large part of that 30 years.  So there are lots of family and old friends to visit, and the welcomes are all genuine and reassuring.

And the view of the world changes too as soon as you set foot on the mainland.  This is the place where all the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries happened, events which savagely altered the mindset of those living here and the succeeding generations.

As illustration I remember vividly how a good friend in what was then West Germany told of the angst which pervaded every living day as to whether and when they would be invaded by the forces sitting so close-by on their eastern borders.  I thought at first he was joking, but his fear was real and it was a new perspective for me.

Then there was my father-in-law telling harrowingly how as he cycled to work through the streets of his native Antwerp as the battles raged around him to liberate that city in the push east after D Day, and how he came across a Tommy sitting on the doorstep of a small street near the park, cradling a dead toddler in his arms.  The toddler had run out into the street to play and been shot dead in the crossfire.  The boy was dead and the Tommy was sitting there crying.

It seemed to me to capture the awful individual misery of war.  That’s the thing about mainland Europe; the starting point is different from our island norm.  There is a force underlying all the politics here: war must never be allowed to happen again.  So although there are a plethora of political parties, the system is organised so that coalitions are the norm and no single party or viewpoint has much hope of ever being able to rule alone.

In Belgium, where most of the 20th century battles seem at times to have been fought, there is a prevailing reflex instinct to survive and to encourage political diversity but prevent domination by any particular ideology.  The arms of the country bear the motto: “Union makes Strength”. And yet, here, there is Devo max in spades.

In the 19th century, the economic power lay in the south, Wallonia, and the northern Flanders was poor and generally downtrodden.  It is still within living memory that a Fleming could not even be tried in a court in his own language.  There is, as a result, a resentful and defensive division within Belgium.  Nowadays, the coal and steel industries which formed the basis of Walloon prosperity are all but gone, and it is the northern Flanders which is prosperous with a high technology foundation that flourishes.

Two main issues divide the country.  The first is that the central federal government divides its expenditure more or less equally between the more populous and prosperous Flanders and the less populous and prosperous Wallonia, so the Flemish resent what they see as their taxes being spent on building roads and infrastructure projects which are largely underused while the north has to do with less per capita.  The second issue is Brussels.  Historically a Dutch speaking city, it is largely nowadays a French speaking city, which is a source of huge resentment in Flanders.

Flanders has its own government and parliament, located, pointedly, in Brussels, and has a lot more power than Edinburgh does.  It can conduct a more or less separate foreign policy, make treaties, and manage its own economy.  It can raise some, not all, taxes and it only really relies on the Federal government for Defence and European affairs mostly.

This independentista Scot is puzzled at why Flanders doesn’t push for outright independence.  After all, it has a population of some 6 million and is self sufficient economically.  On the other hand, this same Scot wonders why Flanders would ever want to be independent.  What would it gain?

It is the Belgian way to find practical solutions to problems outside the box.  And Flanders seems to manage quite well as it is, whilst maintaining the threat all the time of breaking away and taking Brussels with them, and their money.

The fact is that although the Flemish assert their freedom and practise all the choice of decision they want, there is no real independence movement as such.  Only one section of the political spectrum advocates total independence, and that is the far-right Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest, party.  And their right wing stance makes other parties steer well clear of them, let alone cooperating with them or entering a coalition with them.

Now, of course, the Eurozone is tottering and with it the European Union of which Belgium was a founding member.  What does the future hold for Flanders people?  Nobody knows, of course, but you can be sure that the Flemish will be survivors, as they always have been.

A Fleming, a former Prime Minister of Belgium and originator of the Belgian version of devolution, Leo Tindemans, told me: “It is a mistake to think that small countries in Europe have no influence.”

On the contrary, he claimed, small countries could make massive contributions and have huge influence, just that they could never hope to get the publicity or claim the kudos outside the cognoscenti.  All that was needed, he said, was to have the plan, the idea to contribute and the skill to play the European game.  By this he meant how to win friends and make alliances.  The small country, he explained had only to persuade one of the big countries to take it on as their own and then join in the claque, the surrounding supporter group.

And that, perhaps, is the main lesson for Scots coming from Flanders: learn how the system works and play your part in the food chain, and there is no limit to the influence you can exert.  And Scots have massive contributions to make, once free of the tiresome, obtuse and uncooperative attitudes of Westminster, which are received extremely badly by a Europe that has long ago moved on from the 19th century thinking which dogs UK foreign policy.

Scots are well regarded here, and there is a real sense of hope that Scots will play a distinctive, practical and useful role in the reform of Europe that is only just starting and much needed.  Scots have an immense interest in shaping a new Europe.  In every sense, the journey is just starting.