Ah, off to the grand capital of Europe!
Oops, I didn’t mean to get into politics so early in the morning by implying “Europe” is controlled by a capital.
Let’s just say that Brussels is home of the European Parliament. Yay! (And let’s just ignore the fact that the Parliament is forced to shuffle to Stratsbourg each month at tremendous cost). Perhaps I should settle on a non-partisan position: Ah, Brussels, we’re off to the grand capital of Belgium.
But should Belgium even have a capital? After all, it survived for almost 600 days without a federal government and it’s not as if Flanders benefits from the Belgian bureaucracy. Should Flanders and Wallonia become independent nations?
Oh, but which side would get to keep Brussels. Agh, Brussels again – we have come full circle.
To the train
Before we dive any deeper into politics, let’s start with the day. We began in Antwerp after all.
On route to the train station we passed by the KBC Tower (KBC is a big bank). It was built in 1929-33 and is thus one of the first skyscrapers of Europe. Not as high as the Cathedral though!
Regarding Antwerpen Centraal, it was built in the late 19th century and is considered one of the most beautiful train stations in Europe. To my eyes, it is truly magnificent.
Fun fact, the station served as a location for a flash mob in 2009 where 200 people unsuspectedly started to dance to “DO RE MI.” After watching the youtube video, I decided (perhaps fatefully) to check the comments.
What’s the NVA? It’s the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (New Flemish Alliance) party which advocates for the “peaceful and gradual” secession of Flanders from Belgium. Digging deeper it also supports the preservation of the Dutch language within Belgium (which makes sense, more on this later) as well as strengthening ties to the European Union. It is now the largest party in Flanders (and by extension, Belgium).
“The N-VA is a party that attaches a great deal of importance to identity,” the NVA website declares. And, it is also enthusiastic about forming stronger European identity and a more effective, efficient EU. This might make sense because as an independent Flanders would be quite small and the protection of being part of the larger, effective European EU would be beneficial. I find learning about the politics of the countries we are visiting to be quite fascinating. It sounds like a digression but it does relate to the question of European identities and the EU that we have been exploring as a class.
What’s with the spelling? It is the French spelling of the name because as we walked through the streets of Brussels, French was the dominant language. Frankly, I heard more Spanish and English than I did Dutch.
Flemish vs. French
Related to the conundrum of French everywhere in Brussels, I think about the divide between the French speaking Wallonia and the Flemish-speaking Flanders. I know this is a digression from what we did today, but it ties in well to the francization of Brussels that we were experiencing today as well as the concept of identity we studied in regards to the EU. This history was alluded to in the lecture at Antwerp University, but it was not clearly taught in this course which is perhaps a pity.
As a former part of the Netherlands, Belgium has long been dominated by Dutch speakers. However, the southern part of the country (Wallonia) had many French speakers after the imperialistic conquests of the French (Napoleon).
A level of suppression of the Dutch language (and its speakers) has continued since Belgium garnered independence in 1830. What I learned (cite) is that many of the Belgian separatists were French speakers from Wallonia. Only after help from French forces, was Flanders eventually subdued and became part of the new country of Belgium.
In this new nation, French was declared the official language and all government officials had to speak French. This resulted in a disproportionate representation in the Belgian Parliament in favor of Wallonia (where they spoke French) and hindered the ability of the Flemish to teach Dutch in schools. The upper class and bourgeoisie of Belgium spoke French, a language known for its prestige (historically spoken by the nobility and ruling class) while Dutch was considered a “lesser” language of the poor working class. People suspected of being “Flemish-minded” where in danger of persecution. And, the vast majority of Belgium’s GDP (80%) was invested in Wallonia, perpetuating the poverty in Flanders.
In the 20th century, the world wars increased a sense of Flemish / Walloon identity within Belgium. Continued efforts by the Flemish allowed the region to regain the right to speak Dutch and use it in governmental, educational, and official spheres. In 1962 Belgium at last drew a “language border” to divide the regions of Wallonia and Flanders – making the regions not “bilingual” but each with its own official language (French and Dutch, respectively). And in 1967 when a Dutch version of the Belgian constitution was adopted. As the professor at the University of Antwerp stated, it was a bit strange that the majority of the population (the Flemish) had to fight for their rights as if they were a minority.
Through all this, Brussels became more and more heavily French-speaking. Historically, around the time of the Belgian revolution, Brussels was almost entirely Dutch-speaking. However when Belgium won independence, the new government declared French to be the official language and the media, government, administration, court, education were required to be in French. And as more and more Walloons and immigrants moved to the city (which continues to this day), they chose to learn French instead of Dutch as their language of communication. As Brussels is geographically within Flanders, one can imagine why the NVA works to preserve the Dutch language and prevent French from Brussels spreading throughout neighboring Flanders. However, this brings up the issue again of who would acquire Brussels if the nation divided.
Having heard of the “Flemish Independence” movement, I did not initially give it a serious thought but understanding the history, I realize why some feel that sense of identity to Flanders and not to “Belgium.” In fact, that YouTube comment is the first time I have seen someone identify as a “Belgian.” Again, people seek to identify with a smaller area or group of people that directly impact their culture and heritage. This may also be why it is a challenge for the EU to have different nationalities identify as “European.”
But back to the blog – we’re already at the city gate!
Porte de Hal
On our way through the city from Brussels-Midi, we passed by Porte de Hal, similar to the city gates we have seen in Delft, Leiden and numerous other cities. However, Brussels, being a powerful and politically important city during the Middle Ages, has the most impressive city gate we have seen so far. It is part of the second walls of Brussels erected in the 14th century to surround the fields that supplied the inner city. Thus, the gate is from 1381. It is the only remaining gate of the second walls, as it was used as a prison, customs house, grain storage, (and then a University building… I’m joking).
It started to rain a bit but luckily we aren’t made of sugar so we survived.
We made our way to the first walls of Brussels, the series of fortifications made in the 13th century (a century before the second wall). Remarkably, many more remnants of the first wall remain than the second.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
We walked by the house of Bruegel. He is a famous Flemish painter and I am quite the fan. He lived the latter part of his life in Brussels and died in the home we walked by.
I don’t entirely understand the point of this statue but at this stage, it is so iconic and so historical that I suppose it is simply loved by Brusseliers. The statue is of a naked boy, endlessly peeing a fountain of water.
It was put in place in 1618-19 and a series of thefts and pranks and destructive history has given it quite the image in the city.
The Senne was once a river that flowed through Brussels but was removed due to sanitary reasons. However, we got a private peek of a false stretch of the Senne amidst a quiet courtyard in the city.
And as we continued to walk through the streets I would like to point out the cartoons sometimes drawn on the city walls. The famous cartoonist, Hergé, was born and raised in Brussels.
Extremely impressive and gorgeous. Also the atmosphere was really nice because it had become sunny and Tomorrowland spirit was in the air and EDM music was wafting through the square.
At last, free for lunch. I went to a place called the “Drug Opera” and I haven’t the faintest idea why it is named so.
Speaking of Opera, we met back at the La Monnaie opera house. According to Toon, it was the starting place of the Belgian Revolution when a banned opera was played inciting a riot and the subsequent Revolution against the Dutch.
The pinnacle of our day in Brussels and a topic of discussion whenever European politics are considered. I have already written way too much so I won’t go into great depth. But, it was interesting to listen to our speaker about the intricacies of the EU. I thought that he was quite impartial and he would actually go to great lengths to explain the inefficiencies and shortcomings of the EU, specifically the Parliament.
It is the job of the Parliament to specify legislation that all EU member states must then abide by. However, any member state can veto a piece of legislation. This is why the Parliament must move to Strasbourg, France every month. When the EU was born, as a sort of compromising gift, France was given the partial seat of government. And even thought the Parliament has voted many times to remain in Brussels permanently, France can veto this initiative every time.
Our speaker also mentioned Brexit briefly and how leaving the EU will actually be worse for the nation most likely. Our speaker interestingly is from Britain himself. The issue is that for the UK to trade and negotiate with the EU, it will have to abide by its regulations yet now the UK simply has no say in what those regulations will be. It’s a murky situation though. For now, the flag still stands… but not for long.