Mathew Lowry

I’ve finally gotten around to updating my avatars here and there to show my support to Benoit Poelevoorde’s call earlier this year to stop shaving. Why? And why won’t it help solve Belgium’s political crisis? And what’s this got to do with Europe?

I don’t tend to write much about Belgian affairs (Hell, I don’t tend to write much full stop), but in many ways Belgium is Europe writ small, so this post was inevitable, given that both wife and kids are (Francophone) Belgians.

For those who aren’t up with current events, Belgium has been without a government since elections in June 2010. Belgium is on the verge of ousting Iraq as the country which has taken the longest to form a government.

Yep, Iraq. Victim of decades of ruthless dictatorship and an invasion which was as successful at getting US access to oil as it was a failure in nation-building and fighting terrorism. That Belgium is anywhere near Iraq in the basic task of forming a democratic government is striking, to say the least…

Unsurprisingly, the Belgians got restless a month or two back, including one of its favourite sons, comic actor Benoit Poelevoorde (left), who suggested a “shaving strike” until we get a government because “on a la barbe” – literally, “one has a beard”, but meaning “we’ve had it up to here with this bullshit“.

Digging chasms

I won’t go into the whole story behind the political impasse. The thing that got me thinking was this: language barriers create deeper barriers.

Behind the linguistic barrier separating them, Francophone and Nederlandophone Belgians live in almost completely separate political spaces. They watch different TV stations, listen to different radio stations, read different newspapers and hear the opinions of different pundits.

And not just because they speak two different languages – the political landscape is also split along “community” (language) lines, so they actually vote for entirely separate political parties.

The decision to split the parties along community lines was a consequence of the gulf between them; this decision then further deepened that gulf. Vicious spirals everywhere.

Broken bridges

And just to make things worse, the only potentially significant bridges for spanning the gulf between the two communities – the mainstream media – are funded by the communities themselves.

The result is perhaps depressingly predictable, or maybe that should be predictably depressing. Rather than bridging the chasm, at least some parts of the RTBF (Belgian Francophone TV & radio), for example, seem to be intent on making it deeper, to the point that (Flemish) PM Yves Leterme once likened them to Radio Mille Collines, a Rwandan radio station implicated in genocide.

It was a clumsy and stupid comparison from a PM who has only grown into his role since losing last year’s election, and who wouldn’t even be PM if a government could be formed.

But I have to say that he had a point – the RTBF watch the Flemish like paranoid hawks, and build every molehill into a political mountain. Which is not to say they haven’t gotten things to worry about, as shown by De la N-VA aux Waffen SS, en trois clics (FR), which shows how quickly one can get from the largest Flemish party’s website into some very dodgy, neo-fascist terrain.

I don’t watch Flemish media and so can’t say whether they’re any better, of course. I didn’t say I was part of the solution …

What’s this got to do with Europe?

I’ve posted on multilingualism in online EU comms several times before. Belgium’s political impasse simply reinforces the importance of language as limiting factor in the development of an EU public space. And I say that as an Australian who is utterly rubbish at learning languages.

It’s clearly pretty difficult to have an EU public space when its putative denizens live in 27 versions of Flanders and Wallonia, separated by language barriers which create and reinforce cultural chasms of mutual ignorance. As a result we have today:

  • 27 national debates on subjects where the national politicians have given substantial powers to the EU;
  • EU-level debates on those same topics, held in languages foreign to most Europeans, using jargon almost none of them understand, carried out by the elites from each country with the requisite language skills and EU policy background;
  • and damned little communication between the two levels, exacerbated by national journalists deserting Brussels.

Seen in this light, the accusation that Brussels is distant, out of touch and too powerful is pretty easy to understand.

In this light, the ‘bridging’ concept I’ve been exploring for a few years now seems more and more essential. But that takes people and time, particularly if the bridging bloggers (for want of a better term), have to bridge both language barriers and national contexts.

Bring on the machines

In this context, machine-aided translations starts looking pretty useful. Most Eurobloggers I know use Google Translate to quickly get an idea of what any given blog post is about, but this is the tip of the iceberg.

Google Translate is great, in that it exists and it’s free. Recently I’ve been discussing the state-of-the-art with researchers in this field, and the good news is that this is a field with a lot ahead of it: subject-specific translation engines which can be continuously ‘trained’ using human translations and proofreading feedback are now coming online as SaaS.

When combined with federated search and semantic tools, it’s enough to get your head spinning. Watch this space…

And as for Belgium?

Only a complete idiot would make a prediction, so here goes.

The Powers That Be will stitch together something, and then bicker for years over institutional reform.

Sound familiar?

Now, where’s that razor …


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  1. Mathew, I also grow a beard… But would suggest more practical ideas to solve the Belgian crisis, focused on what Belgium residents could achieve:

    You might like the main point:
    ‘Expats love Belgium: they chose it! ”

    And also, if not us, then at least our kids learning the national languages. Simple, but important.



  2. Agree with the ideas in your post. My kids go to Belgian schools, and I’d like to think that would have been the case had I been able to afford the elite schools anyway.

    What did you think of David Mekkaoui’s comment to your post regarding making Brussels a European district? This is a commonplace in federal countries (Washington, DC; Canberra, ACT …), and would enable Brussels’ residents – Belgian natives and expats – to take their city’s destiny into their own hands. The chances of Flanders allowing it, however, seem slim to say the least.

  3. I think the voting issue you raise is the biggest problem. Politicians have no vested interest in represnting the whole country and all of its citizens and will calculate the impact of any potential compromise on the ballot box.

    It is ironic that in a country where people are legally obliged to vote, elected representative are not legally obliged to form a government.

  4. Yep, the regionalisation of the political parties made today’s impasse inevitable, where regionally-elected politicians, representing primarily language-based communities, have to form a federal government.

    Without country-wide political parties, you won’t have country-wide political debates, or a country-wide polity. So you get back-room stitch-ups at best, rather than proper democratic processes.

    The parallels with the EU are clear. How many people voting in European elections actually feel they are part of a European polity, engaged in a European debate?

  5. @Raimo: I have temporarily suspended your comment regarding Sweden and Nazi Germany. I’ll republish it if you can explain why on earth it is relevant to this post…

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