Belgium – A Tale of Two Countries

We heard from two speakers today: Koert Debeuf, a speechwriter for the prime minister and member of the Flemish Liberal Party; and Nikolas Busse, a NATO and European Union correspondent for a German newspaper.

Both talked with us about Belgium politics and Europe’s future. Mr. Debeuf told us how complicated Belgium’s government is, divided by language (Flemish/French), then further divided into segmented parties. The ruling government is always a coalition, and the King has no power except to select the prime minister in times of political crisis. The prime minister must give his speeches in two, sometimes three, languages, alternating between Flemish and French, with a bit of German. (One section will be in one language, the next section in another.) Interestingly, sometimes the different portions of the speech are chosen to be in one language or another depending on whether the section resonates with the Flemish or Francophone population. Even more interesting, if the political leaders would prefer to gloss over an issue with their constituents, they’ll put that part of the prime minister’s speech in the other language.

Belium is the home of NATO and the European Union, which comprises 27 European countries. At dinner, Mr. Busse talked about his experience covering both organizations for his home audience, Germany. The EU faces many challenges, not the least of which is governance. The countries take turns chairing the EU, and it’s very slow and challenging to get all the nations to agree on issues.

We spent the afternoon touring Louven, a university town on the outskirts of Brussels. It was cold and rainy, but I loved seeing all the pedestrian-only, cobblestone streets lined with shops and restaurants.

One thing I’ve noticed about Brussels is that the buildings are only 5 or 6 stories tall for the most part. What they lack in height, they make up for in density, with all the buildings on a block smacked together. The result is high density but with a human scale.