Perched in the north-west comer of the continent, where the Scheldt, the Meuse and the Rhine flow through a common delta into the North Sea, an artery of intensive trade and a reserve of valuable sources of energy, Belgium lies in a centre of production and civilisation which is among the most powerful and the most brilliant of the present age. Indeed, it forms the hinge of highly industrial countries and in its territory it extends the field of influence of Latin and Germanic civilisations. Constituted and integrated in this way, participating in the life of one great whole and linked to it by a thousand channels, it is hardly surprising that it has a feeling of interdependence with its neighbours and that it realised long before they did the need for solidarity. Has it not suffered more than any other Western nation from European discord? Opposed to protectionism, as is any country which relies on trade, it is inclined for geographical, economic and human reasons to encourage communication among the countries of the Old World. Its vocation leads it to unite what has been disunited. It is well placed to do so. Is it not a crossroads of the West? The Brussels Grand-Place is at three hundred kilometres from London, Paris and the Ruhr in other words, from a nerve centre of the world. The capital of the Six is less far from London, Paris, Amsterdam, Cologne or Bale than these five cities are from each other. Is not Belgium at the heart of one of the world’s densest communications systems? Vast network in which its goods now circulate without hindrance from one point to another, the zone of the Six of the EEC absorbs the majority of its sales, and it is there that it buys the essential part of its requirements. The Common Market is its privileged field of action. Its leaders fear that it may cast anchor there too rapidly, and they would like it to look beyond the seas and across the oceans. But Belgium is still too deeply engaged in the building of Europe to think of moving away from it now. It is staking everything on Europe. Its statesmen were among the most ardent and constant of the Europeans. Through the Belgo-Luxembourg Economic Union, they blazed a trail towards the Europe of the Communities. Belgium has never been behindhand in making its contribution to the European structure. Brussels was capital of Europe in thought and hopes even before this particular Europe took shape.
A EUROPEAN VOCATION BELGIUM Photo Gallery
Henri Pirenne had glimpsed this historical truth. He develops it brilliantly in the preface to his monumental History of Belgium. In his eyes, it has all the clarity of an obvious fact. ‘ If there was too long a delay in recognising it, he explains, it was because the history of Belgium was treated, for an excessively long time, as though the world ended at our frontiers, and because one had not perceived this truth, which is yet so striking, that no people has undergone more continually and more deeply than our own the action of its neighbours, and that it is therefore necessary to seek the secret of our history outside Belgium and, in order to understand it, it must be studied in the light of that of the great countries surrounding us, for we must consider Belgium, divided ethnographically between the Latin race and the Germanic race, just as it is divided politically between France and Germany, as a ‘microcosm’ of Western Europe. Seen in this way, our history takes on its full significance and ceases to be an accumulation of events that are peculiar and of no consequence.’
In the concert, finally in harmony, of the European nations, Belgium intends to play the role which belongs to it and which excludes out of hand any claim to power: that of a mediator who hopes one day to become a federator. It knows that it will only succeed in this task, which is constantly called in question, if it masters by conciliation its own contradictions and if its internal structures coincide with the European goal.
The Congress Column seen from the administrative centre. Brussels town-hall at night.
SHOULDERS TO THE WHEEL
‘Belgium is first and foremost a source of energy’, it has been said. Guichardin, on a visit to the Low Countries, already had the impression of being in the midst of a beehive. Everyone busies himself here; even the idle are busy, or look as though they are. As this has lasted for generation after generation, during which time Belgium and the Belgians have been much talked of, the countryside has imperceptibly been transformed into a meticulously cultivated garden, and the towns have become surrounded by a double and treble industrial belt. Work is the only resource of a country that is poorly treated by Nature. Belgium lives, above all, by the production of goods, their distribution and the trade to which they give rise. The more it sells abroad, the more raw materials it has to import to feed a starving factory. The outside world supplies our plants and probably absorbs 50 % of their production, with this percentage exceeding 70 or even 80 and 90 in certain sectors.
Belgian energy has nothing abrupt about it. Composed of wit, seriousness and a kind of bubbling expenditure of physical effort, it is often allied to joviality of character. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Belgian works because he likes it. He is not different from the rest of mankind: like them, he is obliged to earn his living by the sweat of his brow. He expects work to provide him with that material satisfaction that ensures him of peace of mind and of the senses; he therefore wants work to be profitable. Hence, an innate taste for enterprise. Society is permanently in the throes of emulation, although less convulsive than competition on American lines. It is the soul of trade in which the Belgian excels: he likes to see who will earn most so as to enjoy the luxury of possessing most.
This competition among individuals develops certain gambling aptitudes: flair, keen mind, correct appreciation of risks. Quietly smiling like the agricultural landscape of Flanders, Brabant or the Hesbaye, the national energy quite naturally engenders optimism and its by-products:
Thieu cement works.
Ardennes nuclear power station at Chooz. Ingot-mould casting shop at Cockerill Seraing self-satisfaction, mental comfort and so on, whatever may be the subject to which it is applied and whatever may be the direction it takes. Here, there is only a chance of success in action if one hopes to succeed.
This is one of the keys to the national prosperity. Another is the realisation of concrete things. The Belgian, that grumbling, bantering, cunning citizen, has the sense and feeling of material realities; he distrusts ideas which he is never sure of possessing, but he is quite confident of his power over things.
That is Belgium. It has organised its agriculture in the light of the widest domestic consumption, it has oriented its industry towards foreign markets, so that the latter can offset very rapidly the damage caused by the upheavals of History or economic recessions. By the constant rejuvenation of its economic structures, it makes unrelenting efforts to remain in the forefront of progress. All this is the fruit of a determined application of human energies. Nothing is due to chance, because nothing is left to chance. Belgium has only itself to thank for the enviable standard of living which it enjoys without excessive shame or modesty.