In this short essay, I intend to demonstrate that not all is lost in Europe for the cause of reason and independent thinking on matters of war and peace, life and death, even if in the United States elites of all kinds have succumbed to mind-numbing conformism and adulation of global hegemony.
To be specific, I am saying that French-speaking Belgian social and business elites are at odds with Belgian political elites over the course of foreign policy. What remains to be seen is how this divergence of views may play out in the forthcoming Belgian and European elections of May 2019 as these various elites compete for votes amidst the full blast of rampant populism.
Will the French-speaking social and business elites find allies in the non-Establishment, i.e. non-centrist parties and so throw out incumbents and bring in new policies with the help of the Street? Or will the politicians in power outmaneuver both the Street and the social-business elites in Brussels and Wallonia to smother debate with the help of mainstream media, thereby staying in control of policies that are leading us to war on the Old Continent?
Apart from the rare breaking of ranks with the USA over George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, for which the then Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt paid dearly by the quashing of his European level political ambitions, Belgium’s foreign policy has for more than 70 years been staunchly and unquestioningly pro-American. And how could that official policy be otherwise in the country that is home to NATO and to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)?
However, for well-grounded reasons which they are not hesitant to share, the French-speaking Belgian social and business elites reject the way ‘alliance’ has meant a slavish “yes” by which the Belgian federal government makes no pretense at sovereignty but accedes to every Diktat from Washington. Nowhere is the rejection of official policy more evident than in the question of how relations with Russia are being conducted.
Put simply, the social and business elites view Putin’s Russia as an inescapable geopolitical factor on the European continent which must be accommodated in a common security architecture and not baited, subjected to unilateral economic sanctions and challenged militarily at its borders, as is presently the case. They believe in the salutary effect of mutual trade, mutual cultural and other exchange between Europe and Russia, living as we all do in close proximity and having critical interdependencies.
Unlike Americans, Belgians tend to have a long memory. Russia has been part of their historical consciousness ever since Peter the Great opened his Window to the West by moving his capital from Moscow in the Russian heartland to the shores of the Gulf of Finland, and even earlier, when he first visited the towns of Liege and Spa in what is now called Belgium during his grand European voyage in the spring of 1717. The tricentenary of that visit was duly celebrated in festivities sponsored by the Spa mineral water bottlers, one of whose springs is named for the Russian tsar.
Thus, from the early eighteenth century, Russia was seen in these lands as a Great Power which participated actively in the fateful historical events that gave rise to modern day Europe including the Napoleonic wars, World Wars I and II. In both world wars, Russia fought on the same side as the peoples of Belgium.
Of course that perception of Russia in Belgium turned darkly negative following the Revolution of 1917 when Belgian industrialists lost a major market for their tramways and other engineered products, when bondholders of Russian imperial securities lost their capital and when this little country took in a large contingent of White Russian refugees including tsarist generals and scions of the great noble families of the Empire. We may assume that during WWII, Belgians followed with interest and sympathy the Red Army’s struggle against Nazi Germany even if the country was finally liberated by American and not Russian soldiers. After WWII, the onset of the Cold War reignited antipathy here to the Kremlin.
Belgian views of the big neighbor to the East changed once again, in a very positive direction, after the collapse of Communism and the rise of the Russian Federation as successor state with democratic aspirations and mixed market economy. With skepticism at first, then with growing enthusiasm, the local Russian diaspora also joined in this new appreciation of possibilities for cooperation with Moscow. Consequently, Belgian social and political elites, including the core of Belgians with Russian family roots, have been highly critical of the American led efforts to demonize Putin and Russia in the new millennium. Given their frustration with the often parlous state of political life in their own country, over family dynasties in power, the Belgian business and social elites take with a grain of salt all of American ranting about authoritarianism in Russia.
What are my sources of information supporting my generalizations about the current split in elite thinking here over foreign policy and in particular over policy towards Putin’s Russia? They are the conversations I had with numerous business people, retired diplomats, persons close to the monarchy and society personalities at a special Russia-themed gala dinner held in the most prestigious gentlemen’s club of French-speaking Belgium on 7 January 2018 and once again last Friday, 11 January 2019. The black tie event was timed to fall between the celebration of Russian Christmas and New Year’s according to the Julian calendar observed by the Orthodox Church. The host club’s name includes the designation “royal” which nails down its claims to national relevance in Belgium.
A year ago, I published detailed notes of what I heard at the Russian soirée in an article entitled “Celebrating Russian Christmas in Brussels. High Politics and High Society Meet in the Grand Dining Room.” I will not repeat myself here, but urge the reader to consult the article by following the link https://wordpress.com/post/gilbertdoctorow.com/274
Taking a step backward, I now wish to explain the point set out at the very beginning when I mentioned the “Street,” meaning the broad electorate, as the force to be won over to otherwise marginal parties by those parties’ possibly espousing the views of the business and social elites in favor of a foreign policy of Peace as opposed to War. On what basis, you may ask, do I believe that the Street could pay attention to such an appeal and cast its vote accordingly?
Here I rely on my nose to the wind. In decades of daily life in Belgium, I have yet to find someone in the working classes who trusted the good intentions and competence of our federal government or of the mass media. Specifically as regards Russia, the thinking of ordinary folks has been remarkably consistent, whether my interlocutor has been a French speaker or a Fleming.
When I get back to Brussels from one of my periodic trips to Russia, I may mention where I have been to my postman or to the owner of the little convenience shop on the corner, among other occasional contacts. Their consistent response is “Putin,” thumbs up. Unlike friends and acquaintances in the middle classes, and still more in the academic community, I have never once encountered a Russophobe among the Street.
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The reader will note that I opened this essay by precisely identifying “French-speaking business and social elites” whom I take to represent the 40% of the country’s population living in Brussels and Wallonia, two of the country’s three regions. I focus attention on these French-speaking elites because they are the ones with whom I am in direct contact and about whom I have specific personal experience that constitutes the raw inputs for this essay.
As regards, the 60% of the country’s population in Flanders, the third Belgian region, I do have personal contact coming from occasional exchange of views with Flemish businessmen in the Belgian-Luxemburg Chamber of Commerce for Russia. However, my interlocutors there are usually middle management people who do not pay close attention to politics or are afraid to express independent views at odds with the government. And so I draw my conclusions on Flanders by triangulation, based on what their politicians are saying and doing rather than on what is going on in society. In this domain, there was one outstanding case of disagreement with the foreign policy of the federal government that merits attention.
One year ago, ahead of the planned visit of the Belgian Prime Minister to Moscow, a leader of the Extreme Right, nationalist Vlaams Belang (The Flemish Interest) party, Filip Dewinter, introduced a resolution into the Belgian parliament calling for the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions. The resolution urged the Government to petition the European Parliament in this matter.
Upon reading about this unusual initiative, I placed a phone call to Dewinter to better understand who he was and what he hoped to achieve. Whereas his party is condemned by mainstream Belgian politicians for its pursuit of Flemish independence and for what are called xenophobic policy orientations, by his remarks in this telephone interview Dewinter impressed me as a sophisticated internationalist with a good grounding in business who stood opposed to the economic hardship inflicted on Flemish farmers and industry by the EU sanctions against Russia and the Russian counter-sanctions they elicited.
In the same period, I reached out to the leadership of the largest Flemish political party, the N-VA (New Flemish Alliance) to enquire whether they would support Dewinter’s resolution in parliament. N-VA chief Bart de Wever did not respond to my enquiry, nor did his party take any action whatsoever in support of the call to lift sanctions, so that it failed to gain any traction in the parliament.
I assume that this outcome followed from the N-VA’s participation in the ruling coalition government, where it had control of several ministerial portfolios but not of the Foreign Ministry, where the centrist Francophone Didier Reynders of the Mouvement Reformateur (MR) party had, since coming into office in 2012, pursued a “go with the flow” policy of backing each and every directive coming from Washington.
Be that as it may, De Wever made his own demonstrative statement in favor of good commercial and other ties with Russia when in April of this year he took a large delegation of businessmen from his home base of Antwerp, where he is mayor, on a trip to St Petersburg and Moscow. A press release issued at the time by the Port of Antwerp, explained that the aim of the mission was: “to consolidate and expand the close trade relations between Russia and Antwerp and its seaport. Russia has indeed been one of the most important trading partners for decades.”
Now that the N-VA has pulled out of the ruling coalition with the Francophone centrists, bringing down the government of Charles Michel, and setting the way for new parliamentary elections in May 2019 , it will be interesting to see if they present to their voters a less America-centered and more Belgium centered foreign policy platform.
In conclusion, I believe there are interesting developments afoot in Belgian politics as we enter the 2019 electoral campaign. Commentators across the political spectrum are speaking about the rise of populism and euro-skepticism. On the Left of our politics, judging by the results of the nationwide local government (communal) elections last autumn, populism seems to spell the rise of The Greens, an environmental, alternative political force that has no clear foreign policy. On the Right of our politics, it remains to be seen if the alternative parties of the Extreme Right will have the vision and the ability to take to voters the foreign policy views of the social and business elites and thereby capture for themselves a wholly new portion of the electorate.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018