A nation of cynics

letter from a low country
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Belgium," the hotelier said, "is the most corrupt country in the Europe." I wasn't surprised. I had got used to hearing such things, Belgians suffer from self-esteem so low that Canadians seem swaggeringly confident by comparison. Even Flemings who trumpet the glory of Flanders become oddly unnerved when you join in the praise. "Really?" they say. "You think so? But England has so many fine things. We Flemish have no writer to compare with Shakespeare, and, of course, you have the Lake District, Turner, Dickens, the garden county of Kent..."

Nevertheless, I felt politeness required some kind of protest. "No, no," the hotelier continued over my half-hearted murmuring, "it is true. Here, the white economy and black economy are so well established, people have two bank accounts, one for declared and one for undeclared earnings. In other countries, the tax authorities calculate what you owe on what you say you earn. Here, the tax authorities base their assessment on your lifestyle."

I laughed and asked how such a system could work. After all, people spend their money differently. Such a system would penalise the spendthrift and reward the hoarder. "It can only work in Belgium," he said, "because everyone is obsessed with how they look to other people. If it is a choice between putting food on the table and a new set of curtains, a Belgian will choose the curtains."

In a country which organises its day so thoroughly around meal times, and where it is a surprise not to see the opening hours of museums listed as "From quarter to coffee and macaroon to half past waffle and chocolate sauce", I found this rather hard to believe, but the hotelier had got his momentum up and there was no stopping him.

"Once a month in our town," he said, "the council collect large domestic refuse. People put all the bigger things (furniture, bathroom fittings and the like) they no longer want out on the pavement beside their houses and a lorry comes and picks it up. On the morning of this day, no matter if it is freezing cold, pouring with rain, or there is a tornado, everyone in the town will be out and about, so they can inspect what the neighbours are disposing of. I am sure," the hotelier said, "people put new things out just to impress the people next door."

The provocation for the hotelier's outburst was a radio report on the findings of the Belgian Government Commission investigating the Dutroux killings. I had asked what the commission had found, and he had said wearily, "nothing, of course". Then he had begun his assessment of his country's failings.

To an outsider, it is sometimes hard to see the connection between the grisly paedophile activity of Dutroux and political graft. But in Belgium corruption is rife and nothing appears motiveless. Everything can be explained by money.

Life for the average Belgian is pretty good. The education system is excellent, the crime rate is low, food is superb, there are smart things in the shops. Then children started to disappear. You see blurred, photocopied images of the missing in the windows of houses all across the country. Paralysed by a mixture of incompetence, disorganisation, arrogance and, most Belgians continue to believe, something more sinister, the Belgian authorities seemed incapable of doing anything to stop it. For the first time, people became agitated with the system. The White March in Brussels last October was seen by many as a turning point, the moment when the Belgians finally looked beyond the comfort of their own lives and decided to change things. Not every one agrees.

A local councillor I spoke to on the day the Dutroux commission delivered its final report said, "The trouble is, you have millions marching, but only about 10 per cent know what they are marching for. In our local school, the teachers and pupils went on strike for a day in honour, they said, of the dead children. At 3pm, I went through the square and there are the teachers sitting outside a cafe drinking beer," she smiled, "in honour of the dead children."

You might think from this that the councillor was some kind of embittered political bruiser. In fact, she was in her thirties and a member of the Flemish Green Party. In Belgium, political cynicism is so widespread even idealists are infected by it.

"The trouble here," the hotelier said, "is that everyone blames everyone else. Since the Dutroux business, all the time I hear people saying: `Arrest these politicians, round up these businessmen. They are rotten, they are corrupt'. But the same people who say that, two minutes later are boasting about how they fiddled some VAT, or dodged paying all their tax. It has become a national trait to blame the people in power for everything that is wrong, but sometimes the fault lies with all of us."

When I reported this to the Green Party councillor, she nodded. "Belgium was occupied for centuries," she said. "So people came to see government as something imposed on them. Belgians always laugh at the Dutch because the Dutch do what the government tells them. What Belgians have not come to terms with is that, in a democracy, you get the politicians you deserve." She laughed drily. "And just look at our politicians"

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