Leading Article: Small country, not many celebrities

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The Independent Online
WHY DO we not like Belgium? Frequently over the past week it has seemed that the principal objection in Britain to the appointment of Jean-Luc Dehaene as president of the European Commission has been not his politics, nor even his wide girth, but, for some reason, his very Belgian-ness.

A mystery. It's not as if Belgium has been around that long (20 January 1831). We helped set it up. Leopold, its first king, was Victoria's uncle. A gently sloping low land, much contested. You will remember the Belgae featuring prominently in Latin unseen translations, usually unwisely defying Caesar; he was followed by, inter alios, the Spanish, the French and the Dutch. Life has not been easy. But Brussels is fine, and Bruges is very nice. Sprouts are unobjectionable unless overcooked, and putting mayonnaise on chips has proved a splendid idea. And Bruges is very nice.

So why the sneers? Why the truculently rhetorical demands to name Five Famous Belgians? Well, nominally, we went to war over Belgium in 1914, when the Kaiser famously dismissed the treaty protecting its neutrality as a 'scrap of paper'. Mons, Ypres and Passchendaele followed. But Plucky Little Belgium and the Belgians were admired for putting 'the kibosh on the Kaiser'. True, Leopold III displayed less pluck in 1940 when the Belgian army surrendered after 18 days, but he was not alone. And they have now apologised for refusing to supply us with ammunition during the Gulf war. It must be something else. Poor Little Belgium has become a cypher for all that is faceless and dull and bland and unBritish about Europe, which is quite unfair. Oh, very well, then, The Five: Simenon, Magritte, Herge, Hercule Poirot, and, of course, Mr Dehaene. And Bruges is very nice.