There is an old right-wing prejudice in Britain that Belgium does not exist. In Margaret Thatcher's day, Downing Street officials would say so privately – but they at least had the common sense not to repeat such comments when in Belgium.
No such sense of decorum has inhibited Nigel Farage, a UK Independence Party MEP and former leader of the party, who has detonated a diplomatic row by telling the Belgians that they live in a "non-country" during a tirade directed at the Belgian-born EU President Herman van Rompuy.
Mr Farage is well-known for his outbursts against the EU. But he exceeded even his usual standard of bluntness on Wednesday when he told a visibly shocked Mr van Rompuy that he had the charisma of a "damp rag" and the looks of a "low-grade bank clerk".
Over boos Mr Farage added: "I have no doubt that it is your intention to be the quiet assassin of European democracy and of the European nation states. You appear to have a loathing for the very concept of the existence of nation states; perhaps that is because you come from Belgium, which of course is pretty much a non-country."
His comments provoked a letter of complaint from Belgium's Prime Minister, Yves Leterme, to the president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek. "As a Belgian politician, I must react against this damaging intervention... and the impolite comments about Belgium," Mr Leterme protested. He called on Mr Buzek to end "these kinds of incidents" in a bid to protect "the interests of my citizens, which cannot be underestimated".
Ivo Belet, a Belgian Christian Democrat MEP, added: "His comments on Belgium are beyond the pale, especially given how much he seems to enjoy his Brussels life and its restaurants. He's been here for many years so it can't be so bad."
Mr Farage, who is standing in Buckingham against the Speaker, John Bercow, at the general election, has been summoned to see Mr Buzek on Tuesday, when he could face disciplinary action. Mr Buzek's spokeswoman said: "The president would like to see vivid political debate but he will not tolerate that this chamber is disrespected, that people in it are personally insulted or comments about anyone's personal appearance."
The view that Belgium is a "non-country" is taken seriously by Eurosceptics both in UKIP and on the right wing of the Conservative Party. They argue that there is no Belgian nation but only separate groups of French speakers and Dutch speakers living in an artificial kingdom who do not have the same patriotic objections that the British would have to seeing their country absorbed in an EU superstate.
Hergé et al: Famous Belgians
Leo Baekeland (1863 –1944) Chemist who invented Bakelite.
Jean-Claude Van Damme (1960-present) Action movie star.
Georges Remi, aka Hergé (1907–83) Cartoonist. His politics were suspect but his creation, Tintin, lives on.
Léopold-Louis-Philippe-Marie-Victor (1835–1909) Belgian king whose plundering of the Congo inspired Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, which in turn inspired the film Apocalypse Now.
René Magritte (1898–1967) Surrealist painter.
Eddy Merckx (1945–date) Cyclist.
Jean 'Django' Reinhardt (1910–53) Guitarist who, with violinist Stéphane Grappelli, was an early star of jazz.
Adolphe Sax (1814–1894) Designer of world's first saxophone.
Georges Simenon (1903-89) One of the world's most prolific authors, His 500-plus books include the Maigret detective novels.
Jacques Brel (1929–78) Singer-songwriter who has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide.
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