Belgitude: the art of Belgian Zen
A LLOWING A SOLDIER to go absent is a misfortune. Allow a soldier to leave absent armed with stolen machine guns, four rocket launchers and a promise to “join the resistance” and kill Belgium’s top virologist looks like negligence. The story of Jurgen Conings, a 46-year-old army sniper who disappeared in May, has hijacked Belgium. A month-long manhunt featuring special forces from five countries, drones and sniffer dogs came to nothing. Instead, Mr Conings’ body was found on June 20 by a local mayor. He was mountain biking nearby and noticed a smell.
Things are happening in Belgium. From the outside it is a gray country famous for French fries, Magritte, chocolate and as the home of the EU—A project whose whole philosophy makes European history a boring process rather than a bloody war. From the inside, it’s chaos, to the point that a tooled anti-containment terrorist nicknamed “Belgian Rambo” wandering in the woods seems normal.
It is, after all, a country where someone sabotaged a nuclear power plant in 2014, without making too much noise. A reputation for police laxity and arms smuggling has made it a perfect hub for Islamist terrorists, who killed dozens of people between 2015 and 2016 in Belgium and France. This traumatized French society, but less marked Belgium. Sometimes the mess is just fun – trains are delayed because of a fire at a waffle factory, for example. Or when the authorities blamed the destruction of the plans for the Brussels tunnel system on hungry (and indiscriminate) mice. Surviving in Belgium requires a certain state of mind. Call it Belgian Zen: an ability to cope with a lifestyle that is sometimes disturbing, sometimes wonderful, but always strange.
Belgian Zen begins by being comfortable in absurd situations. On social media, groups supporting Conings have arisen, hailing the terrorist as an anti-lockdown hero. Marc Van Ranst, the virologist Conings threatened to kill, joined one in liquidating people supporting the idea of his murder. (“I thought I was coming… to see what creativity is bubbling up here,” Mr Van Ranst wrote.) It’s a noble Belgian tradition. Paul Vanden Boeynants, a butcher who became Belgian Prime Minister and later convicted of fraud, was kidnapped by a gang of self-proclaimed socialist revolutionaries in 1989. After a month of disappearance, he appeared in a bizarre joke-strewn press conference that little clarified. Excerpts from it were then turned into a hit single by the Brussels Sound Revolution.
Ironic detachment is a form of self-defense. Belgium has been under attack since it existed. Expats arrive, write rude things about their hosts, then leave. During a brief stay, Karl Marx described Belgium as “a cozy and well-covered little paradise of the owner, the capitalist and the priest”. Charles Baudelaire, a French writer, spent the last years of his life in Brussels and planned a book on how he hated the city (“Capital of the monkeys”), the country (“little ragoutant crybaby”) and its inhabitants (” extraordinarily mindless, surprisingly stubborn. ”) Writers in exile have been replaced by EU-wallahs who complain about life in a country with 200 rainy days a year. Those outside the Belgian tax bubble of international organizations laugh at a government that takes more than half of the income of its citizens. The constant Belgium-bashing is met by a defensive crouch.
Belgian Zen is also necessary for domestic reasons. Disorder can dominate everyday life. While other countries suffer from a “computer says no” attitude, Belgium has artisan bureaucrats, who can make obstacles appear or disappear as they please. No two interactions with a Belgian official are identical. In this way, excess bureaucracy leads to anarchy rather than compliance, points out David Helbich, the artist behind Belgian Solutions, a bestselling book about the haphazard solutions that dot the country. The book, in its sixth edition, takes readers through the strange compromises of Belgian design, which has led to bollards in the middle of cycle paths and left Brussels as perhaps the only European capital with a urinal on its side. ‘a church.
Understanding Belgian politics requires a metaphysical look. Belgium is an experiment in quantum governance, with the State both everywhere and nowhere. This country of 11 million inhabitants has a nest of parliaments: a federal one, one for each of its three regions, as well as for the French, Dutch and German-speaking communities. Government is duplicated rather than strengthened by levels of public spending which are among the highest in the world. EU. In Belgium, the responsibility is shared between so many layers that in the end no one is responsible.
What is dead can never die
The country is therefore remarkably sustainable. He survived happily without a federal government for up to two years at a time. In Flanders, secessionist parties like Vlaams Belang, the far-right formation supported by Conings, garner nearly half of the votes. In some ways, secession has already taken place. From cradle to grave, the lives of Belgium’s divided communities barely overlap, with different schools, media, languages and lifestyles. Its international borders are almost invisible, but its internal borders are inescapable, as Tony Judt, a historian, pointed out. Secession would be simple, but unnecessary. Belgium offers a lesson in stability through chaos. Even his disappearance would be serene. It is the most prosperous failed state in the world.
Belgian Zen is possible thanks to this strange success. The Belgians are almost as rich as the Germans and better off than the British or the French. Their health care is excellent. The property is inexpensive; wages are high. A Belgian life is, on average, long and prosperous. Under such circumstances, a heavily armed soldier wandering the woods can be swept away by dark jokes. Part of it is luck. Belgian authorities were concerned enough to put Conings on a watch list, but he was still able to disappear with enough weapons for a massacre. In the end, this was just another odd chapter in a rather odd book. As long as Belgium avoids the real tragedy, nothing will disturb Belgian Zen. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the paper edition under the title “Belgitude: the art of Belgian zen”