Quintessential Europeans

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 November, 1995, 12:00am

BELGIANS pride themselves on their individuality. They are not French, although a third of the population speaks that language as mother tongue.

They are definitely not Dutch, although the Flemish tongue of the majority is part of that language; they opted out of Holland 165 years ago.

They are certainly not Germans, despite having a small but significant German community. They are bordered by all these nations, as well as Luxembourg with which they have the happiest of relations.

They are, says Consul-General Piet Steel, the quintessential Europeans. Belgium was one of the six founding members of the European Economic Community, as it was then. It has always been at the very heart of Europe, culturally, industrially and politically.

The European Community headquarters are in Brussels, as is the nerve centre of NATO.

'Belgium is a nation of cities,' explained the diplomat who has represented his nation in Hong Kong for two years.

The region that is now his nation developed through the medieval era as a city-studded plain.

People thought of themselves not as Dutch or French or Spanish, although ruled at times by all, but as men of Liege or Ostend or Brugge.

Piet Steel is a typical example.

'I come from Ghent, I am a Fleming, I am a Belgian and I am a European,' he said. 'I am happy with all these identities.' His country's history is one of proud, autonomous city states, many of them dealing skilfully with large, powerful and often greedy neighbours.

This is a trait that has its roots in the Belgae tribe who settled the low, swampy plains about 200 BC.

Located directly in the path of any invader who wished to dominate northern Europe, the country was invaded regularly.

The Roman legions tramped through the land in 50 BC and the Germanic Franks came three centuries later.

Neighbouring nations staked claims and, during the era when Flemish painters were the envy of the world, Spain ruled.

Cities flourished amid these periods of changing political tides and trade and art, manufacturing and culture prospered, no matter which great power invaded, threatened or ruled.

In 1794, Napoleon snatched Belgium and added it to France.

It was in these new domains, at the village of Waterloo, a gallop from Brussels, that the great dictator met his military and political demise in 1815. The country was promptly made part of neighbouring Holland.

Those individualistic lowlanders did not want to be part of the Netherlands, either. Revolt came in 1830 when independent Belgium was created.

It was still at the strategic centre of Europe, German armies invaded and occupied the country in 1914 and 1940.

The 650-strong Belgians in Hong Kong are often an invisible expatriate community; many other Westerners overlook them and most Chinese tend to lump them together with other Europeans.

Belgians view this with quiet amusement. These sophisticated bankers, industrialists and traders have a well-balanced sense of identity as part of the future of Europe.