The King May Have Saved Belgium

WILLIAM PFAFF

August 12, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--I met the late King Baudouin of Belgium one evening in the spring of 1955, in stifling heat, on a riverboat off Stanleyville, in what then was the Belgian Congo. He was slight, shy, inarticulate, midway through a personal trial that was to prove decisive for his reign as well as for the monarchy and possibly for Belgium itself.

His trip to the Congo was his first major undertaking as king. It was looked upon as a test of his capacity to deal with the crucial pomposities of royal visits, with their demand for tactful reassurance to the unregenerate colonialists, liberal reformists and demanders of immediate decolonization among the Belgian community and Congolese elite.

The trip presaged tragedy for the Congo (now Zaire). Five years later Baudouin presided over its independence, from which it has never recovered.

However, at home, Baudouin's Congo voyage was a great success. His subsequent reign over a Belgium reduced to European proportions and committed to the European Community was a major force in keeping the country united.

It displayed qualities of being extremely discreet, devotedly Catholic and committed to unexpected charities and interventions on behalf of the excluded.

The king's funeral mass, Saturday, included tributes to his actions on behalf of immigrants and AIDS victims, and the moving testimony of a Filipina prostitute who had appealed to him against the trade that brings Asian women to Europe as maids and puts them into massage parlors and escort agencies.

Baudouin's reign restored the standing of the monarchy, the principal institution of unity in a divided country. His father, Leopold III, had been forced to abdicate.

Leopold had surrendered Belgium unconditionally to the Germans in May 1940, remaining in Belgium while the government went to London to carry on the resistance. Although a commission of inquiry declared Leopold innocent of collaboration, a referendum in 1950 showed only 58 percent of Belgians in favor of his return.

He came back. Strikes, public disorder and the refusal of the Socialist Party to recognize his authority compelled him to delegate his powers to Baudouin, then 20 years old, and to abdicate a year later.

The monarchy was left in question. The country was increasingly divided not only on conventional political lines but by the hostility of the newly prosperous Dutch-speaking Flemings against the French-speaking Walloons, who had dominated the economy and politics.

This mutual hostility between the two communities has seemed close to putting an end to Belgium. Baudouin died a few weeks after the passage of legislation to make Belgium a federal state, which many think will shortly lead to separate Walloon and Flemish states.

There is a small German-speaking minority as well. The new king, Albert II, younger brother of Baudouin, took his oath on Monday in three languages.

Baudouin's funeral proved a momentous political phenomenon because it contradicted this idea that the Belgians want Belgium ended. It raised the question whether Belgium's political class has become separated from fundamental popular opinion.

The enormous public tribute to Baudouin has generally been taken as a plebiscite in favor of unity.

In the days leading up to the funeral, a tenth of the population of Belgium stood patiently in line -- at times for 10 to 12 hours -- to file by Baudouin's coffin. On Saturday, more than three million of the 10 million Belgians were in Brussels for the funeral ceremonies.

The Belgian state is one more that suffers from its history. It came into existence in 1831 after centuries of foreign domination that created the hostility to central government that has marked it ever since.

A Louvain University sociologist, Jan Kerkhofs, has periodically carried out surveys of the values of Belgians and other Europeans. He discovered something he found surprising. Despite the linguistic and regional conflict that has dominated politics, a Belgian consensus exists on fundamental values, shared with neither the Dutch nor the French. Flemings and Walloons are closer in their value judgments than Flemings with Dutch or Walloons with the French.

This fundamental unity is what the extraordinary popular response to Baudouin's funeral demonstrated and is in some measure his achievement. Belgium's future rests on that.

But it may be that more than Belgium is involved. A crucial precedent is being set.

If the Belgians cannot overcome their internal conflict, which today is about intrinsically minor issues, what realistic hope is there for rational political behavior in the Balkans? Or in Eastern and ex-Soviet Europe, where things to fight about are really serious? That question has never been more urgent.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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