Belgium's Place in Europe: The Crossroads



IT has often been said — and I think rightly — that Belgium is the crossroads of Europe. Her capital, Brussels, is roughly equidistant from Paris, London, Bonn, and The Hague. Bounded on the south by France, on the east by Germany, and on the north by Holland, Belgium is separated from Great Britain by an arm of the sea which ships cross in a few hours, planes in a few minutes. Geographically, Belgium is undoubtedly a crossroads.

Historically, there is probably no country which has so often been invaded and occupied, which has so often been dominated by foreign powers. The Romans of antiquity subjugated her courageous tribes, “the bravest,” according to Caesar, “upon Gallic soil.” Thereafter, in modern and contemporary times, the Spanish, the Austrians, the French, and the Duth have successively occupied Belgium, not to forget the Germans, who made themselves at home there during the two World Wars. Alone among her neighbors, the English respected Belgium’s independence; moreover, they defended her many times. It must be admitted that, as Palmerston put it, “Antwerp is a pistol aimed at the heart of England”; thus it has always been a part of British policy that the pistol must not be left in the hands of a great power.

Belgium has spent much of her life in revolt against her temporary masters. The Belgians disliked the Spanish, chased out the Austrians, tolerated the French, separated themselves from the Dutch, and courageously resisted the troops of Wilhelm II and of Hitler. But such events, such a long and varied history of occupation, leave deep impressions. At Antwerp, for instance, one sees men and women — very handsome too — whose features suggest the intimate relations which our great-grandmothers enjoyed with the Spanish. Liege considers itself a typically French city; and the Flemings — which is to say more than half the population of Belgium. — feel themselves to be close cousins, brothers almost, to the Dutch.

These endless, secular struggles against foreign occupation have developed in the Belgians both a deep love of liberty—they will not stand oppression— and also, perhaps, a spirit of independence from all authority, even the legitimate authority of the present government. In Belgium, love of country is very marked. Civic-mindedness, respect for law, is less so. In the course of history Belgium has so often deliberately violated the decrees and ordinances of foreign powers that the national government today experiences certain difficulties in trying to apply its own rules.

It is evident that their history has made the Belgians extremely receptive to exterior influences. Their ordeals have not only enriched their understanding but quickened it with regard to their neighbors. They admire the diligence of the Germans, the commercial sense of the Dutch, and the good taste and logic of the French. From the confluence of currents which has formed them, the Belgians have ultimately developed a type which is highly characteristic, quite versatile, and, all in all, worthy of respect. Belgium is also a crossroads in the psychological sense, a meeting place of different cultures, an exchange not only for merchandise but for ideas. All this has prepared Belgium well for her role in postwar Europe, a Europe striving for a closer unity.

Directly after World War II had ended, the “Belgian miracle" took place. While France, Great Britain, the Low Countries, and Germany were caught in an alarming economic crisis and were struggling to overcome their difficulties, Belgium rose from her ruins with a really amazing rapidity. Though she was deprived of her king, then a prisoner in Germany, her governmental machinery began immediately to function again. A regent, Prince Charles, was named; Parliament was reconvened; a government was formed which was composed of the men who had represented Belgium in London during the war and of those who had led or inspired the Resistance. Political life was resumed without a hitch.

Belgium was able to profit from several especially fortunate circumstances. Having been liberated in a few days, she did not suffer any new destruction in September, 1944. The fleeing Germans did not have time to destroy her industrial plants. Antwerp, her great port — which would be for some months the great port of the Allies—was almost intact when liberated.

On this base, an intelligent and realistic policy was to be conducted. With great courage and total indifference to unpopularity, the Minister of Finance, M. Gutt, took drastic measures for financial rehabilitation, killed a threatened inflation, and provided the basis for a sound currency, so that the Belgian franc became “the dollar of Europe.”

This successful start was made good by two unlooked-for events. In London, the Belgian government had signed an agreement with the governments of England and America, by which it would advance in Belgian francs the pay of those English and American soldiers and officers who were 1o live in Belgium. It would then be reimbursed in pounds and dollars.

It was generally felt that this would be an operation of short duration and slight importance. No one had taken into account the possibility that the war might last for months after the liberation of Belgium. From September, 1944, to May, 1945 — eight months — Belgium constituted a base for the Allied armies, maintaining hundreds of thousands of men; and after the German capitulation, Belgium remained an important line of communication and a rest center. The operation arranged in London thus proved to be extremely important, and created for Belgium an abundant reserve of pounds sterling and dollars.

At the same time the Belgians made a Lend-Lease agreement with the United States government. Strictly interpreted, this agreement would have obligated Belgium to furnish her goods and services free. The Americans showed themselves to be understanding and generous. Recognizing that once again reality ran counter to theory, they paid in dollars for a very large part of the goods which were delivered to them.

Thus a liberated Belgium, her currency once again sound, found herself possessed of the means to replenish her food supply and her stock of raw materials. She took advantage of this opportunity to erase most of the traces of the war. It may be said to her credit that she was not selfish; she did not seek to isolate herself in her privileged situation but, on the contrary, helped those who were less fortunate. In Western Europe, the idea that some countries can live in wealth and prosperity while others struggle through economic and social crises has become obsolete. The solidarity of the countries of Western Europe is obvious today. They must resolve their problems together, or together they will perish. It is safe to say that the great majority of the Belgian people is now fully convinced of this truth.


DURING World War II the governments-in-exile of Belgium, the Low Countries, and Luxembourg planned that after the liberation their countries would join together in an economic union. Thus was created what is now called Benelux, an economic bloc of nearly 20 million inhabitants, whose high industrial and agricultural productivity, whose place in international commerce, and whose geographic situation constitute an integral and important element in Europe’s strength.

Once repatriated, the three governments pursued the policy outlined in London. They began by suppressing all customs duties at their common frontiers, and agreed to set a single tariff for all three countries. This was a great step and a daring one; even so, it was soon proved insufficient. It shortly became evident that to suppress customs duties was not enough, and that in the resulting single market all kinds of economic, social, financial, and monetary problems could arise.

The Benelux arrangement permits a greatly Increased exchange of goods between the three countries, and is therefore an unquestionable success, but this success was only attained through a series of crises which showed the supporters of the policy that they must not only become more closely integrated than they had foreseen, but must also include other countries. Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg consequently gave their early and enthusiastic support to all the economic experiments whose goal was to consolidate the countries of Europe. From its beginning, they were members of the O.E.E.C. (Organization for European Economic Cooperation) and agreed to all its measures for commercial and monetary exchange. Belgium upheld this policy to the point where she was at times creditor to other European nations for the sum of over 20 billion francs — a sum so great that her aid to other countries was proportionately equal to that, of the United States.

Furthering this policy, Belgium supported the Schuman Plan. She is a vital member of the European Coal and Steel Community. Thus she participates in the first great practical experiment in the economic integration of Europe. For six countries— France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Luxembourg, and Belgium — representing over 150 million inhabitants, and for two essential products — coal and steel — there are no frontiers, no customs duties, no fixed quotas, no discriminatory measures. There is, on the contrary, a single great, market.

The experiment is only beginning. It is not easy, but no one expected it to be. It has already produced its first results. Reciprocal exchanges of coal and steel among the six countries have increased considerably. The necessity of recourse to American coal has been reduced by 40 per cent. The saving in dollars (a crucial problem for Europe) is significant.

Belgians in all walks of life are sympathetic to the idea of a united Europe - labor as well as management, Liberals as well as Socialists. Only the few Communists, for motives easily understood, are formally opposed to it.

In addition to economic integration Belgium has also played her part in the field of politics and more especially in that of defense. In 1948, when the Communist coup d’etat in Prague ended so many illusions, and when international politics underwent its great change, Belgium signed the Treaty of Brussels in which she agreed to pool her forces, in the event of aggression, with those of France, Britain, and the two other Benelux countries. A year later, the treaty was implemented by the North Atlantic Treaty and the military organizations of NATO and SHAPE.

After the outbreak of fighting in Korea, the grave question was raised of Germany’s participation in the defense of the West, and the Belgian government rallied to the idea of the European Defense Community. The treaty establishing E.D.C. has just been ratified by the Belgian Lower Chamber, and no doubt the Senate will soon follow. Thus Belgium has taken another decisive step on the road of European collaboration, a road she has followed continuously since World War II.

Translated by E. S. Yntema