Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Fleming for EU president

The expected choice of Herman Van Rompuy as first-ever "EU president" would end his still-brief term as Belgian Prime Minister, a job he never wanted in the first place. It would also reward the Belgian state and the Flemish nation for their pioneering role in the story of Europe's unification.

Herman Van Rompuy, currently Prime Minister of Belgium, is rumoured to be the big EU countries' favourite choice as first-ever "EU president". He is known to be diplomatic, reasonable to the point of being pliable, to speak four languages fluently including French (a must for France, and an argument against Dutch candidate Jan-Peter Balkenende), and to be a leading member of Europe's leading political family, the Christian-Democrats. I would applaud his selection for the job.

With the capitalized "Van" (meaning "of", "from"), insiders will immediately recognize his name as Flemish: Frenchmen/Walloons would have "de" or "De", while Dutchmen would have the "van" with small v, which is disallowed in Belgium, on analogy of the similarly common prefix "de" ("the"), which if non-capitalized could be mistaken for the French nobility prefix "de". Unlike the numerous Walloons with Flemish names, indicating the post-Napoleonic Flemish ancestry that burdens one third of them, this one is a real Fleming. At least, he is from a Dutch-speaking family all while being Belgian, which is the definition of a Fleming, but his enthusiasm for the Flemish cause against Francophone dominance is lukewarm at best. In that respect, he is a real Belgian.

Flemish Christian-Democrats like him have always been inclined to compromise and half-heartedness, even proverbially so, and Herman even more than most. So, it would be quite misplaced to wave banners on account of anything achieved by or associated with him. But a moderate note of satisfaction would be appropriate on the hoped-for occasion of his promotion to the post of EU figurehead.

As a Fleming, I think it would be entirely right and just if a Fleming were to lead a long chain of future presidents of a glorious European Union. If George Washington's example is anything to go by, "Van Rompuy" may once outdo "Waterloo" as the best-known Flemish name. From its inception, the European Community, now Union, has never had more loyal supporters than us. We can also take credit for one of the EU's institutional multilinguism, one of its finest traits, though to outsiders one of its most incomprehensible (e.g. Kishore Mehboobani in a recent interview extolling the ASEAN's choice of English as its sole working language and lambasting the EU alternative). The story is as follows.

When the first six-nation European associations were founded in the fifties, a decision had to be made on their working language. Everybody expected it would be French, the official language of France, the dominant language of Belgium and also official language in Luxemburg. The Dutch in those days still still learned French in school, they couldn't think of a reason to object. Germany and Italy were so bruised from the war that they were in no position to take positions that might be considered nationalistic. There was no one left to object except the Flemish element in Belgium, a numerical majority but politically the underdog. When they proposed linguistic equality between the official languages of all the member states, no one could object to the holy principle of equality, so multilinguism carried the day.

As new members joined the Union, one after another their official languages gained the same status in the EU institutions. This led to an unwieldy translation bureaucracy, a small price to pay for upholding such a lofty principle. Jobs for the boys, om condition that they are bilingual in, say, Latvian-Maltese or Irish-Slovak. In practice, the use of the smaller languages is limited, but there is still a plurality French-German-English even for everyday working purposes. This fits the EU's guiding motto of "unity in diversity".

Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, we can now say that the French, or the Francophones, missed the opportunity of a lifetime when they gave in to the Flemish demand. Suppose they had insisted on having French as the sole EU official language. The Flemish would have ended up giving in, they always do, and French would have regained its waning importance with every institutional and territorial expansion of the EU. Even the UK would have accepted it; when it joined in 1973, British officials for the European institutions were handpicked for knowledge of French. In the 1990s, all the ambitious young people in Central Europe whose countries prepared for accession would have taken up studying French, the language of the new European empire. This in turn would have encouraged outsiders (say, Kishore Mehboobani) to study French once more. The imperial dream of Louis XIV and Napoleon would have been fulfilled after all, at least at the (to the French) all-important level of language.

But in the fifties, nobody foresaw that the little committees co-ordinating the coal and steel industries of six war-worn countries would expand to become the administration of a nearly continent-spanning superstate. So the Flemings could get away with their multilingual alternative for the EU's governance. Good for Europe.

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