Intriguing country Belgium. Just returned from there and the Netherlands for a feature on the aerospace industry in Benelux which will appear in our 13 April issue. Increasingly, the small nation is split north and south into two autonomous regions, each with its own culture, language and little love lost for their neighbour. In fact, about all that holds them together is the king and Brussels, the bilingual capital of Europe that straddles the border between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.
Unlike, say Switzerland, with its largely self-governing French-, German- and Italian-speaking cantons, there appears to be little Belgian identity among the Belgians themselves, even though the "Belgian brand" is used widely by the tourist authorities. Language in Belgium is a hugely contentious and uncompromising issue, so much so that in Wallonia you will struggle to hear any Dutch spoken or find a Dutch newspaper...and vice versa.
Unsuspecting drivers (yes, I got caught out) have to watch out for the road signs to cities which have a very different name north or south of the language line. For example, to find the highway to Liege from the Brussels ring road (in Flanders) you have to follow Luik. Once in Liege, the road to Antwerp (Antwerpen in Dutch) is sign-posted Anvers. Fair enough, I suppose, if that is the local language. But there is little allowance made by the leaders of either region to how their fellow Belgians speak. In fact, the only time I saw a bilingual road sign was on the road to Lille (Rijsel in Dutch)...but that is in France, so doesn't count.
As far as aerospace is concerned, companies tend to be members of either the Flemish or the Wallonian association and the regional government is responsible for inward investment and promoting its industry. There are one or two "national" companies, but most of these are identified with one region or the other. The aerospace industry tends to be concentrated in Wallonia (that's where the coal mines were, so steel and heavy industry followed and many of these companies ended up producing aircraft parts). Flanders, with its coast and big sea and inland ports, focused on shipbuilding and trade, although it is keen to establish itself as an aerospace player too.
I'll be writing more about the aerospace industry in Belgium - and also the Netherlands, where I visited a revitalised Fokker Aerospace among others - in our special feature on 13 April.