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Sunday, 20 February, 2000, 15:41 GMT
Belgium tries to reinvent itself
By Justin Webb in Brussels
Driving with a local cameraman through Brussels the other day, I took a wrong turn and came face to face with a "no entry" sign.
"Do you have your press pass?" my colleague asked, "because if you do, we could drive on."
I turned to him amazed - was he really suggesting that a press card gives you the right to go the wrong way down a Brussels street?
"Well not officially," he said, "but it would probably get us out of trouble".
Welcome to Belgium - where paperwork is everything, where rules and regulations abound but, with the right connections, can be avoided - a nation that looks like a part of northern Europe but often feels like a banana republic.
Which is why there is so much amazement at the extraordinary profile that the Belgium Government has now achieved on the international stage.
They have joined the world's most respected human rights organisations in court in London trying to prevent the release of General Pinochet.
They have launched an investigation of wrongdoing in the European Commission - asking to question suspects like the former commissioner Edith Cresson and search EU buildings, albeit a year late.
And to cap it all they have mounted a blistering campaign against the Austrian far-right leader, Joerg Haider, and his party.
The problem for me - and I suspect for many Belgian citizens as well - is that all of this muscular ethical stuff is directed at other people's problems.
Belgium itself - despite the presence here next week of the euro-reformers' pin-up Tony Blair - is, well, unreformed.
So Mr Haider is lectured about human rights. But what is the Belgian attitude to foreigners?
According to the latest edition of Eurobarometer - an EU survey of opinions around the 15 nations of the Union - the most racist people, by their own admission, are the Belgians.
Fifty-five per cent of Belgians describe themselves as very or quite racist in attitude - for the record the figure in Austria was 42%.
Corruption and nepotism
What then about corruption? The Belgians are to question the former commissioner Mrs Cresson about her employment of her dentist as an adviser.
But as one incredulous French journalist was heard to ask: "Is it really an offence in Belgium to give a job to a friend?"
The fact is that Belgian politics has an appalling reputation for corruption and nepotism, and although the former minister Willy Claes was eventually convicted of fraud, and a former deputy prime minister succumbed to a hit-man's bullet, the strong suspicion is that plenty of other senior figures have got away scot free.
Mrs Cresson is doubtless an easier target. And that in a way is the essence of the problem.
Belgium is a nation that finds domestic reform nigh on impossible because of the stifling system of power sharing between French and Flemish speakers, a system that results in layer upon layer of often competing bureaucracies.
A trip to the local government office to register as a foreigner - turns out to be the start of a paper chase that will last the best part of a year.
It is Kafka with added languages - however many documents you bring there will always be one that is wrongly translated, or wrongly configured.
A recent objection after we had queued for a mere hour or so - that our piece of paper had something crossed out on it and should be resubmitted in a better state, had my wife demanding, I fear only half jokingly, to be deported.
The bureaucracy does not make for a happy atmosphere or an efficient one.
In the appalling case of Marc Dutroux - the convicted rapist accused of killing four children - the failure to find the trapped girls before they died, the failure to count Dutroux as a suspect, was due at least in part to linguistic differences that led to rival police forces failing to communicate.
There now I have done it. I have mentioned the Dutroux case that so blackens the name of Belgium in the civilised world.
What the Belgian spin doctor would dearly love is that that case be put to rest - that when we talk about Belgium we talk about other things.
But how can we? Marc Dutroux was arrested in 1996. Since then he has escaped and been re-captured, a prosecutor in charge of the case has killed himself, and much time has passed.
Incredibly - inexplicably if Belgium were a normal country - no date has yet been set for a trial.
Perhaps some of the energy expended in brushing up the country's image abroad in recent weeks might have been better served addressing a rottenness closer to home.
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