Monday, June 06, 2005

Trouble in the Low Countries

Those of our readers who remember their history books will recall that Belgium was created as a country by Lord Palmerston for what seemed like adequate reasons at the time (annoying the French, mainly).

Before that Flanders and Wallonia (plus a little bit more) belonged to the Netherlands and, it seems, a certain amount of resentment has remained between the two countries.

I suppose, there is also the point that the Netherlands managed to win their independence from the Spanish king and establish a large maritime empire. Belgium managed to have the Congo and even that was the Belgian king’s personal fiefdom. (And a right mess he made of it.)

Karel de Gucht, the Belgian Foreign Minister, raised hackles last week by describing the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, as
“…a mixture of Harry Potter and inoffensive small-mindedness, a man in whom I detect no trace of harisma”.
He also spoke of him as being a “brave rigid bourgeois”. Given Mr Balkenende’s well-known conservative attitude to life and social mores, he probably did not find that too bad, though “small-mindedness” may have hurt.

Balkenende has been compared to Harry Potter before and, indeed, he does bear an uncanny resemblance to the boy wizard and, even more so, the lad who plays him in the films. One wonders why Mr de Gucht should see that as an insult.

Harry Potter is an immensely popular character all over the world (a trait not shared by Mr Balkenende or, for that matter, Mr de Gucht); he and his friends win out after many arduous trials and adventures at the end of each book; and clearly the culmination of the series will be Harry taking his rightful hereditary and fully merited place as the chief wizard.

I suppose the funniest part of that attack was the phrase about Balkenende having no charisma. Pictures of Mr de Gucht reveal a man who, far from resembling a wizard of any age, looks like a middle ranking party official in Communist Eastern Europe of the eighties.

Not content with sneering at the Prime Minister, Mr de Gucht, (the Foreign Minister, let us recall) also managed to insult the Dutch people, whom he described as being “superficial and unreliable”. Well, I suppose, the people everywhere tend to be unreliable. They just will not do as they are told. Time to sack the people, as Bertolt Brecht said only half in jest after the 1953 uprising in East Berlin.

It seems that the Dutch people are ridiculously volatile, according to Mr de Gucht and one can’t help wondering about his home life. First they give their support to
“…an extravagant, militant homosexual with a deviating opinion and chauffeur-driven Bentley”,
then they elect Balkenende who is none of those things. Setting aside the fact that there was an extremely good reason why Pim Fortuyn (for it is he being so described) could not be elected, one wonders whether it is not Mr de Gucht who suffers from strait-laced small-mindedness.

Anyway, the upshot of all this mudslinging was the Belgian ambassador being summoned to the Dutch Foreign Minister and being told in no uncertain terms that these remarks were inappropriate.

Mr de Gucht then compounded the problem by saying rather huffily
“If Mr Balkenende has a problem with my statement, then I have no problem in apologising.”
As a devotee of the Marx Brothers I do rather hope that the apology will not be accepted in the way President Rufus T. Firefly of Freedonia refused to accept the apology of Sylvania’s devious ambassador in Duck Soup and led his troops (Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Margaret Dumont) to war.

During the final battle scene they throw oranges, as I recall, which would be an entirely fitting weapon for the Netherlands.

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