A dispatch from the center of Europe
All is not what it seems in Belgium
For two weeks in Belgium and Luxembourg the weather was glorious: sunny, mid-60’s and mid-70’s, not a cloud in the sky. I remarked to my host several times how wonderful it was, especially since it had been pouring rain when I left the U.S. “We have a major drought in Belgium, and we desperately need rain,” he cautioned me. “The weather has been nice, but it will not be long before our agriculture is majorly impacted,” he added. “It is not a good situation.”
Indeed, as I learned during my stay, Belgium is in the midst of a severe water crisis. According to recent data, Belgian residents are depleting their renewable water at the highest rate in northern Europe. Not only is Belgium using more water than most other countries, the region itself is becoming more susceptible to drought as a result of climate change. Summers are dryer and less water is available. The situation is worse in France; rising temperatures and lack of rain have led to water restrictions that have cost the government hundreds of millions of euros in mitigation. While I was in Europe, the United Nations actually released a report stating that humanity is at a “crossroads” when it comes to managing drought: droughts are increasing in length by 29 percent, and by 2030 an estimated 700 million people will be at risk of being displaced by water shortages. The glorious weather I experienced was a manifestation of a much deeper problem.
Such was a recurring theme during my time in Europe. The Low Countries still retain their beautiful scenery, stunning architecture, charming streetscapes and gracious hospitality. But below the surface, much feels on shaky ground. Public health concerns are rising, as half of Belgians are now overweight and obesity is on the rise throughout Europe. This is the result of an increasingly unhealthy diet (Belgians lead the EU in sugar consumption and have high rates of diabetes) coupled with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, working from home, sitting in front of computers and pandemic lockdowns. During the pandemic, Belgium experienced more than 4 million Covid-19 infections and more than 31,000 deaths in a country of only 11.5 million people. Belgium’s Covid response was heavily criticized, at one point rated last among all OECD countries. Critiques came from all directions: that the government did not do enough to protect the sick and elderly, and that lockdowns were too stringent and harmed young children. The fallout was still unfolding during my trip; halfway through my visit, the Flemish Minister of Welfare and Public Health resigned, in part due to criticisms of how the pandemic was handled.
On an individual level, the people I spoke with (granted, a very small sample size) admitted to being exhausted. Remote work during the pandemic had led people to work longer hours, spend more time on Zoom, and take on more work than they had previously. Despite working more, people felt like they were struggling to stay ahead. Housing prices were skyrocketing; home inflation was at 6%, catching up to the double-digit inflation in Germany and the Netherlands. Trains were often delayed and Brussels still had some of the worst traffic in the world. And despite having support from the majority of EU residents, people in Europe increasingly are feeling as though the European Parliament and European Commission do not understand the needs of their citizens, are inefficient, that the average EU citizen’s financial situation has worsened and are pessimistic about their children’s financial prospects. Looming over all of this is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has put the entirety of Europe on edge and brought back haunting memories of past calamities (WWII comparisons abound in today’s European media, especially in Belgium).
Historians know there can be a wide gap between actualities and the sentiments people have about those actualities. Even when the number of crimes decrease, people can still feel unsafe. Even when life expectancy increases, people can feel their lives are shorter and more difficult. Our experiences of events are shaped by a complex array of factors, and often contradict hard data. To make it more complex for policymakers, millions of people can feel drastically different about the same thing at the same time. In Europe, those who identify as liberal feel more confident in the EU than those who identify as conservative. While some numbers in Europe point in positive directions, it does not take long to recognize that Europe faces many headwinds, none of which will be easily resolved.
What struck me, though, was how much the headwinds mirrored those in the United States. A burnt-out and exhausted workforce. Entire days spent in front of screens. Rising housing costs. High inflation. Wages not going far enough. High rates of obesity and diabetes (not to mention heart disease). Massive loss of life due to Covid-19, and deep societal scars from those who survived. Fears over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Worry that children will be worse off than their parents. Instability. Insecurity. Drought. Climate change. Misinformation and disinformation. Bureaucracies that feel out of touch with those they are meant to represent. And a sinking feeling that a privileged few are benefiting while the rest are falling behind. Any American who has been on social media or engaged in public conversations for the past 15 years will recognize these themes, persisting year after year, administration after administration. Elected officials on both sides of the Atlantic are aware of these problems; it’s just that no one person has the capacity to solve them.
That’s what makes these transnational dialogues so important, and why I embrace these opportunities to meet with counterparts in other parts of the world. One consequence of our social media filter bubbles is to make our perceptions of issues highly nationalized. In the case of the U.S., our penchant for American exceptionalism, coupled with echo chambers that algorithmically form on social media, convince us that our problems are uniquely American—and that our inability to fix them is also uniquely American. American activists point to European countries as evidence of how things can be different, often without any substantive knowledge of how similar the challenges are. (Europeans do the same, of course.) The grass is always greener, and within a filter bubble, one’s maladies can feel uniquely provincial. Despite mountains of information available to us in a highly connected world, most of us still know so little about each other.
Occasionally in America, news from abroad breaks through: an invasion, a migrant boat sinking, or a royal wedding. These flashpoints garner media coverage in the U.S. for their sensationalism and shock-value, but they do not educate or inform us much about the common underlying challenges overseas that mirror our own. It is rare—if at all—that the long-term issues in Belgium, the Netherlands, or Luxembourg reach an American audience. How would we know that our friends across the ocean are wrestling with so many of the same questions that we are?
Such is why we cannot rely on the news media alone, especially when sensationalism drives clicks and coverage. We must maintain transatlantic networks built and cultivated by government, academia, NGOs, think tanks and other institutions of civil society—the very institutions whose legitimacies are being undermined both by the Web and by nationalist groups who see internationalism as an anathema to protectionism at home. It is only through sustained dialogues that we can see where our problems are transnational in scope and forge joint efforts to overcome them. International cooperation does not solely mean sending Stinger anti-aircraft systems and Javelin missiles in times of war. It requires a constant exchange of ideas, scholarship and insights. It means talking about the weather, if only to learn that the weather is not all that it appears on first glance.
Drought and water shortages. The scars of the pandemic. The penetration of technology into all aspects of our lives. War, disinformation, inflation, housing costs, and the punishing grind of capitalism. We in the U.S. have debated these issues as American issues, when in fact they are transnational, global, and affect all of us. The particulars vary from context to context, as do the consequences for specific populations (marginalized populations, people of color, etc.). Yet, the phenomena do not stop at the water’s edges. They are global challenges that require global solutions. They require global networks that unite us with intentionality and purpose.
My hosts in Belgium had a rich library, within it a book on international law by professor Stephen C. Neff. Neff writes about the arguments over why international law even has a need to exist. Is international law intended to be a systematic and comprehensive legal framework for all countries? Is it simply a summation of the how states normally operate? Is international law principally about human welfare and human rights? Should it be a method to settle disputes—or a framework for advancing civilization and human dignity? Neff makes the argument that it has been all of the above throughout the centuries. I take the position that the advancement of human welfare, human rights, and human dignity must be at the heart of any international governing body, especially in light of the abuses and corruptions we see around the world. The foundations for such frameworks lay in people connecting with each other, exchanging knowledge across oceans, opening lines of dialogue, and resolving to work together to advance the public interest. I’m grateful for each time I get to play a small part in that work.
KU Leuven is one of the preeminent Catholic institutions in the world. It dates to 1425 and its theologians have a direct line to the Vatican, advising the Pope on an array of issues. Distinguished scholars from around the world pass through Leuven, a gorgeous town replete with medieval walls, an ornate town hall, a cathedral and a stunning library. In many ways it is the quintessence of a European university.
Corvus brings that knowledge to the broader world. The small outfit conducts historical research on behalf of external clients, including media companies, businesses, and government. In one project, they researched information for the Belgian border police. In another, they provided historical analysis to Flemish media. They have also conducted studies on how frequently journalists invoke historical analogies. I cited some of their research in my book chapter on “The Newsworthy Past.”
On Tuesday May 10, I delivered a lecture at KU Leuven attended by members of Corvus, scholars, post-docs and students:
The next day, we had a high-level meeting among 15 scholars and practitioners to sketch out how historical knowledge can be better applied in various political, social and corporate contexts. Participants included scholars from Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom and the United States:
A few days later, I traveled to the University of Luxembourg to deliver a lecture at their Centre for Contemporary and Digital History:
Then I returned to Brussels for additional meetings on disinformation, misinformation and the role of social media, including a presentation and conversation with the Transatlantic Alumni Network:
Each audience was incredibly gracious and hospitable, and each raised different questions about the book. These were just the beginnings of the dialogues, which will continue in the months and years ahead.
Ugly Belgian Houses
One quirky and light-hearted thing I learned during my trip: Belgians love their houses. I remarked to my hosts on how unique the Belgian homes were. He replied that there is a saying, “Belgians are born with a brick in their stomachs.” Many Belgian homes are customized, some artfully and some much less so. Out of that phenomenon has emerged the Instagram account Ugly Belgian Houses. For a window into this idiosyncratic tradition, give the account a follow. It is the next best thing to seeing these quirky Belgian houses in person.
Have a good week.
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