Belgium

Mark Eyskens

“Europe’s problems are the problems of the member states, as the latter’s reactions are too selfish, too nationalistic and too focused on sovereignty.”

Interview by Roel Heremans

Mark Eyskens, born 19 April 1933, is a Belgian economist and politician of the Christian People’s Party (now called Christian Democratic and Flamish). 

Eyskens was born in Leuven, the son of Gaston Eyskens, an economist and Belgium statesman himself. Eyskens’ list of academic credentials is long – He holds a degree in philosophy, a doctor juris as well as as a doctor in economic sciences, and in 1968 became a professor at the University of Leuven. In 1976, upon receiving a call from Prime Minister Leo Tindemans, asking him whether he would join his government, Eyskens then entered politics. Later, from April 1981 Eyskens himself would go on to serve as the 45th prime minister of Belgium. However, his government quickly collapsed on 17 December 1981 due to disagreement on the financing of the Walloon steel industry. Over the course of 16 years, Eyskens served 13 governments in total, including as Minister for Economic Affairs (1981 – 1985) and Foreign Secretary (1989 – 1992), the latter spanning many critical moments in world history, including Tiananmen, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Gulf War. He also participated in the negotiation of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Eyskens only retired from parliament at the 2003 general election. Since then he’s served in various think tanks and philanthropist organisations, including for the International Crisis Group, an independent NGO committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict.

In his conversation with Roel Heremans, he reflects on the challenges of democracy in a digital age, overcoming selfishness in European cooperation, and the question of Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations. 

Mark Eyskens was interviewed by Roel Heremans, a Flemish and European sound and conceptual artist based in Brussels, a radio producer, writer and speaker who currently works with the Higher Institute of Fine Arts in Ghent.

Interview Highlights

On fleeing Belgium as a child 

I was born before the war; the Second World War. I was 7 years old the month of May 1940, when the Second World War broke out. My father was already a member of Parliament. And then we first fled to the Belgian coast under the illusion that the Belgian army, as it did during the First World War, would stop the Germans somewhere in West Flanders, but that did not happen. Then we fled to France in a rickety car, on those lanes between hundreds of thousands of refugees, those enormous masses. Once in a while we were shot at by German ‘STUKA’ fighter planes; machine-gunned. Then we had to lie down in the orchards away from the runway, praying that we would not be hit. There was a great panic. And then we drove on. The south of France was not occupied by the Germans; there was a demarcation line. And we ended up there– ‘La France libre’ – and we were welcomed very generously by French farmers in a small village. We lived there for three months until the situation in Belgium was more or less stabilised and then my father returned to Leuven. We were really welcomed by those farmers, almost as family members. I’m still in correspondence with those people, though now it’s their children and grandchildren. And that has been an important experience for me because when I now see what happens to all those refugees who flee from the Middle East (in the majority of cases) to Europe, I find that there is a lack of compassion among many Europeans who wallow in their comfort and do not realise that one never leaves one’s country as a refugee for pleasure.

On politics

I read a very nice sentence in an English magazine which reads: ‘The choice is not between right or left. The choice is between right or wrong.’ Those political colours and political ideologies characteristic of the old model are in fact largely outdated. Socialism, liberalism are ideologies of the 19th, 20th century. They have bled to death or are being bled, and Christian Democracy also has major problems. The question is: What is the truth? What is actually needed? Politicians tend to tell the people, the voters, what they like. But you have to tell the voters what they need. You have to think about the climate, and then you have the tension between the short-term and the long-term. We have to take measures now that take effect in 10, 15, 20, 30 years. The politicians defending this proposition today will probably be all dead or retired at that time, the same for the voters. As they say in French: ‘Après nous, le déluge’ [literally: After us, the flood. Used to express selfish disregard for problems that may occur in the future]. This means that you have to overcome these challenges through leadership. And what you really need to do is try and explain the truth to the people.

On human selfishness as an obstacle to international cooperation

Darwinism, which represents individual and collective selfishness, was, for at least 3 million years, necessary to evolve and defend man against all the threats that he faced. But a few great moralists – think of Socrates, of Buda, of Jesus and a few others – they said: Beware of this selfishness, because you will ruin yourself. In the time of Jesus there were no atomic bombs and no weapons of mass destruction. But now that we have them, that message is all the more pertinent. Our selfishness, individual and collective, can lead to the extermination of human civilisation on earth, which is why a message of charity, solidarity, justice, fighting against discrimination, considering everyone a fully-fledged human being is even more relevant today than it was 2,000 years ago. But of course, this means that we in a way have to fight against our own nature, which is selfish. We must transform that into a sense of solidarity. It’s not easy. […] [Altruistic instincts] might exist, sometimes. But not always, of course. Sometimes selfishness is so radical that someone who wants to show solidarity is considered a fool, a naive person or even someone whom others have to fight against. There is a curse word in German for it now: ein Gutmensch. Ah yes, a good man, ein Gutmensch. Somebody who is naive, a foolhardy person, somebody we should have no sympathy for at all.

On colonial responsibility

Heremans: When I was in the Congo, in Katanga, in Lubumbashi, I had the feeling that a lot of Congolese people share sympathy with the Belgians, but the few intellectuals I met there, who know a lot more about history and what actually happened in terms of exploitation, said: Go away, this is not your place. How can you achieve any form of cooperation with Congo knowing about that history?

Eyskens: We must be knowledgeable about that history and –for better or worse – be aware of our responsibility. Terrible things happened during colonialism but also positive things. Schools were built, hospitals were built and so on. But the past is the past. We have to look to the future. We have to be aware of the mistakes of the past and certainly not repeat them. Knowing about history is in that sense very important as a mirror for not making the same mistakes again. However, the future is of a very different nature in a global world. As I always say, the world today is called ‘globalistan’.

On multiculturalism

We live in a multicultural society and it is expanding all the time. All possible cultures come together in Belgium. This is because Belgium is home to the capital of Europe. In Brussels, I believe, there are 76 kinds of ethnic communities, perhaps 30 different languages are spoken there, all mixed together, but all these small communities form a bit of a ghetto. They live near each other because they know each other, that’s a pretty human thing to do. But then, to some extent, their contacts with others break down as well, so a tremendous effort has to be made to move from multiculturalism to interculturalism. First of all, we need a housing policy. Let those people live next to Belgians. Let them integrate into schools. Sports are very important – practicing sports together. I know of one intercultural group and that is football players. Look at our national team. They’re almost all foreigners. There’s one white guy and he’s called De Bruyne. People accept that. They all agree with it, but in other areas we fall far short. You have to pursue a policy of multiculturalisation. […] So yes, you must also have the courage to defend multiculturalism, and the only solution is a transition towards interculturalism. Fortunately, we now have a lot of people of immigrant origin in parliament, including on television. People on television, including speakers with an immigrant background, of course make a positive impression on immigrant communities. It’s a way of saying: We can make it here as well. But that took many years of work.

The views expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewers and interviewees and do not necessarily reflect those of Arbeit and Europa.

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