WHEN JOHAN VANDE LANOTTE, Belgium's Vice Prime Minister, goes to the toilets today, he finds the urinals in the offices of his ministry decorated with stickers. They show an American flag and the head of George W. Bush. "Go ahead. Piss on me," the caption says. Vande Lanotte is one of Bush's hosts in Brussels. Is peeing on your guest's head appropriate? In Belgium it is. After all, Brussels' best known statue is that of "Manneken Pis," a peeing boy.
The piss stickers, specially made to be used in urinals, can be seen these days in the public toilets of Belgian schools, youth clubs, and pubs. They were designed by Laurent Winnock, president of the Young Socialists, the youth branch of Vande Lanotte's Socialist party. Winnock did his creative work during his office hours, which would not be worth mentioning if Winnock did not work in the offices of Vice Prime Minister Vande Lanotte, as one of his press spokesmen.
Last Friday, Belgian television asked Robert "Steve" Stevaert, the Socialist party leader, what he thought of the stickers. It had not been his idea, he stressed, but he refused to distance himself from it. He hardly could, seeing as the stickers can be ordered for free through the party's official website. For Belgian television viewers the message was clear: Bush may be our government's guest, the ministers will greet him, smile and tell him that he is most welcome, but we all know what they think of the bastard.
For those who missed the "subtlety" of the urinal stickers, Laurette Onkelinx, the Belgian minister of Justice and one of the Socialist party's most powerful figures, let go during prime time on Sunday evening, as Air Force One was about to land in Brussels. "I would rather have had John Kerry visiting us," she said on television. When the interviewer asked whether it was not undiplomatic to say so, she answered: "No. That is how I feel about it."
Meanwhile, however, a citizen of Ghent, where the stickers had also been distributed, has filed a complaint with the Belgian judiciary headed by Onkelinx. "This sticker has nothing to do with freedom of speech," he says. "If I go to the gents in the pub nowadays, I am forced to pee on Bush and the American flag because it is impossible to miss this sticker."
I do not know whether the president is aware of the real feelings of his Belgian hosts. Has the American Embassy in Brussels informed him? This question crossed my mind, as he was delivering his speech to a crowd of politicians, journalists, and businessmen in the prestigious halls of Brussels' Concert Noble on Monday afternoon. There, under a huge painting of Leopold II, Belgium's late-19th-century king (and the tyrant of the Congo), Bush addressed a few hundred people invited by the U.S. Embassy. I know some of them. They used to be my colleagues.
Fifteen years ago, I was sacked by a Belgian newspaper because I had written an article in the Wall Street Journal which the Belgian politicians did not like. Being a somewhat conservative and pro-American journalist, I was a regular contributor to the Journal in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These articles were not liked by my liberal colleagues, nor by the Belgian regime. On April 6, 1990, I was fired after writing a Journal op-ed piece about how a major story had been ignored by the Belgian media under political pressure from the top political parties.
That day ended my career as a newspaper journalist. None of the Belgian papers has been willing to employ me since. Fifteen years later I am still known by my former colleagues as "that fascist from the Wall Street Journal." And now I could see those same editors sitting in the audience, listening to a man whom they despise.
Indeed, they think that the world will be saved if America becomes more like Europe, whereas I think that Europe will be saved only if it becomes more like America. But that is an opinion which no one in Europe is allowed to have. Those who do, get peed upon.
Dr. Paul Belien is the author of the forthcoming book A Throne in Brussels on the "Belgianisation" of Europe (Imprint Academic, May 2005).