When Belgium decided to abandon itself, it caused considerable global consternation.
The idea belonged, originally, to a dissatisfied journalist named Winston Wauters. It was a jokey article, on the back page of a review supplement, and normally it would have sunk with barely a trace. In it Wauters, angry at some recent quirk of local government, suggested and detailed a mass exodus of the country, an overnight flight across the borders. And really, that’s where it should have stopped. Except, this time, it didn’t.
Sometimes an ostensibly silly idea will take root in someone’s head, even when they know it’s daft. Perhaps it was simply the law of averages which dictated that, sooner or later, some ridiculous notion or half baked plan would stick in the minds of everyone, all at the same time. And so it was with the Flight From Belgium. Belgians would discuss it, over texts and emails. The idea was memoed, messaged, commented and tweeted from one end of the country to the other and back, taking hold quickly and firmly like drying cement. The secrecy was not total, of course, but where journalists from abroad got hold of it, it made only a mild ripple as a great joke, like a parody political party winning a by-election, or a duck playing the drums. It was widely assumed, in France, the UK and elsewhere, that it was some sort of internet prank, orchestrated on 4chan or through a Facebook group. That was when people outside Belgium took any notice of it at all – for the most part, they ignored the whole thing altogether, and got on with their daily lives.
Meanwhile, the Belgians packed their bags.
The first thing that the rest of the world knew about it in earnest was at midnight on the ordained date, when every road and railway out of Belgium became suddenly packed with fleeing traffic. Freight trains and lorries took the vanguard, holding dozens of families with their possessions inside. Every Belgian port poured forth ships and ferries, and plane after plane left Brussels, Charleroi and Antwerp for a multitude of destinations. Around these clumsy vehicles, hundreds of thousands of Belgians on foot flooded across every inch of the border. It was over remarkably quickly, the efficiency was extraordinary. In the centre of a growing ring of departing citizens, Belgium stood empty.
One of the first and most flamboyant suggestions for what to do with the country came from a boisterous oil giant, straining for the slightest chance at profit. Belgium-as-was, it suggested, had bravely martyred itself for the rest of the world, and should be excavated post haste. A gigantic pit would be left, from which could be pulled enough fossil resources to fuel the rest of Europe and beyond, writing off whole countries’ energy bills at a stroke. The notion was quickly laughed down, but it was only the first. Others suggested that Belgium be fenced off entirely, and filled with all the criminals of all the world’s prisons. Some wanted the whole country solar-panelled, or planted with soybeans and oilseed rape. One eccentric soul phoned a BBC radio phone-in to demand that it be “donated to the space program for the good of mankind”, although how this was to be achieved was lost in the crackle of the phone line. Political extremists the world over laid ideological claim to the place, as an anarchist commune, socialist experiment or fascist breeding-ground.
Surprising credence was given to one of the most trivial suggestions of all, that Belgium simply become a massive tourist draw for the countries around, to allow visitors from outside Europe to travel to the “Empty Country”, and go for rides in a giant Belgium-themed theme park. This plan quickly fizzled out, however, when it was realised that with a gigantic flood of Belgians now taking up residency all over the globe – setting up Belgian takeaways, opening Belgian pubs, Belgian chocolatiers, Belgian chips-and-mayonnaise kiosks – most people now had a little slice of Belgium sitting right on their front doorstep, and little enough incentive to travel abroad to see more. What to do with all the Belgians flooding in was a problem to which most of the world’s immigration authorities eventually capitulated – given that even the government had dissolved and taken leave of the country, there was officially no country at all where Belgium had been, and so the vast queues of Belgian ex-pats had nowhere to be deported home to. Countries shrugged their collective shoulders and let them in.
Looters, too, found themselves unexpectedly disappointed: this had not been a wild flight of refugees, packing only what they could carry, but a careful and fond departure by a nation determined to take everything with it. Belongings had been sent on ahead with freight companies. Crops had been harvested and sold. Even the road signs had been taken from the streets, to grace the walls of the now-ubiquitous Belgian pubs in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin. All that the looters found when they forced the doors or broke the windows of the carefully tidied Belgian houses were occasional comic notes left on kitchen tables or pinned to walls: “Gone out, try again later,” or “happy hunting!”
And then, just a couple of days after the rest of the country had cheerfully departed their homeland on a silly whim, Sophie Hermans pulled herself out of bed, yawned, and decided that she felt well enough to go to work after a week off sick. Phoning the office got no answer, so, curious, she opened a window. The emptiness struck her immediately; the bins were gone, the cars, the street signs. Half-convinced she was dreaming, she went to her apartment door, opened it, and took a step out. She halted in amazement, mouth open.
Elsewhere, nearby and far, others were making the same discovery. A couple of streets west, Philippe Annaert pressed “pause” on his three-day blitz of the Medal of Honor series to get some food, noticed he was out of canned soup, and opened his door to go and buy some. Many miles away, in Liège, old Mr and Mrs van den Bergh took a break from their gentle routine of reading and backgammon to go for a morning walk. All of them, and many others, had the same surprised reaction: open-mouthed and static at the entrance to their homes.
These were the Disconnected. The ones without newspapers or internet profiles, who didn’t have phones or whose phones had been off. Perhaps they did have friends, who could have let them in on the plans for mass voluntary exile, but those friends had never even realised that anybody could not know. Some of them, like Sophie, had just been sick on the wrong day. Others, like Philippe, had just been too engrossed. Some were voluntary recluses, some were having bad weeks, and some had fallen asleep at the wrong time and missed a call. All they had in common was that they were detached enough to have not noticed a few days of bustle and a couple of days of silence, before they finally stepped outdoors.
It was remarkable, the cheerful way that the Disconnected went about starting their country anew. Many of those who had been loners or outcasts took great and surprising pleasure in the task, becoming leaders or encouraging voices in the effort to restart. Immorally and unremorsefully, they ignored all ethical considerations to share the bounty of Belgium’s fields with the needy, or let in refugees, and instead slammed down an instant blanket ban on immigration. Nobody except them had wanted this country before, they brashly asserted, so nobody was damn well getting it now. Though for the most part not farmers or miners, there were so few compared to so many before, that the tiny population of Disconnected lived richly off the fat of Belgium’s natural resources, no matter how wastefully they reaped them. It wasn’t a bad life, they thought, fat as butter and deaf to the world, between deciding which of their hundreds of houses to sleep in for the night. Really, all they’d ever wanted was to be left alone anyway.