Saturday, April 24, 2004

A very dangerous precedent

Helen Szamuely

Three days ago the Appeal Court in Ghent has ruled that the Flemish nationalist party, the Vlaams Blok is a racist party that proposes political solutions not in line with EU and international human rights treaties. Apparently, its main racist statement was that “immigrants should have only two choices: to adapt or to go home”. This is not in itself a heinous comment and is not all that different from those made recently by the British Home Secretary and politicians in various European countries.

The Vlaams Blok denies that it is racist and quotes one of its opponents, the journalist Tom Naegels, who writes for the pro-government newspaper De Standaard. On January 8 of this year he acknowledged that many politicians in various other Belgian parties hold views on immigration that are similar to those of the Vlaams Blok. Then he explained why he and people like him hated the Flemish party: “Its conservative family policies, its deeply felt ethical objections to abortion and euthanasia, its radical pursuing of the interests of Flanders, its republicanism, these are the issues voiced by no other party, these are in practice the indiscussable phantasms of the Vlaams Blok.” The Flemish economic daily De Tijd put it even more strangely: "The Vlaams Blok faces an existential choice: remain an anti-establishment force or become a civilized party." It is a curious interpretation of democracy and of political culture that considers an anti-establishment party uncivilized.

The Vlaams Blok is not a fringe organization. It has 18 MPs in the 150 strong Belgian Parliament, numerous local councillors and 2 MEPs. It is predicted to win the largest number of votes in the forthcoming local and European elections in June. Apparently, it had to be prevented from doing so, though this week’s decision may not work out that way.

Its main crime appears to be that it is a Flemish nationalist organization as well as having certain economic views that come close to free-market ones. It maintains that the Belgian state is run by the etatist Walloon establishment for their own people’s benefit and to the detriment of the hard-working Flemish, who bring in most of the country’s wealth. The party’s website rightly points out that Antwerp is a port of global importance. It also adds: “The Flemish are amongst the world's best linguists, able to converse with English, French, German and, often, Spanish and Italian visitors in their own languages. No other region in the world exports so much per capita. Flanders' subsidisation of Wallonia is proportionally greater than the financial support given by the former West Germany to the former German Democratic Republic. The Francophone media often portray Flemings as "racists", yet "racist" Flanders is a favourite destination for genuine and self-styled "refugees" from across the world.”

The rights and wrongs of the political debate are irrelevant and, it may be, that the Vlaams Blok is every bit as unpleasant as it is painted by its opponents. What remains disturbing is the apparent war the Belgian government, the socialist party, the Francophone media and various quangos have waged against a party, whose policies they do not like and whose attraction threatens the existence of their own cosy establishment.

In 1999 the first Liberal-Socialist coalition came to power in Belgium in over forty years and Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt declared immediately that his main aim was the destruction of the Vlaams Blok, a curious political objective for a supposedly democratic leader. Within months a government quango that reports directly to Verhofstadt, the Centre for Equal Opportunities and the Fight against Racism, initiated a court case against the party, citing its unacceptable “racist”policies. Mindful of the Belgian law that allows for political parties to be tried only by courts with juries, the case was brought against three non-profit making organizations that helped to train party officials, collect party dues and distribute its videos. The case, therefore, could be heard before a judge rather than a court. Judges in Belgium are appointed by political parties. In 2001 a Flemish judge of the Brussels Penal Court refused to issue judgement in the case, arguing that decisions of this kind were political ones and had to be made by the electorate through the voting booths. In subsequent elections the share of the vote cast for the Vlaams Blok increased rapidly – the voters made their decision but this was not to the liking of the establishment. The case was appealed and in February 2003 the Flemish section of the Brussels Court of Appeal confirmed the original ruling. The head of the Centre, with support from the Government then announced that he was going to harass the Vlaams Blok until he found a judge that was willing to decide the “right” way. Presumably, all this was to be done using the taxpayers’ money. Last Tuesday such a judge was found: he is Alain Smetrijns, who just happens to be the chairman of the Lions Club in Ghent, a francophone pro-Belgian unity group.

The three organizations have been fined heavily and the party itself is now going to be deprived of state funding, the only kind of funding that is legal in Belgium as private political donations over 125 euros have been banned. The supporters of the Vlaams Blok have said that they intend to vote for the party in June and some of the more intelligent establishment politicians have expressed fears that the Blok’s already formidable popularity will grow as it will be perceived to be a martyr. However, as things stand, the Vlaams Blok will not be able to go on functioning after the June elections. Prime Minister Verhofstadt will have achieved his aim. One wonders whether the people of Belgium, already dissatisfied with many aspects of their government, not least the fact that the Dutroux case has been pursued with considerably less zeal than the campaign against the Vlaams Blok, will feel the same. And what are we to make of the fact that the EU is negotiating a constitution that would integrate Britain more closely with countries in which such things go on?

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