The Belgian national election on June 10 not only highlighted the ongoing linguistic and cultural divides between the country's regions, Flemish-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, but it also showed that Flemish nationalism remains vibrant.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt's Liberal-Socialist coalition government was voted out of office as the conservative Flemish Christian Democrats gained eight seats in the Chamber of Representatives, which has 150 directly elected members, for a total of 30. The Christian Democrats' campaign centered on the need for increased autonomy for Flanders, a message that clearly resonated with Flemish voters.
The Flemish right-wing — but not anti-immigrant — party of maverick Jean-Marie Dedecker, Lijst Dedecker (LDD), gained five seats in the Chamber of Representatives despite being founded earlier this year. The region's far-right and more notorious party, Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), went from 18 seats to 17 in the Chamber of Representatives but held its five seats in the 71-member Senate. Election analysts believe LDD snapped up votes that otherwise would have gone to Vlaams Belang.
Vlaams Belang used the national elections to promote its antimulticulturalism agenda. The party favors strong immigration controls in addition to a limit on the number of mosques in Flanders and the deportation of immigrants who fail to integrate. Its recent campaigns and public rhetoric reflect a more moderate tone than in previous years, when the party, then known as Vlaams Blok, had a more explicit anti-immigrant position.
The rise of Vlaams Belang mirrors that of other far-right parties in other European countries such as France (National Front), Austria (the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria), Slovakia (Slovak National Party), and Germany (National Democratic Party).
Unlike Europe's other far-right parties, Vlaams Belang's popularity also stems from its calls for Flemish independence, drawing on historical tensions with French-speaking Wallonia. Apart from linguistic and cultural divisions, Vlaams Belang bases much of its separatist stance on its claims that the wealthier Flanders subsidizes the comparatively poorer, more industrial Wallonia.
Immigration Policy and the Foreign Population in Belgium
To understand the role of Vlaams Belang in Belgium's immigration debates, it is important to first examine the country's recent immigration policies and the size of its foreign population.
Like other Western European nations, Belgium imported foreign labor during the post-World War II economic boom, specifically to meet the demand for coal workers. The Belgian government established several bilateral agreements with labor-sending countries, beginning with Italy in 1946 and eventually with countries such as Morocco, Turkey, and Tunisia in the 1960s.
By the time the Belgian government began restricting immigration in the late 1960s, Italian workers in Belgium had legal labor rights in accordance with the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Indeed, according to political scientist Marco Martiniello of the University of Liège, 62 percent of foreign workers in Belgium in 1968 were citizens of other European Community (EC) member countries. Thus, Italians and other EC national citizens held many legal rights not available to immigrant workers from North Africa and Turkey.
The 1973 petroleum crisis and the economic downturn of the 1970s led Belgium to establish strict immigration legislation in 1974, mirroring similar actions in neighboring European countries. The 1974 law allowed labor migration only when there was no Belgian citizen with the appropriate qualifications. However, the law did permit immigrant family reunification and also legalized the 9,000 clandestine workers living in the country.
The Belgian government initiated a second regularization program in 2000 after significant pressure from undocumented immigrants. During the three-week application period, the government received approximately 32,000 cases, with each case representing a single family (50,000 to 60,000 individuals in total). In 81 percent of the cases, the individual or family received legal status.
As of 2004, EU nationals represented over two-thirds of the foreign population in Belgium (see Figure 1). The Belgian government tracks only those with non-Belgian citizenship rather than individuals born outside the country (i.e., the foreign born).
Overall, the percentage of the foreign population in Belgium has stayed relatively stable, between 9 and 10 percent, since 1980. As of 2004, the foreign population constituted 9.02 percent of the entire population. These figures do not take into account immigrants who have naturalized or the Belgian-born children of a foreign parent (children are Belgian at birth if they have at least one Belgian parent).
In 2004 in Wallonia, the foreign population made up 9.12 percent of the total regional population, while only 4.79 percent of Flanders' population were foreign according to Belgium's National Institute of Statistics (see Figure 2). However, 62 percent of Wallonia's foreign population were from France and Italy; 72 percent of Belgium's entire Italian population live in Wallonia.
The percentage of foreigners from Turkey and Morocco — the majority of whom are Muslim — is twice as high in Flanders as in Wallonia. Individuals of Turkish or Moroccan nationality together make up 16 percent of the total foreign population in Flanders, as compared to 7.5 percent in Wallonia. In Antwerp, Vlaams Belang's stronghold, that figure rises to 20 percent.
At 26.4 percent, Brussels has a higher percentage of foreigners in its population in large part because it is home to the European Union and other international organizations, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Yet, nearly a quarter (23 percent) of the foreign population in Brussels is of African origin (including North Africa), compared to 13.8 percent in Flanders and 8.8 percent in Wallonia.
Anthropologist Johan Leman of the Catholic University of Louvain and the president of Foyer, a regional minority center in Brussels, suggests that African newcomers stay in Brussels because large African communities have already been established there. Refugees and asylum seekers arrive in Brussels because of its reception center, and the services available make it attractive for them to remain.
Vlaams Belang and Immigration
Initially founded as the Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block) in 1978, Vlaams Belang focused mainly on Flemish nationalism in its early years.
Political scientist Hilde Coffé and economists Bruno Heyndels and Jan Vermier, all of the Free University of Brussels, note that in the late 1980s, the then-Vlaams Blok changed from a primarily Flemish nationalist party to one focused on immigration following the electoral success of anti-immigrant parties in France (le Front National) and the Netherlands (Centrumdemocraten).
Including anti-immigrant measures in its platform coincided with Vlaams Blok's increased electoral success, culminating in its breakthrough vote in the 1991 federal elections. On that day, known as "Black Sunday," Vlaams Blok took 10.3 percent of the votes in Flanders. In response, all other Belgian political parties agreed to form a cordon sanitaire around Vlaams Blok, meaning that no party would invite or join it to form a coalition government.
In June 1992, party member Felip DeWinter published a program of 70 points on immigration issues, which included a call for the forced repatriation of all immigrants up to the third generation. Since then, the party's electoral showing has increased steadily, from 12.6 percent in the 1994 European elections to 15.4 percent in the parliamentary and European elections in 1999 to 24 percent in the 2004 regional elections.
In 2004, after a Belgian court forced Vlaams Blok to dissolve for inciting racial hatred, the party renamed itself Vlaams Belang and toned down its anti-immigrant platform so that it could receive state funding available to all legal political parties. The cordon sanitaire, however, has remained.
Instead of its previous position of forcibly repatriating all immigrants up to the third generation, Vlaams Belang issued its present stance of deporting immigrants who "reject, deny, or combat our culture and certain European values." The party claims that Islam is incompatible with Western democracy and that Muslims must make a choice between their religion and democracy.
Compared with the 2004 elections results, Vlaams Belang's showing in the October 2006 municipal elections was mixed. It received 20.5 percent of the vote and added just half a percentage point in its traditional stronghold of Antwerp, where it still collected 33.5 percent of all votes in the city.
The October 2006 elections followed a string of racially motivated crimes in Belgium. In one such attack, in May 2006, an 18-year-old named Hans van Themsche wrote a letter stating he was going to kill foreigners and then went on a shooting rampage in Antwerp, wounding a Turkish woman and killing a nanny from Mali and the 2-year-old girl in her care. Van Themsche's aunt is a Vlaams Belang member of parliament, and his father is also active in the party.
The reasons given for Vlaams Belang's success vary, but most researchers agree that immigration remains the party's strong point. One group of Flemish researchers state that immigration dominates contemporary right-wing platforms. According to research by political scientist Hans De Witte of Catholic University of Louvain and Bert Klandermans of the Free University of Amsterdam, Flemings who vote for Vlaams Belang do so based on their negative attitude toward immigrants.
Anton Derks of the Free University of Brussels cites previous Flemish electoral research indicating that negative attitudes toward immigrants are strongly associated with voters' preference for Vlaams Blok.
In addition, Johan Leman of Catholic University of Louvain believes Vlaams Belang's popularity stems in part from the lack of other Flemish right-wing parties in the 1990s, noting that all other parties in Flanders had a center-left orientation.
Although Vlaams Belang received 6.8 million euros in state funding in 2005, its far-right stance leaves its future government funding in jeopardy. A Belgian court will rule in 2008 whether to stop funding Vlaams Belang for violating the Belgian antidiscrimination law of 2003.
Wallonia's National Front Party and Immigration
Although not nearly as strong or as organized as Vlaams Belang, le Front National (National Front) party in Belgium — founded in 1985 and closely tied to the National Front of France — has emerged as the principal far-right party in Wallonia. The party held onto its one seat in the Chamber of Representatives in the June 10 elections.
While the National Front remains the most prominent extreme-right Walloon party, the extreme right in Wallonia is fragmented, and in-fighting is the norm. Eric Mielants of Fairfield University states the comparative lack of success of the far right in Wallonia does not necessarily indicate less racist or xenophobic sentiment in the region, but rather can be attributed to the "incompetent leadership" of the Belgian National Front.
The party's leader and most well-known figure, Daniel Féret, has claimed that Brussels will be under Islamic law in 15 years. In April 2006, a Belgian court convicted Féret of inciting racial hatred through electoral policies and party manifestos. The court sentenced him to 250 hours of community service, specifying that he use that time to help in the integration of foreigners. The court also barred him from running for office for 10 years. Féret has appealed the decision and is awaiting a final verdict.
In addition to being an anti-immigrant party, the National Front does not support Turkey joining the European Union. It is also against affirmative action and globalization, aiming instead for protections for small businesses. In the Walloon town of Charleroi, where unemployment in the coal and steel industry has reached upwards of 30 percent, the party has received support.
Belgian Antidiscrimination Laws, Organizations, and Mobilization
In addition to the political establishment's attempts to isolate Vlaams Belang, Belgium has a number of laws and organizations with a specific mandate to fight discrimination and racism. For example, the 1981 law against racism and xenophobia was used to dissolve Vlaams Blok and to charge National Front leader Féret with inciting racial hatred.
Belgium updated its antidiscrimination laws in 2003, when it widened the forms of discrimination and established the difference between direct and indirect discrimination. Under the new law, direct discrimination is defined as a prejudiced act that is based on a person's sex, race, color, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, marital status, birth, fortune, age, religion or belief, current and future state of health, or a disability or physical characteristic. Indirect discrimination includes neutral policies or provisions that negatively impact certain groups.
Belgium's Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism, created in 1993, is an independent public agency with the mission to fight all aspects of racism. The center conducts research on multicultural issues in Belgium; it also offers mediation and legal advice and assistance for those who have suffered discrimination. Since 2003, the center has had the additional mandate of informing public officials about migration flows and defending the rights of foreigners.
A nongovernmental organization with a similar mission, the Brussels-based Movement Against Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Xenophobia (MRAX) is an antidiscrimination advocacy group. Originally founded after World II by former Resistance members seeking to highlight the situation of Jews in post-war Belgium, MRAX's activities include the registration and monitoring of complaints with the center.
According to a Eurobarometer survey conducted in the summer of 2006, 78 percent of Belgians believed that ethnic discrimination was widespread in the country, compared with the EU average of 64 percent. In a similar vein, 60 percent of Belgians perceived widespread religious discrimination, higher than the EU average of 44 percent.
To protest extremism and promote tolerance, the leader of a rock group in Antwerp organized four concerts, titled "0110" to coincide with their October 1 date, prior to the 2006 municipal elections. Held in Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp, as well as in Charleroi in Wallonia, more than 85,000 people attended, 40,000 in Antwerp alone according to news reports. Belgian singer Axelle Red sang at the Antwerp concert, which occurred at the same time as a Vlaams Belang rally held nearby, while Prime Minister Verhofstadt attended the concert in Ghent.
In another demonstration against racism, 626 couples married or renewed their vows in a mass wedding ceremony led by Wouter van Bellingen, the first black deputy mayor and registrar elected in Flanders, on International Anti-Racism Day on March 21. Activists organized the event after three couples refused to have van Bellingen marry them, claiming that they wanted an "all-white" wedding instead.
Vlaams Belang: Present and Future
For the October 2006 elections, Vlaams Belang chose the slogan "Secure, Flemish, Livable" (Veilig, Vlaams, Leefbar), in contrast to the previous Vlaams Blok slogan, "Our People First" (Eigen Volk Eerst). For the 2007 national elections, the party chose "Flemish Power" (Vlaamse Kracht), attesting to its roots as a Flemish nationalist party.
In the 2006 elections, moreover, Vlaams Belang made a concerted effort to reach out to the sizeable Jewish community in Antwerp, despite its history of being sympathetic to Nazi collaborators.
Vlaams Belang and one of its most influential politicians, Felip DeWinter, claimed to seek the Jewish vote as part of its stated efforts to stop the spread of Islam in Europe. It is not known whether the party gained a substantial number of Jewish votes, however, as Belgian exit polls do not ask about voters' religion.
The outcome of the June 10 national elections suggests that Vlaams Belang will continue to fare better in regional and municipal elections in Flanders, although the party will likely need to attract voters outside its traditional base — meaning those of non-Belgian background — to maintain its regional strength.
The author wishes to thank Johan Leman of the Catholic University of Louvain for his helpful comments.
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