Flemish nationalist party positions itself as an alternative to pro-E.U. rivals, but problems with its image persist
As Vlaams Belang, the leading Flemish nationalist party in Belgium today, seeks to position itself as a credible alternative to Belgium’s pro-European Union and pro-immigration parties, controversies arise with a comic regularity, making the rebranding effort all the more difficult.
It seems that the notoriety that dogged the party’s predecessor, Vlaams Blok, for so many years is never far behind, even as Vlaams Belang actively seeks a mainstream forward-looking image. Voters who hold concerns about the E.U.’s role in their lives, and who might otherwise pay attention to the substance of Vlaams Belang’s political, social, cultural, and economic message, have to try to look past one distraction after another.
In March, after having nominated screenwriter Jef Elbers as a candidate for a seat on the Flemish Audiovisual Fund, the party had to withdraw its nomination because of controversial remarks Elbers had made about transgender people. In April, Twitter briefly banned Vlaams Belang’s chairman, Tom Van Grieken, after he sent out a tweet accusing the head of Antwerp’s Vooruit cultural center of displaying posters of Stalin and other communist propaganda in his home. Then, in May, as Belgium went about tentatively reopening with Covid-19 finally in retreat and hoped for a semblance of normalcy after so many months of lockdown, Marc Van Ranst, a virologist who advises Belgians on how to stay healthy—think of him as an analogue to Dr. Anthony Fauci—made controversial comments about Vlaams Belang. Van Ranst blamed the party for spreading rhetoric that has fueled an atmosphere where people who do not agree with Van Ranst feel emboldened to make death threats. Police had to spirit the virologist away to an undisclosed location following threats against him.
These are only a few of the most recent furors involving Vlaams Belang in recent months. In September 2020, when some 4,500 fans held a rally in favor of the party and against the incoming government, one supporter drew attention by showing up in a truck on which he had displayed a symbol reminiscent of Nazi iconography and a slogan mimicking German posters in occupied France. (“Whoever loots will be shot.”) Party leaders disowned these racist provocations, but the damage was done.
Whether or not it is proper to blame Vlaams Belang, the furor over these incidents can only have hurt whatever momentum the party had gained from its strong showing in the national elections of May 2019, in which nearly 19 percent of Flemish voters cast their ballots for the party—a big step up from its paltry electoral showing in 2014—and from the subsequent meeting between King Philippe and Tom Van Grieken. Widely criticized by the left, this meeting marked a sharp break from the protocol that Belgium’s monarchs had long followed. Monarchs and politicians had steered clear of Vlaams Belang, but now it was time to acknowledge the reality that Vlaams Belang’s message and agenda resonate with large numbers of Flemish voters and that simply to shun the party is a losing strategy. Socialist politician Rudi Vervoort told the Guardian, “Certainly for me, it is not a pleasure to see this scene in Belgium. On the other hand, there is an electoral reality in Flanders that cannot be denied.”
Vervoort’s attitude, it seems, is that Vlaams Belang is an ugly reality that people cannot wish away. Sentiments like these are common among politicians and pundits seen as more moderate than the nationalist party, as is the tendency to blame Belgium’s political right for a climate in which bad things happen. After Sanda Dia, the young son of a Senegalese immigrant, died in a hazing incident at the Catholic University of Leuven in December 2018, attention turned not just to an alleged racist and xenophobic subculture at the school but to the role of far-right parties in fostering intolerance and hostility to immigrants, particularly nonwhite ones.
Those who attempt to link Dia’s tragic, wholly avoidable death to the rise of the far right in Belgium do not appear too concerned about the fact that hazing is a problem at schools in many countries and its perpetrators and victims cut across racial lines. The problem is acute in the U.S., where white fraternity pledges die horribly in hazing incidents. Nonetheless, the tragedy fits the narrative spun by enemies of the right and of Vlaams Belang in particular. Reaction to the incident was predictable, with the New York Times singling out the party for opprobrium in a lengthy story about the case and its repercussions.
Some of the recent incidents undoubtedly give ammunition to those who seek to tarnish and deny the legitimacy of Vlaams Belang and to hinder the party’s efforts to distance itself from the bad old days of Vlaams Blok, the party that won notable electoral victories in local and European elections in the early years of the millennium until Belgium’s High Court came down with a ruling declaring the party to be racist and therefore in violation of the law. That ruling denied Vlaams Blok TV airtime and cut off its state funding.
The racism that people saw in the political ancestor of Vlaams Belang remains a concern. Some may be skeptical about how much of that old identity the new party really disavows. But you don’t have to be racist to have concerns about E.U. policy and immigration. In the interest of objectivity, it is worth asking Vlaams Belang politicians for their own views on these matters. In an interview with this writer for the Media Globe, Gerolf Annemans, a Vlaams Belang member of the European Parliament since 2014, addressed some of the recent furors. Annemans does not like the hazing that led to Dia’s death.
“Students should not come to any sorts of harm during hazing rituals. We condemn hazing practices that lead to unnecessarily humiliating or even hurting students,” Annemans says. “We are aware that the New York Times picked up this story to underpin a narrative of increasing racism in Flanders. In reality, this narrative, meant to divide our society, is contradicted by the facts: migrants and their offspring are given the same opportunities as any. The fraternity concerned was considered an elitist student organization.”
With regard to the presence of an apparent racist creep at the rally in September 2020, Annemans stresses the difficulty if not impossibility of screening such a large number of attendees. According to Annemans, Vlaams Belang expected maybe a thousand cars to arrive at the rally, but the actual number was in excess of five thousand. It was hardly possible to vet in advance all the decorations or insignia on all the vehicles, and in any event the owner of the vehicle with the offensive symbols on it was not even a Vlaams Belang member, Annemans says. To be fair, a political party is not responsible for what some random wacko who shows up at one of its rallies may choose to do or say or broadcast.
“The party presidency of Vlaams Belang has a tradition of ousting provocateurs who only serve our opponents’ cause, i.e. to diabolize Vlaams Belang in order to keep us from taking up executive government roles. Vlaams Belang is a profoundly democratic nationalist party: we see nationalism as a necessary emancipatory ideology for our people, in the tradition of the centennial Flemish movement,” Annemans says.
In the face of its explicit disavowal of racism, one might ask why the name Vlaams Belang comes up in stories like the one about Sanda Dia’s death. For all the negative coverage, the real issue may be a plain lack of interest on the part of some mainstream media organizations and a failure to probe and report in detail on the party and its positions and activities.
“Most of the time we are not portrayed at all! Our airtime is far less than that of smaller parties. The Flemish Media Regulator has confirmed the lack of independent reporting about Vlaams Belang,” states Annemans. “Vlaams Belang is demonized as an extreme-right wing or right-wing populist party. Demonizing an opponent is an easy way to avoid any debate. We actually do not fit at all the image of an extremist party.”
If opponents of Vlaams Belang wish to use the populist label in reference to it, they are welcome to do so, Annemans says. He asks what can be wrong with responding to the concerns and needs of working people who struggle to get by and who must grapple with the effects on Belgian society of mass immigration, the flight of industry, unfair competition, and laxity toward criminals.
“In a democracy, voting results are the bottom line. With more than 800,000 voters in the 2019 elections, we have become the country’s second largest party,” Annemans says.
The numbers do speak for themselves. Why does the message of Vlaams Belang win over so many people? It is worth considering carefully whether they are all simply racists or whether more mainstream parties have failed to address real issues and needs. All major political parties tend to attract their share of cranks, and there may well be some bigots in the ranks of Vlaams Belang voters, but one need not be a racist to support certain of its stances. Some Belgians have concerns about the long-term consequences of mass immigration in one of the smallest countries in the E.U., about the displacement of local populations, and about the problem of maintaining local institutions and cultural cohesion in the face of such a massive demographic upheaval.
Between 2002 and 2020, Annemans points out, Belgium’s population swelled from 10.3 million to 11.5 million, with 89% of the jump resulting from immigration and the balance largely from the very high birth rate among immigrants from outside the E.U. With the addition of more than 60,000 inhabitants to the Belgian population every year, for the past 18 years, it is as if a new medium-sized town had sprung up every year inside the borders of an already densely populated nation, Annemans notes.
Consider the import of this trend. In the Flemish region of Belgium, Annemans points out, the average size of a town is only 22,000 people. Annemans cites a 2017 thematic fact sheet on housing prepared by the European Commission acknowledging the impact of population explosions on housing prices in Belgium. Of course, taxes and mortgage rates affect housing prices too, but the quantity of housing on offer to buyers and renters versus the demand for housing is decisive. Though housing prices fell slightly around 2009, in the aftermath of the global banking crisis, the price of a house in Belgium is growing ever more exorbitant because of the sheer number of people chasing a limited number of opportunities.
There is also the question of how to incorporate newcomers and help them adapt to life in a society that does not have unlimited resources when it comes to language and job training. Flanders tries to be generous, offering new arrivals a civil integration course so that they may become fluent in the Dutch they must speak to find jobs in the region. How has this played out in the face of overwhelming immigration from within and outside the E.U.? “While the idea may sound fantastic, it has not prevented the number of immigrants unwilling to integrate from increasing year after year. The integration of non-E.U. immigrants is nothing short of a failure,” Annemans says, even if some of them do eventually pick up the language.
Some voters are concerned about fairness. Walloon (French-speaking) government officials tend to send out a pro-immigration message knowing that, in the end, many of the new arrivals in Belgium will end up being someone else’s problem, i.e., the Flemish part of the country’s. Unemployment is relatively high in the Brussels administrative region, at 12.7 percent, and the Walloon provinces, at 7.2 percent, compared to the Flemish areas, where it stands at 3.3 percent thanks largely to the vigilance of the Flemish labor service, or VDAB. In Brussels, a shortage of teachers abounds and joblessness among the young is acute. One result of all these skewed figures is that many new arrivals in Brussels or Wallonia end up moving to the Flemish region in search of opportunities. In the eyes of some voters, this is not fair to a region that has its act together and cannot be expected indefinitely to clean up the mess resulting from open borders and the failure of Walloon politicians to anticipate or care about the long-term consequences of the policies they tout.
Compounding the problem further is the issue of so-called benefits tourism. Some Flemish voters are wary of recent legislative proposals in the E.U. that have sought to shorten the amount of time a person needs to have worked in a given country in order to be eligible for unemployment money. A motion in 2018 that would have required someone to have worked only a day to be eligible did not pass. Another proposal in 2019 would have set the threshold at one month. The current requirement in Belgium is still three months, Annemans acknowledges, but the thrust of left-leaning, pro-immigration E.U. policy favors a scenario where someone can work in Belgium for the minimum amount of time and then go home to another E.U. country and still be eligible for benefits for years to come.
To force its misguided vision on Belgium and other member states, the E.U. has established a European Labor Authority charged with ensuring that the member states comply with directives in the areas of what are euphemistically called labor mobility and social security coordination. In a country that already has some of the highest taxes in the world, this is all a bit much for some voters to accept.
“Vlaams Belang is demonized as an extreme-right wing or right-wing populist party. Demonizing an opponent is an easy way to avoid any debate. We actually do not fit at all the image of an extremist party.”—Gerolf Annemans, Vlaams Belang member of the European Parliament
“We think that member states do not need another E.U. bureaucracy to enforce E.U. legal acts. Let us not forget that increasing labor mobility within the E.U. has never benefited the populations of member states,” Annemans comments. “If you look at Belgium’s debt ratio, it is obvious that we are not in a position to provide handouts to those who never contributed. The tax pressure here is already around 50%, one of the world’s highest rates.”
The E.U. came into being in 1993 amid much rhetoric about collaboration and harmony among member states, and the seat of the august body is in Belgium’s capital city, a place with both a strong Flemish and Walloon identity. But to Vlaams Belang’s leadership, the E.U. is obviously not the right vehicle to safeguard and advance the best interests of Flemish voters.
“The obsession of the E.U. with open borders, the increasing interference in member-state affairs by the E.U., the megalomania of the E.U. Green Deal, the plans to drastically increase the E.U.’s budget, the plans to develop the E.U.’s autonomous foreign affairs and defense policies, as well as the influence of politically correct, cultural Marxist ideologies on E.U. resolutions and legislation, are unacceptable to our voters,” Annemans says.
The party’s spokesmen would have you believe that Vlaams Belang crusades on behalf of ordinary Flemish voters who don’t really have anyone else to turn to in the hope of protecting their economic and political interests and their cultural identity in the face of an E.U. behemoth driven by politically correct ideology. But there are those who question whether that is really even a very fair description of the E.U. today. Jan Zielonka, a professor of European politics at the University of Oxford, acknowledges that Vlaams Belang’s allure for Belgian voters is largely a function of its tough opposition to E.U. immigration policy. But political parties elsewhere in Europe, even those seen as some of the more extreme nationalist parties, have strangely found the E.U. to be a rather accommodating body. The National Front in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, and Fidesz in Hungary have grown more ambivalent, if not openly positive, about the E.U. than in the past, Zielonka says, attributing this trend to the parties’ growing say in Brussels and the E.U. funds flowing into their coffers.
“Some even argue that Hungary’s Fidesz or Poland’s PiS are using E.U. money (indirectly more than directly) to strengthen their power position. Moreover, their vision of a Europe of nations is now largely accepted, and they successfully vetoed numerous decisions within the E.U., including those on migration. Ursula von der Leyen would not be elected without some nativist votes in the European Parliament. In short, the idea that the E.U. is an exclusive liberal ‘property’ no longer applies,” Zielonka comments.
To view in proper context the struggles of nationalists in Flanders today, it may be useful to turn to the work of a brilliant historian who devoted a bulk of his life to studying the complexities of Belgium’s storied past. In Belgium and the First World War, historian Henri Pirenne captured the difficult and ambiguous position of a small nation surrounded by larger and powerful ones not shy about using force to accomplish their short- and long-term strategic aims.
Pirenne recapitulates Belgium’s trials as a pawn of the great powers during the War of the Spanish Succession, in which the country passed from British to Dutch control during the period 1706 to 1713, and its occupation by the French from 1745 to 1748 during the Seven Years War and again after the Battle of Jemmapes from 1792 to 1793, and yet again for two decades in the aftermath of the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. After routing Napoleon, the allied powers gained control of Belgium’s fate until the nation’s independence in 1830. “Thus its possession by Germany from August 1914 to November 1918 was hardly a new phenomenon. It was only one more chapter in the long struggle for mastery among the large states of the West,” Pirenne writes.
In the course of their occupation of Belgium, the imperial German authorities subjected the Flemish and Walloon populations to indignities that some of the haughty ministrations and edicts of the E.U. today cannot fail to bring to mind. The banning of outdoor gatherings and political meetings of any kind may find a highly specific analogue in some of the Covid-era restrictions imposed on Belgium’s populace, but this is only one of a panoply of tyrannical measures that also included the banning of patriotic rallies, the outlawing of Belgian national symbols and the insignia of other nations at war with Germany, the inspection of students’ textbooks and notebooks, and even the jailing of students found guilty of anything the occupiers construed as “Germanophobia.” Even the display of the Belgian flag in public could lead to prosecution and jail time.
But all these curtailments of Flemish freedom look minor in comparison to the depredations of the Meldeämt, an institution charged with keeping tabs on all men in the little country born from 1880 to 1898. Those who were of military age or who seemed in some way to pose a danger to German authority had to present themselves in person once a month to the offices of the Meldeämt nearest to where they lived.
“All travel, all temporary or permanent changes of residence, had to be authorized or the individual would be subject to a fine, imprisonment, or even deportation to a prison camp. These restrictions on their freedom of movement were bitterly resented by the Belgian population, who until then had been the most mobile people in the world,” Pirenne recounts. These draconian measures were the occupier’s way of looking after those who could, even in theory, mount a challenge to the hegemony of an occupier whose bureaucratic and spiritual descendant, in 2021, is an E.U. bureaucracy largely shaped and dominated by its most powerful member, Germany. The restrictions enforced by the Meldeämt have a recent analogue in the introduction of electronic chips in Belgian passports, containing photos, signatures, and other personal data of the passport holders. As of April 2014, the holders’ fingerprints have been part of the records stored in the chips. It is a highly invasive measure.
The Meldeämt represented a severe curtailment of the sovereignty of the Belgian people, and was no more popular than the exorbitant war taxes that Germany imposed. On December 10, 1914, the Germans issued an ordinance demanding a yearly “contribution” of 480 million francs, paid in monthly installments of 40 million francs that soon went up to 50 million, 60 million, and finally 80 million, an imposition that became no less a source of resentment than the dues of 617.85 Euros per person that Belgium pays to the E.U. in 2021.
“The long duration of the war obviously forced the conqueror to increasingly exploit the country for its own benefit. From then on, continued collaboration with the invader seemed to patriots like treason,” writes Pirenne, who could just as easily be writing about the passions animating some Vlaams Belang voters today.
In recounting the Belgian people’s reaction against German authoritarianism and domination, Pirenne describes a nationalist spirit that has been visible in other conflicts, with other players, throughout Belgium’s history and nowhere more so than in the Flemish revolt against the tyranny of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In Belgian Democracy: Its Early History, Pirenne relates Charles’s subjugation of Ghent and the coercive measures he applied to make the people of the town surrender the charters on which their political freedoms rested, give up their property and arms, and make hefty payments adumbrating the sums extorted in later periods of Flemish and Belgian history under one pretext or another. The proclamation of the “Caroline Concession” near the end of April 1540 did away with what political rights and freedoms the people of Ghent still enjoyed.
“The severity with which Charles V treated the town of Ghent … is not entirely explained by his firm determination to demonstrate to the burghers of the Low Countries the reality of his sovereign power. The Caroline Concession is not merely an act of vengeance from an angry potentate; it is rather the programme of a new method of government,” Pirenne writes.
A new method of government, indeed. The passage is pregnant with implications. Under that new bureaucratic model, a central authority decides what is best for the people of a small nation with a highly idiosyncratic culture and a proud tradition of political, social, and economic independence, and runs roughshod over that little nation’s rights and takes as much from the people as it pleases.
The model finds its apotheosis in today’s European Union.
“The nation state is the best guarantor of the interests of its people. In our case, that means an independent Flanders, preferably constituted as a republic,” says Gerolf Annemans. “The E.U. has become too big, lacks democratic legitimacy and has entirely abandoned the once sacred principle of subsidiarity. We want to shrink the E.U. to a manageable size, replace the power of technocrats and bureaucrats with democratic accountability, and reinstate the principle of subsidiarity.”
If Vlaams Belang really wants to burnish its image, join the political mainstream, and become a more serious and successful competitor to the left-leaning and pro-European Union parties of Belgium, it can do so, but the party still has a good deal of work ahead. Vlaams Belang must do a better job of repudiating the vile racism of its predecessor and demonstrating that there is room in its vision for people of different backgrounds even as it maintains a realistic view of the limits of immigration in a small nation. The party has a pedigree stretching back to and long before the antifascist struggles of the last century, and will hurt nothing and no one more than itself if it fails to make the parallels clear to voters and the world. Vlaams Belang’s struggle is an ancient one. History is on its side.