|Preceded by||Vlaams Blok|
place Madouplein 8 bus 9 Brussel
|European Parliament Group||Non-Inscrits|
(only in municipal elections)
|Official colours||Yellow, Black|
|Politics of Belgium
Vlaams Belang (Dutch for "Flemish Interest", pronounced Vlaams Belang (help·info)) is a political party in the Flemish Community of Belgium that advocates the independence of Flanders and strict limits on immigration, whereby immigrants would be obliged to adopt Flemish culture and language. VB rejects multiculturalism, although it accepts a multiethnic society as long as people of non-Flemish backgrounds assimilate Flemish culture. Although the party characterizes its current policies as those of a traditional conservative party, observers describe it as far right, because of widespread, recurrent issues of racism.
The current party is a successor of the Vlaams Blok, that changed its name after a controversial trial in 2004. Most other parties have agreed on a "cordon sanitaire", effectively blocking the Vlaams Belang from any executive power, and attempts on cutting public subsidies specifically for the party were made through the Belgian "dry up" law.
Like its predecessors, the right wing of the Volksunie and Vlaams Blok, the Vlaams Belang is part of the ideologically diverse Flemish movement. When the Volksunie in the 1970s, under party president Hugo Schiltz attracted more liberal politicians, and accepted Belgian federalism, this did not sit well with the party's nationalist right wing, particularly after the party entered the coalition government of Leo Tindemans and in 1978 agreed to the Egmont pact.
The wing created two new small parties, the Vlaams-Nationale Partij (Flemish National Party, VNP), presided by Karel Dillen, and the Vlaamse Volkspartij (Flemish People Party, VVP) with the former VU senator Lode Claes. They participated in the 1978 general elections as a coalition under the name of Vlaams Blok and one of the coalition's parliamentary candidates, MP, Karel Dillen, won. Later, both parties merged into the Vlaams Blok (English: Flemish Bloc). Lode Claes decided not to join the new party because of differing views on nationalism and right wing politics.
The Vlaams Blok's main growth started in 1991, when it increased its number of members of parliament from 2 to 12, gaining 6.6% of the vote. In 2003, the Vlaams Blok received 11.6% of the vote with 18 MPs elected.
Upon complaints filed by the governmental Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism and the Dutch-speaking Human Rights League in Belgium, in 2001 three non-profit organisations that in effect constituted the core of the Vlaams Blok party were charged with violation of the Law on Racism and Xenophobia by assisting 'a group or organisation that clearly and repeatedly commits discrimitation or segregation', here the political party. By April 2004, the Appellate Court of Ghent came to a final verdict, forbidding their and the party's continued existence for its 'repeated incitement to discrimination'. In November that year, the Court of Cassation rejected their last appeal to annul the verdict; the delay had allowed using the name 'Vlaams Blok' for election candidacy.
Following this conviction, the Vlaams Blok party disbanded itself. The former party leadership and members subsequently established the Vlaams Belang. According to the Belgian State Security Service, this was merely a pro forma act. —Gerolf Annemans, a prominent leader of both the old and the new party, would emphasize that view in 2005.— The service further noted that the party had been forced to change its name and to rid its platform of racist elements. The "launch of the new name Vlaams Belang was paired with a publicity campaign that had the intention of creating an image of respectability". Changes to the party platform have been made to allow it to comply with the law, and the motto of Vlaams Blok, Eigen volk eerst ("[Our] Own people first"), has been dropped, though it is still used by party leaders and members in meetings.
Some academics, such as law professor Matthias Storme (a member of the N-VA and a Vlaams Belang supporter), see the trial in which the Vlaams Blok was condemned as a political trial. Some also claim that the Belgian establishment had changed the law for the purpose of this trial. Pro Flandria, a forum consisting of academia and businesspeople (presided by Jan Van Malderen, founder of the Ghent chapter of NSV, the Nationalist Student Union), wrote an open letter about the trial in 2003, saying that "political opponents should be fought in open forums, using arguments, so that a voter can make up his mind... A court should not be misused for a political retaliation that cannot be made through political means."
In the course of the proceedings, a Court of First Instance had ruled the accusations to have a strictly political crime as subject, which was confirmed in appeal. Judgement of such requires a Court of Assize with a jury. The Court of Cassation however, provided a judicial argumentation to the contrary of the rulings and annulled these, at which the criminal procedure was brought back to trial court.
Law professor Luc Lamine of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, a former VB advisor who has since left the party, claims that the party purposely discarded his legal advice on appeals and mounted a weak defence in order to lose the case and obtain a victim role: "For the party leaders, losing was much more interesting. Winning just wasn't an option." However, Lamine also stated that his general discontent with the party leaders and critique of the "racist-inspired language" used on party congresses were among his reasons for leaving the party.
Lamine had advised the VB to bring the case to the European Court of Human Rights, however, the party leadership thought they would have no chances. VB senator Joris Van Hauthem had already stated in 2005 that this would be unwise for procedural reasons: "If we had gone to Strasbourg [ECHR] based on procedural arguments, we might have had a case. But Lamine already put in a private claim to overturn the Appeals Court verdict, on the basis of substantive arguments. If Vlaams Belang were to put forth a claim against the verdict as well, at Strasbourg, the Court will bundle both cases. Then we would lose the case for sure. Lamine has thus given the final blow to himself and to us." Lamine denied this: "The party legal department's head doesn't know what he's doing." The judicial service of the Flemish Parliament noted that a procedure at the ECHR would not be able to overturn the Appeals Court conviction that condemnded the Vlaams Blok. Such a procedure could, however, possibly lead to a judgement against the Belgian state ordering it to pay damages.
Lawyer Gerolf Annemans, chairman of the VB faction in the federal chamber, in a speech at the founding congress of the new party condemned the case as follows:
"What a disgrace, my friends. The names of all main legal players in that trial are forever engraved in this lawyer's memory; they are warned for the rest of their careers. Because this was a trial of cowardry, of meanness, and above all, of injustice. And that, that we should never, until the end of our days, never shall we forget that."
Annemans' comment caused a stir as Belgian media interpreted it as an open threat. A government official, law professor Brice De Ruyver, a legal advisor for prime minister Guy Verhofstadt (Flemish Liberal party), claimed that the comment was criminal libel and a threat, because the integrity of a court was questioned. If a member of the legislative power cricised a judge, he had "made himself guilty of a flagrant violation of the separation of powers", according to De Ruyver. Minister of justice Laurette Onkelinx (Francophone Socialist Party) stated that Annemans' comment "revealed totalitarian methods of intimidation" and that it was "inadmissible that the judicative fulfills its function under threats from extreme right-wing activists". However, co-chairman of the Supreme Court Edith Van den Broeck, said the comment was improper, but probably not a legal threat.
Annemans himself claimed his comment was an emotional outburst on his part in reaction to Marc Timperman, the Supreme Court public prosecutor, laughing at Vlaams Blok's lawyers as the Court's rendered the verdict the week before. Vlaams Belang alleges that Timperman was a political appointee (because Timperman was deputy chief of staff to VLD justice minister Marc Verwilghen). Vlaams Belang, in a press release, stated that reactions on Annemans' speech were "vastly exaggerated and out of all proportions". The party also pointed at the problem of political nomination of judges, and again claimed that the lawsuit had been a political process coordinated with the Ministry of the Interior.
The Vlaams Belang took part in the 2006 municipal elections on the theme of "Secure, Flemish, Liveable".
In Antwerp, the Vlaams Belang's vote count ran behind that of the Socialist Party, which increased their share of the vote dramatically. Nevertheless, although the VB-VLOTT coalition got only 0.5% more votes than in the previous election, it gained 20 seats: 18 seats to Vlaams Belang and 2 to its coalition partner, VLOTT. This echoed the VB's large gain of seats in 2000.
For all Antwerp district councils, except for Center and Borgerhout, the VB showed an increase of its voters share. In two districts, Hoboken and Deurne, VB has the most seats; in the former district, the other parties will have to work together with the Marxist-Leninist Workers Party (PVDA) in order to obtain a majority in the district council, although another party, the N-VA, has ruled out such a coalition.
In the rest of Flanders, the Vlaams Belang, like the CD&V, enjoyed a massive increase of votes (the number of VB council members almost doubled, from 439 to about 800). This can be explained in part by the fact that the party ran candidates in more communities' elections than in 2000. In Aalst and Schoten, Vlaams Belang enjoys a plurality although it is unlikely that any party in these or other cities will break the cordon sanitaire.
Some of the main points in the platform include:
Vlaams Belang was one of the largest Belgian parties, although other parties usually form alliances with their counterparts across the Flemish/Francophone divide (Christian-Democrats, Liberals, Socialists and Greens). It has been growing steadily since 1978, when its predecessor "Vlaams Blok" was formed. Nonetheless, it has no official executive power due to the Cordon Sanitaire, a pact between the other Belgian parties that rejected Vlaams Blok from any governing coalition because the party's views were considered to be morally and politically unacceptable. Vlaams Belang says that its platform now is legally compliant, rendering the cordon sanitaire unjustified. The party, however, would need to convince others to join a coalition because the Belgian political system is based on proportional representation.
After the regional elections in 2004, changes in the perception of the party by the population, as well as the growing strength of the party, made it possible for the Vlaams Blok to be invited briefly for negotiations at the start of the formation of the regional government. In the runup towards the local elections of late 2006, there were signs that the cordon sanitaire could be breached in some municipalities, but it wasn't.
Critics of the cordon sanitaire argue that it is undemocratic, or that it is not effective in fighting the Vlaams Belang. Indeed, some figures in the other major Flemish political parties question its viability, and some have participated in debates with VB politicians. One Flemish newspaper, De Standaard, has declared its intention to treat Vlaams Belang like any other party.
In an interview with the popular weekly Humo, Flemish PM Yves Leterme (CD&V) however declared that a local chapter of his party that would form a coalition or close agreements with the Vlaams Belang, wouldn't be considered a part of the CD&V anymore.
The right-wing List Dedecker opposes the Cordon Sanitaire, although it is also claimed that the emergence of that party may hamper VB's future growth by competing for right-leaning voters.
The Vlaams Belang is a very divisive issue in Belgium, particularly in Flanders, as was the former Vlaams Blok. One response to Vlaams Belang has been attempts to cut state funding for the party (see the Belgian "dry up" law). On the Flemish level, there is no political majority yet for such actions against other parties, as this approach is generally viewed as being counter-productive. Some, particularly Francophones, support it anyway.
On May 18, 2006 the organizations Kif Kif and MRAX (Movement against Racism, Antisemitism and Xenophobia), backed (as demanded by law) by the political parties sp.a, spirit, PS, MR and CDh (the parties also paid for the legal translation of the complaint), filed a complaint against Vlaams Belang with the Belgian Council of State. This court has six months to decide whether or not to cancel part of the state funding (dotation) the party receives, up to 2.1 million Euros yearly. The complaint claims that the Vlaams Belang party is "opposed to the rights granted in the European Convention on Human Rights". It refers to the utterance of Filip Dewinter calling his party "islamophobic" in a Jewish newspaper." The plaintiffs also state that "the party, for all intent and purpose, still uses the same platform and communication as the Vlaams Blok", that was condemned after a similar complaint.
The complaint had been prepared for several months, and some of the complaining political parties had been hesitant to file it. The Vlaams Belang has stated its intention to denounce the majority of the judges because they are francophone or because they are allegedly hostile towards the party.
Some members, such as Roeland Raes have been accused of being Nazi sympathizers. Roeland Raes was sentenced to 4 months imprisonment (suspended) for negationism in accordance with the Belgian Holocaust denial law, specifically for uttering the following controversial sentence: “whether it was planned that they should all die during the war is another question”. During the interview, Raes however had no doubts about the systematic persecution and deportation of the Jews by the Nazis. The original complaint goes back to 2001. In the meanwhile, the master video tape with the full interview, was lost. Early 2006, at the Public Prosecutor’s request and after a hearing in chambers, the charges were dropped, but after an appeal by the Forum of Jewish Organisations, the case was resumed. The Forum of Jewish Organisations and the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism received 1,000 EUR damages. Commenting on the convinction, Bruno Valkeniers, Vlaams Belang president, stressed that his party had voted in favor of the Belgian Holocaust denial law, although in his opinion it clearly breaches the freedom of speech.
A December 2005 interview by Vlaams Belang frontman Filip Dewinter with the American-Jewish newsweekly The Jewish Week included a question if "Jews should vote for a party that espouses xenophobia". Dewinter responded by saying: "Xenophobia is not the word I would use. If it absolutely must be a ‘phobia,’ let it be 'Islamophobia.'"
However, as noted by the Stephen Roth Institute, Dewinter has also appeared on The Political Cesspool, an American white supremacist radio show that has a history of promoting Neo-Nazism and Holocaust Denial.
Politicians, like prime minister Guy Verhofstadt (VLD), Karel De Gucht (VLD) and the late Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn have called the Vlaams Belang or its leaders "fascist". However, history professor Eric Defoort has stated the use of this terminology creates "a distorted image of their antagonist, whom they can then scold with missionary zeal".
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is known to be a liberal political critic of Islam in the Netherlands, and to whom Vlaams Belang on different occasions referred to defend its points of view on Islam, called the party "a racist, anti-Semitic, extremist party that is unkind to women and that should be outlawed." According to Vlaams Belang, Hirsi Ali had been misinformed. The party considered this to be part of a smear campaign. Vlaams Belang underlined that Hirsi Ali supposedly made the statement on the occasion of a debate organised by the left-liberal think tank Liberales, whose president is Dirk Verhofstadt. Vlaams Belang added that Dirk Verhofstadt is known for regularly publishing accusations against the party. Vlaams Belang also wrote an open letter to Hirsi Ali.
On May 31, 2006, former chief of police Bart Debie was sent to criminal court. Mr. Debie is now a security expert and parliamentary cooperator of the party, and was the party's main candidate in the local elections of 2006 in the Borgerhout district. He was elected as council member to the Antwerp municipal council. Debie was prosecuted for "torturing suspects at a police station, breach of the 1981 law on racism and xenophobia and forgery of police reports," acts committed on several occasions between February 1999 and April 2003. Mr. Debie’s defence argues that he is the victim of a reckoning. Debie resigned his commission as chief of police after a preventive suspension for "blurring of moral standards" due to these allegations, and was consequently given his present party functions. On January 31, 2008 Bart Debie was convicted by the Antwerp Court of Appeal to 4 years imprisonment (of which 1 will be effective), and a fine of 1.250 EUR. He will also lose his civil rights for a period of 5 years, which means he will have to resign as municipal councillor. It has been argued that this was an entirely politically motivated incident, much like that of the recent 2008 Geert Wilders case. Four men of Turkish/Moroccan descent were taken into custody by Debie's men for assaulting police officers. One of the men under Debie made a derogatory comment towards the men in custody; this comment was the basis for the entire "case." Debie admitted that the officer under him had made the statement, but he himself had no problem with it. The men were eventually let go, and not charged with assault.
On October 1, 2006, a week before the municipal elections, free concerts against intolerance, named 0110, were organised in Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent and Charleroi. The Antwerp concert received over 40,000 spectators, the total was over 100,000. Vlaams Belang sees this as a direct attack by the establishment, because the event was sponsored by the Belgian National Lottery. The National Lottery however decided upon the sponsoring contract before the political content was clear. The Antwerp mayor Patrick Janssens (SP.a) disapproved of the concerts. The party also referred to the fact that the official website of the event specifically stated that Flanders deserves better than extreme right and that Tom Barman, the main organisor, had already announced in 2005 that he was planning a concert against Vlaams Belang in October 2006. The party wrote an open letter to famous Flemish artists, such as Clouseau, Helmut Lotti, Will Tura, Johan Verminnen and Laura Lynn, who it had been announced would participate, asking them not to do so. One Vlaams Belang council member called upon the readers of his web log to start a "mail bombardment" to the concerned artists. Critics spoke of an intimidation campaign by the party, but no artist withdrew from the concerts. At a party meeting on 1 October, Filip Dewinter was quoted saying that "if it really were concerts against intolerance, Vlaams Belang would have to be guest of honour", referring to the cordon sanitaire against the party.
On November 15, 2006, party leader Dewinter stated that he will deposit a complaint with De Lijn bus company, for its plan to introduce quota for the employment of immigrants. Dewinter claims that these "quota leads to anti-Flemish racism." He will also call upon the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism to investigate. Ingrid Lieten, director of De Lijn, stated that "De Lijn is in favor of quota and will impose them, especially for women and immigrants." Vlaams Belang alleges that the introduction of the quota means different criteria will be imposed upon citizens and immigrants.
In April 2007 parliamentarian Jurgen Verstrepen left the party and sided with List Dedecker. Verstrepen was originally brought into the party as a renewing force, in 2004. However, Verstrepen's push of an idea of a united right, what has been termed "Forza Flandria" has not fared well with VB party leader Vanhecke.
In March 2008, party president Bruno Valkeniers, in the political television program De Keien van de Wetstraat, was asked the question which country he favoured to go and live in, if he had the choice. He replied that he would choose South Africa in the past, implying the era of apartheid. When asked whether the apartheid system did not bother him, he replied that, personally, it did not bother him
In 1999, the Vlaams Blok obtained 584,392 votes for the European Parliament elections. In 2004, the party obtained 981,587 votes for the Flemish Parliament and 21,297 votes for the Brussels Parliament.
The study showed that it was first and foremost the low educational level that was characteristic for the Vlaams Blok voter. There didn't seem to be a correlation, or a very small one, with age, gender nor occupation.
Another characteristic was the sector of employment. People working in the private sector faced with international competition were overrepresented within the V.B. electorate, while workers from the public sector, in health and social services, with no international competition at all- usually didn't vote for the party. Job insecurity did not seem to have an effect.
As a third characteristic, researchers found that the average V.B. voter had a low opinion of their economic situation. It was not certain that this corresponded with their real situation. Ethnocentricity was a strong reason to vote V.B., as was the feeling of alienation towards politics. There did not seem to be a correlation between the social-economic attitude of a voter and his/her preference for the V.B.
Professor Carl Devos and Dries Verlet of the Political Science Department at the Ghent University see a number of characteristics that differentiate the Vlaams Belang voters from others. There are social demographic characteristics, like social economic status or level of education, and a number of personality traits or attitudes, like a more than average sympathy towards the traditional family values, law and order, or social hierarchy and authoritarianism.
Quite some V.B. voters share fear and uncertainty towards the present day Western European society. They see the expanding social and economic freedom and the diminishing influence of the state as a threatening phenomenon. They look towards far right parties hoping for a clear beacon and guidelines.
The Party Council is the highest organ of the Vlaams Belang party. It has about 80 members, among others the members of the Party Board, parliamentarians, local deputies and the youth organisation of the VB. The Party Council is responsible for choosing the party leader. The party executives throughout the party's organization then get to decide on the nomination. The Party Council is also responsible for fielding a candidate list at election time.