'Belgium Means Nothing to Me': An Interview with Vlaams Belang Chief Frank Vanhecke
On Dec. 23, the Belgian Chamber of Representatives approved the formation of a new interim government, thus providing a respite from an institutional crisis that had seen the country without a government for some six months since general elections in June. The crisis was provoked by the inability of leading political parties from Flanders and Wallonia -- the Dutch-speaking north and the French-speaking south of the country respectively -- to come to terms on a governing coalition. It has transformed the hitherto merely theoretical prospect of a break-up of Belgium into a real possibility. One party that explicitly favors the break-up of Belgium is the Flemish secessionist party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest). Based on the results of the June elections, Vlaams Belang represents the third largest political party in Belgium as a whole and the second largest in Flanders, where it enjoys the support of roughly 20 percent of voters. The party is frequently depicted as "extremist" or "racist" in the international media. Its predecessor party, Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc), was dissolved in 2004 after being condemned as such by a Belgian court. In an interview that appeared in German in November, Hanspeter Born of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche spoke with Vlaams Belang chairman Frank Vanhecke about the party's goal of independence for Flanders and the charges of racism against it. The interview appears here for the first time in English.
You and your party, Vlaams Belang, want Flanders to be independent. Why?
Not because we woke up one day and said to ourselves "We want to break up the Belgian state and we want an independent Flemish nation." Rather we came to favor secession, because of what happens in Belgium. Belgium does not really exist. Belgium is a name, not a nation. In Belgium, there are two nations, two peoples: the French-speaking Walloons und the Dutch-speaking Flemings. The two parts of the country do not only have different languages, they also have different mentalities and the respective publics subscribe to very different political ideas.
How do these political ideas differ?
Roughly speaking, Wallonia tends to the left and is socialist, whereas Flanders tends overall to the right and is economically liberal. We are also very different culturally. Where is the source of the problem? In my opinion, the source of the problem is that the southern, Walloon part of the country -- which, precisely because it is socialistic, is an economic midget in comparison to Flanders -- feels itself culturally and in terms of language to be superior.
For 150 years, the French-speaking Belgians constituted the country's ruling class.
Exactly. That's it. And that is the basis of the conflict.
But in the last 30 years, the situation has changed and Flanders is economically dominant. The Walloons realize this too and they have adapted to the new situation by making concessions.
Then I have to ask you: What concessions? We are 6 million Flemings -- as opposed to four million Walloons -- and we hold up the whole nation on our backs. We account for 86 percent of Belgian exports -- and that is not information that an extremist politician is giving you, but it comes rather from the Flemish regional government and from Flemish universities and it has recently been confirmed by Wallonian universities. Every year between 7 and 12 billion euros flow from the Flemish to the Wallonian part of the country. And what do we get in return? We do not even get respect for our frontiers and our language. As you know, French-speaking Belgians refuse to recognize the linguistic frontiers that were laid down 40 years ago.
In practice the linguistic frontiers are changing now, because there are population shifts and because French-speaking people from Brussels are moving into the Flemish suburbs around the city.
I don't think that the linguistic regions in Switzerland change.
They might be changing gradually. But in Switzerland, there is no conflict between the different linguistic groups.
But Switzerland is a democratic country. Switzerland has a democracy such as we in Belgium do not have.
Why should Belgium not be considered a democracy?
We are not living in a banana republic, of course. But in my opinion Belgium is not democratic. There are so many laws and obstacles in this country that make it impossible for the 6 million Flemings to live how they want in their own country. In the last 15 years, the Wallonian minority has prevented all the necessary changes that we wanted to undertake. In the last 15 years, all the crucial political questions have led to conflict. This is not only the case as concerns questions of money or language, but also the reform of the police and the judiciary -- a matter that is of particular importance just now. There is no consensus between the two parts of the country on the issue. The social security system is an even more important point of contention. Because we need the consent of the other part of the country in order to implement necessary measures, we are blocked.
Can you give an example?
Take youth crime, for instance. With the single exception of the Greens -- who represent a small minority -- all Flemish parties are agreed that minors who are guilty of grave crimes should be punished and even confined in juvenile institutions. This is what the general public in Flanders wants. But since the Wallonian part of the country opposes it, we cannot do it. We want to have our own security policy, for which we would also pay ourselves.
But Flanders cannot do that, since taxes are collected on the national level and the money is then redistributed. I take it that bothers you?
Belgium has the second highest level of taxation in the world, I believe. We pay 54 percent of our personal income to the state. That's an enormous amount.
But in return you receive exceptionally generous social benefits.
Like, for example, unemployment benefits for an unlimited time: lifelong, in effect. In Flanders, all political parties agree that this is a crazy system and that one should instead find employment for the unemployed. In Flanders, we have an unemployment rate of 6 percent; in Wallonia, the official unemployment rate is 17 percent and in reality it is higher. In Flanders, 23 percent of the economically active population works for the state; in Wallonia, the figure is 40 percent. Just think about it: an economy with 17 percent unemployment and 40 percent civil servants. This is an impossible situation. And then foreign observers always ask us why we Flemings are not prepared to show solidarity with our Wallonian compatriots.
Why not, in fact?
In the last three decades, we have in fact shown solidarity and indeed in a way that no nation in the entire world has shown for another. In recent years, Flanders has given more financial support to Wallonia than West Germany gave to the new "Bundesländer" [eastern Germany] after reunification. We are prepared to show solidarity, but we want to be able determine how our money is spent. Let me give you an example: Why does an appendix operation or the delivery of a baby cost 50 percent more in Wallonia than in Flanders?
Is the patient charged differently?
Since we have a very good system of medical insurance, the patient does not pay. The state pays: which is to say, the Flemish taxpayers. Another example: I live in the Western part of Flanders, where we have a very strong economy and an unemployment rate of only around 2.5 percent. Every day, buses bring workers from France. The French workers cross the Wallonian province of Hainaut, where the unemployment rate is 40 percent, in order to work in Flanders.
And why do Flemish companies employ French workers who have to come from far away rather than Belgian Walloons?
Because there is no limit on the amount of time Belgians can receive unemployment benefits and to work is not worth it for them. They do better with their unemployment benefits than they do with low-paying jobs, especially if they receive child benefits as well. You remember the child murderer Dutroux. Before he committed his atrocious crimes, he already had received a prison sentence on account of various other offenses. When he was released after a short time, he registered as unemployed and declared himself to be unable to work because he was supposed to have suffered psychological damage in prison. Together with his wife, he automatically received 2,000 euros net per month. It was this money that permitted him to pursue his crimes. And this over the course of years, during which time his situation was never verified. And why not? Because in the entire province of Hainaut, there is only a single unemployment office that performs these sorts of controls and it is hundreds of kilometers away from where Dutroux lived. In Flanders, by contrast, the situation of the unemployed is monitored. Maybe as Nordic people we are too strict, but we regard this as necessary.
Does Belgium as a nation mean nothing to you? After all, there are lots of mixed marriages and many people in Belgium who do not feel themselves to be Flemings or Walloons, but Belgians. Isn't there something like a Belgian "way of life"?
Belgium means nothing to me. My children consider themselves to be Flemish and European. Belgium means nothing at all to them.
Was it always like that? You were born in 1959. As you were growing up, didn't you also feel a little Belgian?
No, Flemish. And even when I said Belgian, what I meant was Flemish. Look: There are no Belgian political parties, apart from a small Maoist one. There are only Flemish and French-speaking parties. It is the same thing in civil society: the associations and organizations are all separate.
You are for splitting up Belgium. How do you imagine this taking place?
The split will not play itself out as a revolution. The process has already begun. Sooner or later, lucid reasonable politicians in reasonable parties will have to understand that there is no longer any possibility of finding a sensible compromise between the different parts of the country.
Like a married couple who come to realize that they have grown so far apart that a divorce has become inevitable?
Just like that.
Next Page: French-speaking Belgians believe the marriage will carry on . . .
But from the French-speaking side, one hears more and more people saying nowadays that "on s'arrangera": in the end, the two sides will come to an arrangement in good Belgian fashion and, for better or for worse, the marriage will carry on.
The current crisis has lasted for almost five months now, and we still do not have a government.
No, not yet. But in the end there will be a government.
That's true. But for public opinion and even for the opinion of the political class -- I am convinced of this -- something has broken apart. There will be a new Belgian government, but it will never be like before. The idea of an independent Flemish state is in fact a revolutionary idea. According to public opinion polls, some 40 percent of the people in Flanders are already for an independent Flanders.
But that is still not a majority.
No. But when you ask people "Should Flanders organize and pay for its own social security system?" 80 or 90 percent will answer yes. You would get the same result if you asked if Flanders should lower taxes -- which, according to the current laws, it is not permitted to do.
But one could transfer the social security system and taxes to the constituent regions without abandoning Belgium as a federal state.
I can tell you that Belgium only exists as a state because an enormous sum of money flows from Flanders to Wallonia. If this flow of money was to be stopped, inasmuch as the constituent regions were made financially autonomous, Belgium would not survive this change. For Belgium's French-speaking politicians, only money counts. Two years ago, [Elio] Di Rupo, the charismatic leader of the French-speaking Socialist Party, put it like this: If the Flemish want their own social security system, then this will be the end of Belgium. He meant that as a threat. But it's true.
How do you envisage the end of Belgium?
What I foresee is that next time or the time after next, it will no longer be possible to form a Belgian government and that at this point, the democratically elected Flemish parties will demand the right for Flanders to collect its own taxes and to have its own social security system. This will mean the slow but sure end of Belgium. Respected Flemish specialists in public law have been asked in what form independence would be accepted by the other European states. In the jurists' opinion, a vote in the Flemish parliament in favor of independence that was confirmed by a popular referendum in Flanders would be accepted by the international community.
Wouldn't a referendum on separation have to take place rather in all of Belgium?
I consider Switzerland to be perhaps the only real democracy in the world, precisely because it uses referendums. But in Belgium, there is no right to have a referendum. Belgium is not a democracy, because the principal idea of democracy is that the majority decides -- while safeguarding the interests of the minority of course. In Belgium, the majority cannot decide.
You know, of course, that your party, Vlaams Belang, has a very bad reputation around the world. It is said to be xenophobic, racist and even to display fascist tendencies. The party is more or less identical with the Vlaams Blok: a party that was declared to be racist and banned.
I have been a member of Vlaams Belang or its predecessor party for 30 years now. Nobody has ever said about me what I have read in the last weeks and months in our Belgian newspapers about Herr Blocher [Christoph Blocher of Switzerland's largest party, the Swiss People's Party (SVP)]. My party has never used a poster with the same message as the poster with the black sheep used by the SVP. [WPR Editor's Note: In 2007, the SVP campaigned for a law facilitating the expulsion of foreigners by using a poster depicting the proverbial "black sheep" being kicked out by other sheep. The campaign poster was widely denounced as "racist" in media outside Switzerland.] I do not mean to condemn the poster and I'm of the opinion that the use of such posters is legitimate. All I mean to say is that foreign media are only too glad to represent parties in other countries as extremist or racist.
Do you feel that you have been treated unjustly or misunderstood?
Do you know what was reported in our media about the Swiss election campaign? The disturbances in Bern [during an October 2007 SVP electoral rally] were presented as a demonstration of right-wing extremists that degenerated into violence. The reports did not speak of a party rally that was violently attacked by leftist thugs, but rather of right-wing extremists running amok in the streets. This was the picture given by our Belgian mass media.
Also on the state-controlled public television?
Yes. It was supposed to be a matter of a violent political demonstration and street-fighting. And, of course, you saw the fighting. The most innocuous version was that it was a matter of clashes between right-wing extremists and left-wing extremists. I was listening on my car radio to the commentary of Belgian public radio on the Swiss election results [in which the SVP was the leading vote-getter with 29 percent of the vote]. The commentator said that the victory of the Right presented a big problem for the naturalization of non-European immigrants and he was horrified that in certain cases naturalizations may even require a vote in a city or town. What strikes me as a democratic decision was presented as absurd and totalitarian by the Belgian public radio. We live in a strange world.
Of course, it was not only foreign media, but also a Belgian court that declared your party to be racist.
That's correct that we were condemned by a court for being a racist party. But you have to know how this came to pass. In order to be able to have us found guilty of the charge, our political opponents had to change the Belgian law on discrimination and racism seven times. Seven times! They even had to change the constitution. According to our constitution, press-related offenses had to be tried before a jury. After a jury acquitted us, the constitution was changed such that press-related matters in connection with discrimination and racism no longer had to be tried by jury. So, the case was heard by a judge in Brussels. After several months, the judge ruled that he did not have jurisdiction since it was a matter of a political trial. A second judge in Brussels did the same thing, whereupon Prime Minister Verhofstadt had a special tribunal established in Ghent to hear the case with specially named judges.
And why did the court find your party guilty?
It gave several grounds. One principal reason was the slogan that the party had used for a long time: "Eigen Volk Eerst" -- one's own people comes first. We were condemned by the court because the judge found this to be a call for discrimination against foreigners. In addition, we were condemned because a Turkish-born woman who is a member of our party wrote a newspaper article in which she condemned the practice of female circumcision in Islam. The judge found that the purpose of the article was not to call attention to the situation of women in Islam, but rather to incite racial hatred against Muslims. Those were the principal grounds for the judgment.
Which meant the end of Vlaams Blok.
In the last election in which we participated as Vlaams Blok, we got 18 percent of the vote. In June 2004, following the judgment against us, we received nearly 25 percent. In my opinion, this shows that public opinion found our condemnation to be unjust. And now, as Vlaams Belang, we find ourselves again accused before the courts. The cause is an interview that Filip Dewinter, one of the leading figures in the party, gave to a Jewish newspaper in New York. Asked if he regarded himself as a xenophobe, he responded that the party is not a xenophobic party, but that if one wants to attach a "phobia" to him, then let it be "Islamophobia," since we fear the forward march of Islam in Europe. Because of this remark, we face a trial. Yet again, a law has been specially drawn up for us. We are before the courts, not because a judge or public prosecutor or the Department of Justice has filed charges against us, but because our political opponents have! A parliamentary committee, the majority of whose members are French speakers, has the authority to file charges before the Supreme Court in matters of racial discrimination on the basis of a simple majority vote.
Is it really only a question of this single remark of Filip Dewinter?
Only that remark.
I have myself heard members of your party insulting French-speaking Belgians during a rally: calling them "franse ratten" [French rats]. Isn't that racial incitement?
Yes, of course. "French rats out!" is a taunt that has been used for over 40 years. It is not a very sophisticated form of expression, and we in the party certainly do not need such a slogan.
The party does not, but people who belong to the party use it. Are you prepared explicitly to condemn these people?
I consider these sorts of insult to be not particularly intelligent: they are badly received by the public and they damage our good cause.
Hanspeter Born is a correspondent for the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. His interview with Frank Vanhecke first appeared in German in the November 1 edition (44/07) of Die Weltwoche. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.
Photo: Vlaams Belang Chairman Frank Vanhecke