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The other Brussels attacks battleground

Mark Hallam, BrusselsApril 1, 2016

If ever the mayor of Brussels and Belgium's interior minister needed to work together, it's now. Instead, they are tearing strips off each other. Why? Mark Hallam reports from Brussels.

Far-right demonstrators on Brussels' Place de la Bourse city-center square, Sunday, March 27. Police broke up the demonstration.
This far-right demo in Brussels after the attacks prompted a war of words in mainstream politicsImage: Reuters/Y. Herman

Suicide bombs at the airport and on the underground, apparent security shortcomings and then far-right protesters being ushered out of the city center by police: The need for political unity between the city of Brussels and Belgium's government has never been clearer.

Perhaps unfortunately, this required Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur, one of Belgium's most blunt French-speaking Socialists, to work with Flemish nationalist pit bull Jan Jambon, the interior minister. They represent the country's two largest parties in terms of seats - one in the coalition, the other leading the national opposition after decades in power. It's almost the Belgian equivalent of putting the American democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and leaders of the right-wing Tea Party in a room and ordering them to find common ground.

Vice-Prime Minister and Interior Minister Jan Jambon and Brussels City mayor Yvan Mayeur pictured during a press conference of the crisis center of the Belgian government regarding the attacks of March 22, 20160326, in Brussels. Belgien Brüssel Jan Jambon und Yvan Mayeur
Jan Jambon (left) and Yvan Mayeur don't make for great bedfellowsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Maeterlinck

After Sunday's far-right protest, Mayeur accused Jambon's New Flemish Alliance of sending the hooligans to Brussels - later telling francophone TV that he had lost all confidence in the interior minister. Jambon's office hit back, saying what had happened on Place de la Bourse was Mayeur's responsibility, as Brussels' city mayor. Another far-right demo, planned by a francophone group in Brussels for Saturday, has since been banned.

"With the extreme-right protests last Sunday, both Mr. Jambon and Yvan Mayeur were partly responsible," Piertjan Desmet, spokesman for Belgium's Groen (Green) party, told DW. "But, because of their lack of cooperation, things got slightly out of hand - and now they are just pointing fingers at each other."

PM can only watch

Prime Minister Charles Michel voiced the same opinion on Friday, lamenting the "political games" being played at such a difficult time. "I regret these polemics and will do everything to try to avoid them," Michel said.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (r.) and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi shake hands, in Brussels, March 30, 2016.
While Walloon Charles Michel heads the government, his coalition is chock full of powerful Flemish partiesImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Thys

But the prime minister is unlikely to go any further than a public reproach - and perhaps a sterner ticking-off in private. Despite holding the top job in government, as leader of the coalition's only francophone party his political base is smaller than that of either of the feuding factions; his practical power is therefore limited.

Belgian parties, perhaps more so than the electorate at large, remain polarized between the country's two principal languages.

"Now, one of the problems in Belgium, and it's also one of the reasons for the tensions, is that we have no major national parties," said Dave Sinardet, politics professor at the Free University of Brussels. "We are actually the only federation without federal parties of importance. Even federal ministers in the end only have to be elected or re-elected in one of the language communities. That, of course, creates a system where you don't have politicians who are stimulated to pursue, let's say, a broader Belgian federal interest."

Belgium: Life after the terror attacks

Change in the wind?

The Groen party, led by 29-year-old Kristof Calvo, has started to rail against this status quo.

"What marks out the Groen party in Belgium is that we are the only ones whose French and Flemish members work together," Desmet said. "Structurally, I mean. We have the Flemish Socialists and French Socialists, the Flemish and French Liberals, but only one Green faction for the entire country. Our plea is for more cooperation across the languages and less confrontation."

Belgium's Groen (green) party leader Kristof Calvo. Photo from Wednesday 8 July, 2015.
Calvo, 29, is among those hoping to break down the language barrierImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Roge

Calvo, not unlike Professor Sinardet, is among those who argue that Belgium should consider a more centralized approach to its elections, one of the platforms he put forward in a 2015 book whose title translates to "F*** the Sideline."

"About 10 or 15 years ago, this idea was only discussed in some academic circles. It was considered an unrealistic proposition," Sinardet told DW. "But in the meantime it's evolved and become part of political debate. The Greens and the Liberals on both sides have declared themselves in favor, and also some figures in other parties. Although certainly, there's still not the two-thirds majority you'd need to introduce it."

Post-attack parliamentary review

So far, Sinardet said, the security shortcomings that have emerged since March 22 do not concern Belgium's language barrier - but rather the "lack of communication, lack of information-sharing and probably also to some extent a lack of means - certainly for state security this is probably the case."

Belgien Regierungswechsel 11.10.2014
Unusually, the Francophone Socialists are not part of Belgium's current four-party coalitionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Warnand

Oliver Paasch, state premier for Belgium's oft-forgotten German-speaking contingent in Eupen in the east, does not believe that the attacks will stir up Belgium's language feud, pointing out that the various anti-terror units are all federally structured, although "they did not cooperate effectively."

"In the course of the investigations, for instance, we have learned that these services work with different databases and that these databases were not interlinked," Paasch said, also urging more investment in troubled areas such as Molenbeek: "The gap between rich and poor is greater in these city districts than anywhere else."

Paasch said having six separate local police services looking after Brussels "is simply no longer acceptable," adding that the conflicts between police forces have "very little to do with language" and more to do with funding and occasional sloppiness.

Sinardet warned that even looking into issues such as funding for security services in Belgium could turn into a political football.

"For instance, Flemish nationalists were never necessarily big fans of Belgian state security - because this could also turn against them, or at least against the more radical elements within the movement who wanted to do away with the Belgian state," Sinardet said. "It's the same for a number of left-wing parties, who traditionally also had a bit of a negative feeling towards state security."

The silver lining could lie within Belgium's electorate, who seem increasingly tired of the nationalist bickering and would prefer to vote on such issues as financial policy, immigration and security.

"What I see, certainly among the population - and I'm glad about this - is a big feeling of unity and a great desire for politicians to cooperate and get this over and done with," Groen party spokesman Desmet said. "The call for cooperation is now loud and clear."