The party may be intensifying its creed of xenophobia to tackle the more popular N-VA

28/4/2011- When the Belgian government collapsed a year ago, a deputy from the extreme-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party was heard to utter “long live free Flanders, may Belgium die” as parliament dissolved before the general election. Vlaams Belang pursues independence for the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium with a xenophobic, anti-immigration, law-and-order slant. The party says Belgian mosques are a recruiting ground for “jihad warriors” and that the country is an “operating base of Islamic fundamentalism”. A poster for its recent congress showed a white sheep kicking a red sheep emblazoned with the insignia from the Turkish and Moroccan flags from ground covered by European flags. The party won the support of almost one-in-five voters in the Flanders region as recently as 2007 but its electoral fortunes ebbed last year in the face of a ground swell of support for the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a stridently pro-independence party which does not pursue hard-right dogma favoured by Vlaams Belang. Led by Bruno Valkeniers, who started his career as a commercial manager in the port of Antwerp, Vlaams Belang has long been linked with parties such as the National Front in France, Austria’s Freedom Party, the Northern League in Italy and Switzerland’s UDC.

Other Belgian parties have kept Vlaams Belang out of national power via a political cordon sanitaire , a policy Vlaams Belang spokesman Yannick De Ruyter describes as “absolutely unjustified and undemocratic”. Still, the onward march of the N-VA demonstrates the increasing potency of the independence agenda in Flanders. This flows from mounting frustration at huge fiscal transfers from prosperous Flanders to the less-wealthy French-speaking region of Wallonia. Vlaams Belang won about 13 per cent of the Flemish vote in the election last June, the N-VA surged to some 30 per cent and a smaller separatist party, Lijst Dedecker, won about 4 per cent. Belgian politics has been in a funk ever since. Despite months of endless talks, the country’s leaders have not agreed a formula to share power. This has raised renewed fears for the unitary Belgian state, with senior figures in diplomatic circles saying the country could disintegrate within a decade. While many Flemish voters shy away the Vlaams Belang brand of extreme-right radicalism, local analysts believe the party is stepping up its xenophobic rhetoric in a bid to appeal to core supporters who might otherwise follow the N-VA.

In a country with a rising Muslim population, however, the immigration debate is not without resonance in mainstream politics. On both sides of the linguistic divide, there is near-unanimous support for a ban on the public wearing of headscarves such as the burka and niqab. Vlaams Belang was established in 2004 after the Belgian high court ruled that its predecessor, Vlaams Bloc, was “racist”. The party disbanded and its leaders immediately formed Vlaams Belang with a policy platform little different to that of Vlaams Bloc. Mr Valkeniers says Vlaams Bloc “always inspired” him. However, Mr De Ruyter maintains the Vlaams Belang programme has “absolutely nothing to do” with racism: “We are a nationalist party with firm policies on immigration and criminality which is not afraid to call things by their name. “The best example of our party programme not being racist is the fact that in countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark, several of our policies – minaret ban, strict immigration requirements, ban on ritual slaughter . . . have been adopted or are part of the government programme.” Vlaams Belang wants a “solid immigration stop”, saying “thousands of illegal aliens and so-called asylum seekers” enter the country each year. “Foreigners from Islamic descent clearly have large difficulties to adapt to our western lifestyle. In some cases, there is no adaptation at all,” its policy programme says.

“These people’s cultures differ greatly from our culture, especially when it comes to values such as the equality of men and women, freedom of speech and the separation of church and state, which are basic principles in our western democracy.” The party accuses successive governments of brushing aside a “massive overrepresentation of immigrants” in crime statistics. “Over 40 per cent of the inmates in Belgium are of foreign nationality. On top of that is the fact that a lot of prisoners have obtained the Belgian nationality through naturalisation, which is not taken in consideration when calculating the statistics.” Vlaams Belang also opposes Turkey’s long-stalled accession to the EU. “On a geographical, historical, cultural and religious basis, Turkey has nothing in common with Europe.”
The Irish Times

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