Belgium wrestles with political differences over welcoming refugees


Picture of Hendrik Vos
Hendrik Vos

Belgium has had a right-wing government since last year, and this coalition of francophone and Flemish liberals and both Flemish Christian Democrats and Flemish nationalists has had a strong focus on spending cuts, making the labour market more flexible and raising the pension age.

But the refugee crisis has put the governing parties, and especially the Flemish nationalists, in a difficult position. This government does not want to escape its international obligations, so Belgium’s borders are not closed to refugees. Asylum applications are processed at a rate of 250 files a day and there is shelter for those waiting to submit their application. People from war-torn countries like Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan get refugee status rather easily. Recently, Belgium accepted 4,450 more people as part of the EU’s plan to share around 120,000 refugees between member states.

The influx of refugees into Belgium has prompted the government to look for more places to house them. Several thousand places were quickly created in co-operation with local mayors, and especially at military facilities. Belgium may not have the same track record as Germany or Sweden when it comes to hospitality, but it isn’t doing badly.

But for a government where the Flemish nationalists (N-VA) are the largest party, this is a very uncomfortable situation. Germany, which the coalition parties look to as an example of sound economic policy, is openly criticised for its handling of the refugee crisis with the N-VA saying that the German approach is making Europe too attractive for refugees.

The N-VA party leader Bart De Wever, although not himself a government minister, has blamed the EU and international law too for being out of touch with reality. The Geneva Convention as well as the EU’s own legislation forces governments to accord refugees the same treatment as nationals when it comes to social security. This makes no sense to De Wever, and he wants to change these provisions as soon as possible. He believes that Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis travelling via Turkey should be considered as economic migrants and not as refugees because they had found safety when they reached Turkey.

The upshot is a widening split between the country’s political parties. The voters for the Flemish nationalists are increasingly hostile to open borders for refugees, and De Wever is doing his utmost to charm his voters with his tough language.

The left-wing opposition parties, meanwhile, reproach De Wever for his doom and gloom approach, saying that as the leader of Belgium’s biggest party, he should show more responsibility. Even within his party, he has been criticised, not least for suggesting that Belgium should reintroduce border checks. The government, including the N-VA ministers, is keenly aware that free movement is economically vital for a country like Belgium that specialises in logistics and international distribution.

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