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Darkest days and longest nights

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel is hoping to ride out a severe political storm

According to Belgian meteorologists, the month of December was the darkest on record in the town of Uccle. There, because of the dark and gloomy rain clouds and almost constant drizzle, the sun only shone for a total of 10 hours and 31 minutes during the entire 31 days of December. That paltry and depressing statistic compares to the 45 hours and 8 minutes normally experienced on average there during the last month of the year. Those Belgian meteorologists started keeping records on such things a long time ago, and they reckon you’d have to go all the way back to December 1934, when only 9 hours and 31 minutes of sunshine was recorded, to beat December 2017. It was a wet month too, with 131.1 millimetres of rain, compared to the annual average of 81mms of rain falling.

It rained for 26 days, and if the people of Uccle had a parade, it would likely have rained. And it has certainly been raining on the parade of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel these past weeks, and the outlook for this New Year is just as gloomy, dark and miserable. Although he’s only 42, Michel has led the nation of roughly 11.5 million people since elections in the spring of 2014. It did, however, take him 138 days to hammer out a coalition deal to be able to govern. Now, it looks very much as if that painfully constructed agreement might unravel at any instance. Indeed, at the time the coalition between three Flemish left-wing parties and the French-speaking party he leads was announced, political commentators nicknamed it ‘the kamikaze coalition’ because it seemed so combustible. Now, it looks like truly being on the brink of crashing and burning, based on a nasty scandal that won’t go away.

For the first time in Belgian history, the coalition government led by Michel included members of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), a party that is openly separatist and wants to see the region that is home to roughly 59 per cent of Belgians become fully independent.

For the record, Belgium is divided between Walloon or French-speaking Belgians, and the Flemish. Brussels, home to the European Union, is a separate regional area without the full powers of the other two provinces.

Michel is only the second French-speaking Prime Minister in 40 years, and although his party finished third in the national polls, it was willing to work with the Flemish separatists to form that flammable coalition deal.

Because of the linguistic divide between French and Flemish speakers, the Belgian constitution says the 14 cabinet posts must be shared evenly between the two. Michel’s Liberals won just 9.3 per cent of that vote in 2014 and claimed 20 of the 150 seats in the federal parliament. No other French-speaking party was prepared to work with the Flemish separatists. That constitutional quirk, however, gives Michel seven cabinet ministers, while the other three Flemish parties, share seven portfolios. The NVA took 20.5 per cent and took 33 seats. It, however, has three ministers. Small wonder then that things are indeed so combustible!

For the record, the other parties in power are the Flemish Christian Democrats and the Flemish Liberals.

During the summer of 2015, more than a million Syrian and Iraqi refugees fled their homes and violence across swathes of their nations to seek a better life somewhere or anywhere in any European country. The crisis was generally described then as the worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War — but the forced movement of people between India and Pakistan by Partition was actually greater. EU officials say that 1.2 million refugees entered Europe, with a million of those finding refuge in Germany.

Belgium? It wasn’t quite as welcoming, with the country’s immigration office registering 35,476 asylum applications from refugees in 2015, roughly double the 2014 levels. Most of the refugees to make claims were Syrians — but not exclusively. And it’s the case of two Sudanese refugees in particular that is holding a match to the kamikaze coalition.

Belgium has been the victim of several terrorist atrocities, with the airport and metro system of Brussels being targeted in one deadly outrage in March 2016 that killed 35 and injured scores more, and other lone-wolf attacks over the past three years.

Refugees in Belgium have also come in for a rough ride, with the mayor of the seaside resort of Kokzidje, for instance, wanting to ban Muslim men from the town’s swimming pool.

In Michel’s government, the immigration portfolio is looked after by Theo Franken, one of the three NVA ministers. And frankly, Franken blew it.

He was responsible for the forced deportation of 100 Sudanese refugees back to their homeland. But to aid the process, he invited three officials of the government of President Omar Al Bashar to examine their documentation. And two of those who were forcibly deported after their asylum claims were rejected by Belgium ended up in a Khartoum jail. Let’s just say it didn’t turn out too well, with the pair later claiming that they were tortured and abused.

If you know European history, Belgium has had a very chequered past when it comes to torture with horrific atrocities and human rights’ abuses committed by its nationals and minions in its former African colonies. It was particularly bad during the rule of King Leopold II in the Congo Free State up to 1909. Punishments meted out daily included the amputation of rubber workers’ hands when that failed to meet arbitrary quotas. That brutal past is one reason why today, Belgium has very liberal political asylum laws — which four Catalan political leaders gladly used following their illegal staging of the October 1 referendum, for instance.

Franken is under investigation for his role in the deportation affair, and he’s coming under intense political and popular pressure to resign. But that’s easier demanded than done, and the NVA’s party leadership is standing by him.

The NVA has said if Franken is forced out of government, they will also walk away, bringing down that Flemish-Walloon house of cards so carefully curated by Michel.

Michel is being called a puppet for failing to act on a matter of principle. In politics, principles are one thing, another is what the principal thinks. Michel sees an economy that is growing by more than 2 per cent annually and there’s positive job creation.

For now, Michel is prepared to stick with Franken, and the kamikaze coalition is still flying. Maybe all that rain in December will make for a softer landing after all...

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