Belgium for the chop?
When the Flemish Lion roars, what is it trying to say exactly? According to Oscar Kielemos, a Vlaams Blok City Council Member, it has quite a bit to say in not so politically correct terms. Interview by Brett Reichart.
A chance first meeting
"Ugh, French tourists."
A question of control and money
The definition of a Fleming
Curfews and cameras in "troubled areas"
Immigration policy: assimilate or go home
The language issue
The future of Vlaams Blok
Our first acquaintance had been purely coincidental. During a concert intermission in Gent one of my colleagues pointed out the subtle lapel pin the gentleman near us was wearing - a small black and gold Flemish lion. He and his guest were alone in the invitation-only crowd, as if inside a small quarantined zone. Moments later we were being introduced.
"As American visitors, we're curious about your pin. What does it mean?" His response was disconcerting. "I am a Fleming, NOT a Belgian. We want independence from this artificial country!" When asked what would become of the small German-speaking community in a dissolved Belgium, the response was immediate: "I don't care. Maybe Germany will take them back." And what about the Walloons, I asked? "To Hell with them…!" councilman Kielemoes snapped.
24 October 2000. Kielemos's personal card was still in my wallet, and I had a gnawing dissatisfaction with the initial encounter. I resolved to attempt a closer look by asking Kielemos for a personal interview. This is an account of that meeting.
I had no trouble finding my way to Gent City Hall from the train station. But just to test the waters, I politely asked a local in French for directions. With only two Dutch lessons under my belt, I had to communicate in a foreign language. In willing but unaccustomed French, he offered a courteous reply as best he could.
Arriving about five minutes early inside city hall, I only had time to overhear and disassociate myself from a group of French-speaking tourists who were gathering for a tour. My perception of French as unacceptable in these parts was already buoyed a bit. Enter Kielemos from across the room, "Ugh, French tourists!"
Caffe Leffe, just across the street, provided a comfortable, quiet venue for our interview. If "Cheers" of the American sit-com is the bar where "everybody knows your name", Caffe Leffe was no different for Kielemos.
A small group, including a couple of local policemen, was already gathered around the cosy bar, and they were happy to see Kielemos. One of them even offered to buy our first round. They greeted each other as comrades and with raised fists. "It means victory and solidarity", Kielemos explained.
I had a list of prepared questions I was eager to cover. Many were questions I had solicited from students at the Universiteit Instelling Antwerpen (UIA). Kielemos had no objections to my taking notes and was courteous and frank in his responses. But before hitting the questions, he explained how he got involved in Vlaams Blok after a 30-year career as chief police inspector in Gent.
He admits he really had no interest in or knowledge of mundane politics; it seems he was asked to be on the Vlaams Blok list in 1991 as the party was just taking root. "Having always been a Fleming, heart and soul", he found it natural to join the list of the "only true Flemish party".
At the time, Kielemos was directing an Easter play he had translated from Swedish into Dutch. When word got out that he was on the Vlaams Blok list, apparently there was a boycott of the play. "This started it. I was angry they were so radical against me, so I decided to hold my position."
A question of control and money
In 2001, Kielemos will step down from the city council after six years to take on a new role as a kind of "cultural advisor" for Gent. In response to a question from UIA student Erik Vanderheyden about Vlaams Blok leader Peter DeWinter's 15 October comment in The Observer - "I don't like that people adopt little pieces out of other cultures. What is wrong with purity?" he asked, "I don't agree… I once even got money for an Indian dance group to perform in Gent…but we must never become a melting pot." To account for this minor difference of opinion with Vlaams Blok czar DeWinter over the place of foreign culture in Flanders, Kielemos explained, "there is a culturally and intellectually inclined part of the Vlaams Blok who believe as I."
A student asked if the Vlaams Blok movement represents a kind of reversal towards isolationism, given that "multiculturalism" is the catchword du jour. Reaction: "We are not isolationist; I just want to be able to carry out my own Flemish culture." I see, but don't you have this right already? My understanding is that the series of Belgian reforms over the last 30 years designed to give Flanders autonomous cultural control, with its own parliament, say-so in economic matters, the language frontier, etc. has given you just that, control. "Yes, but that's not enough. It's a question of money. The Walloons are taking from us BEF 400 billion per year. The average Fleming would have BEF 15,000 more per month if we didn't have to support the poor Walloons." So, the struggle is mostly about money? "This is why we must secede from Belgium - to survive."
Kielemos later echoes this money theme. Referencing comments made by Marc van Peel, a top Antwerp conservative, about the negative impact a powerful Vlaams Blok would have on the Flemish economy. UIA student Koen Kerreman asks, "don't you think our economy might expect a European boycott, as was the case in Austria?" Kielemos was flippant: "But how long did that boycott last, three or four months? Antwerp will survive. It is too important as a port. We don't care about policies like that [boycotts] as long as we can make the money. That, we know how to do."
To be sure, there are millions of Flemings who don't support the Vlaams Blok or its ideas. I asked how this could be, given the potential monetary windfall. "They were all brought up Christian or socialists, but they are not willing to see the realities." According to Kielemos, they vote based on past performance and tradition within family groups. "That is their rationale, but we are gaining," he added.
The law, which ostensibly has a direct effect on the gains or losses of all Belgian political parties, is the country's voting law, which requires all voting-age citizens to vote or pay a monetary penalty. The official position of the Vlaams Blok, according to "A Party Unlike Any Other Party", the title of its English version website, is to abolish obligatory voting.
Kielemos is optimistic that party gains will continue regardless. "If there is no compulsory voting, we would be even stronger, because those who vote for us out of anger [against the voting law or government in general] would stay at home. It is the weakening of the other parties that would be our gain."
The definition of a Fleming
Your party also has a slogan, 'Eigen Volk Eerst' (Own People First). What does it really mean? "This means that Flemings are the first to be cared for." But another student, Ken Veerman, would like some clarification on what "own people" means, since it obviously doesn't include all Belgians or even all Flemings, such as artists, the left wing, homosexuals, etc. (I should say here that Kielemos did later clarify that Vlaams Blok supports the idea of "a man, a woman and children as the family base of society" but that the party takes no official position on homosexuals. On this, "I am a lesbian," he joked.) So, who are your own people? How do you define a Fleming? "A Fleming," Kielemos enunciated carefully, "is a hard worker, tolerant - in comparison to the IRA for example - enjoys life, women, beer and music." Ladies and gentlemen, the definition of a Fleming, by Kielemos.
Here, I recall the cartoon editorial in the same 15 October article in The Observer mentioned earlier, depicting the alleged deterioration of Antwerp with a before and after street image. The "after" image shows a marked darkening of the people, a night shop, a Middle Eastern restaurant serving "bomb surprise" and a Muslim woman wearing a traditional hijab. Kielemos went on to add, "Yes, a Fleming can include someone of non-European origin; just don't make ghettoes - assimilate!"
Curfews and cameras in "troubled areas"
The same student is also curious about Vlaams Blok's call for more police on the beat and the installation of camera surveillance equipment in public places. He expresses the view of many who feel this would constitute an infringement on personal freedom. "Does the Vlaams Blok maintain that there's nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide," asks Veerman?
Kielemos replies, "It has nothing to do with personal privacy. There is no reason to fear a camera if you are not hiding something. You can even kiss your neighbour's wife, and the police would be bound to secrecy on that. Your personal actions are irrelevant." Apparently, in the Vlaams Blok vision of the future, you may be caught on camera having an affair, but you will not have to fear incrimination if the police see it. Later, Kielemos adds, "There is nothing that personal freedom guarantees more than law and order.
What about the party's idea for a curfew, which some have said is intended to control contemporary youth culture? "This is exaggerated; I only support a curfew in troubled areas." It seems, though, that curfews and cameras would just cause the "troublemakers" to move elsewhere, out of sight, so to speak. Kielemos's reply was more precise: "No, the trouble is centralised in certain areas". He cites the city of Lokeren as a security camera success story. My street, which I love, has several ethnic restaurants, night shops and the like. Remembering the cartoon, I wonder if Vlaams Blok has selected my neighbourhood as a "troubled area".
Immigration policy: Assimilate or go home
At this point the questions from the university students were leaping off the page. Frederick van de Plas, for example, made the point that there is actually a serious shortage of workers in certain labour sectors, public service jobs for example, and the jobs that nobody wants. He asks how Vlaams Blok can maintain the idea that immigrants are taking away such jobs from Belgians. A couple of gulps of his Duvel, and Kielemos answers: "OK, I have no problem with this. The problem is they [immigrants] fertilise like rabbits and their children don't do anything. It becomes very easy and pleasurable to spend the government's money by having more children here."
This same student also asks about the Vlaams Blok's goal of repatriating willing immigrants and non-Europeans to their homeland. Its website states as follows: "We want to encourage legal aliens from outside Europe to return to their own countries. These returnees will receive Belgian funds." So Vlaams Blok is essentially willing to pay outsiders to leave the country for the protection and purity of Flanders, rather than have them integrate and contribute here, it would seem. What about the second or third generations of immigrants who no longer claim a real homeland outside Belgium? Kielemos: "If they still hold their own nationality, they should be sent back…Inmates cost a lot of money!"
And what would be the policy on immigration in an independent Flanders? There is no hesitation from Kielemos, "Assimilate… you see the ones who come here now [from Turkey and Morocco] are the scum of Islam, which is a great, intellectual religion. But those who come here are not of the aristocracy; they can hardly read and write!" (I am not of the aristocracy either, for that matter - better watch my back…) OK, but if you were in their situation - with the fighting, ethnic wars, religious intolerance, pitiful living conditions, enough to drive you from your homeland and language, etc., wouldn't you too want to go someplace better?
Conceding a little, Kielemos responds, "they come here because there is no future there, but if I went to live in Germany, the first thing I would do is learn the language." To my knowledge, the Dutch language programs around Antwerp are booming with foreigners trying to learn the language - including me, a short-timer.
The language issue
On the language issue, I came to understand only recently why it is more acceptable to use English in Flanders than French or German, the other two official languages in Belgium. The story, much too complicated to summarise in passing, involves a long and complicated history of economic and cultural domination and war. Nonetheless, Dutch (Flemish is the Dutch dialect spoken in Belgium) has enjoyed the designation as official, exclusive language of Flanders at all levels since the language accords of the 1970s. Spoken by some 60 percent of the total Belgian population, and with close linguistic ties to the Netherlands as the larger Dutch-speaking community of 15 million, the language of Flanders today seems anything but vulnerable or threatened. Yet the lingering bias towards the "other" Belgian languages endures.
I asked Kielemos to express his feelings if someone on the street, a visitor or lost person for example, addressed him in French. "I always first say, 'Don't you speak Flemish?' If he says he is a Frenchman, then I will reply in French, but if he says he is a Walloon, I simply say, 'I don't speak French.'" But what if there is a serious situation and the person really needs your help? With little hesitation, Kielemos offers, "Well, there it depends on the seriousness of the situation and the nature of his question." And if the language is German? "Same question… but I feel much more sympathy for the German speakers than the Walloons."
How do you feel when you hear a non-European language, such as Arabic or Chinese, being spoken in your own city? "I feel nothing, only if I hear English, Swedish or Danish, then I am interested to know where this person is from and why he is here because those are Germanic languages and I am a 'Germanist'. I studied those languages." So do you feel a sense of resentment given that relatively few French speakers have made the effort to learn Dutch compared to the Dutch speakers who learned French? "Yes, the history is too deep; I can never forget! They [the Walloons] have hurt us too much! You see, the Walloons are learning much more Flemish now, but it's just egoism. They have no interest in the language, they need it to get our jobs here!" But, if the tables were turned again, and Wallonia was economically strong while Flanders was struggling, would you still feel a strong need to dissolve Belgium? "Yes, of course! The fight has always existed, but that is irrelevant, because as the former Flemish Prime Minister has said, by 2010 Belgium will not exist."
The language facilities, which allow residents in select communes around Brussels to conduct administrative matters in French or Dutch, also have an uncertain future, according to Kielemos. "French speakers are not using them as facilities anyway, but as a way of taking power from us." Then there is the unique situation of Brussels, a Flemish city with an 85 percent French-speaking majority. What will happen to there? "Brussels, that's a big problem; maybe in an independent Flanders it could be like a Washington DC, but we will eventually make it Flemish-speaking again!"
We cannot, of course forget about the language reality of Belgium's 60,000 Germanophones to the east. Mr Kielemos, what about them? He again had the answer: "They feel German. I think they want to go back to Germany." So, can we assume that Flemings want to rejoin with the Netherlands too? "Yes, this is still possible. The real Fleming wants this, but this would be farther in the future."
The future of Vlaams Blok
According to Kielemos, the cordon sanitaire surrounding the Vlaams Blok is rather undemocratic. The cordon sanitaire is the state-mandated blockade against the party and its initiatives formed by creating an exclusive coalition among the other parties. It would seem, according to Kielemos and the Vlaams Blok itself, that this policy is actually winning supporters for the party because it engenders sympathisers who feel the party is unfairly treated. He called all the other parties "anti-Flemish" because the Vlaams Blok is the only party "fighting" (let's hope it doesn't come to that) for Flemish independence and a Flemish republic. Mister Kielemos added, "The king and lots of ministers will be out of a job, and that is the real reason they are so anti-Flemish!"
So according to Kielemos, the future of Belgium is not too promising, but the future of the Vlaams Blok is. He vowed, "2003 is our next chance to break through. By 2006, Phillip De Winter will be the next mayor of Antwerp." A smiling young waitress brings coffee for me and another Duvel for Kielemos. Eager to demonstrate her command of English, she proclaims Duvel to be "one of the great Belgian beers". But Kielemos, always ready to correct references to Belgium interrupts: "Don't you mean one of the great Flemish beers?!" Her, "Uh, ok, Flemish then" seemed to speak volumes about the attitude of those who will ultimately decide the answer.
Brett Reichert is an American Fulbright Grant recipient conducting research on the language bias and policies of Belgium. He lives in Antwerp.