Belgian, Dutch right-wing politicians join forces
Far-right party Flemish Interest has called in the services of Dutch politician Hilbrand Nawijn to solidify its hold on Belgian politics. What can we expect from this cross-border collaboration?
Filip Dewinter and Hilbrand Nawijn pose for a photo in the house of Pim Fortuyn
It changed its name to Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) after its predecessor Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block) was convicted of racism last year.
But not everyone is fooled.
Brussels Free University academic and author Hilde Coffé says the party remains extreme right despite attempts to reposition itself, such as its plan to unveil a new economic policy directive in November.
She says this repositioning is also evidenced by the fact party leader Filip Dewinter has started a co-operative relationship with Dutch populist politician Hilbrand Nawijn
Dewinter and Nawijn — a former immigration minister in the Netherlands — announced on 20 June they are setting up a cross-border 'think tank' to defend Dutch culture, which linguistically straddles the Belgian-Dutch border.
It is a ploy, Coffé says, by the Flemish Interest to legitimise and brand itself as a conservative right party, rather than extreme right.
Up until now, the party has focused on immigration and security — "normal extreme right issues", she says — but due to its electorate growth in recent years the party needs to broaden its policy base.
Despite its attempts, however, the Flemish Interest remains extreme right, Coffé says, pointing out that it tries to stigmatise Muslims.
The Flemish Interest has accused immigrant youths of vandalising a cemetery over the Easter weekend, but Sint-Niklaas Mayor Freddy Willockx said this week the party was lying. Native Flemish youths carried out the vandalism.
And when the Flemish Interest refused to apologise, Willockx lodged a complaint with anti-racism bureau CGKR. The CGKR is now threatening the party with another racism lawsuit.
Dutch populist politician Nawijn might be trying to rescue his political future by jumping on board the Flemish Interest train, Rotterdam Erasmus University academic and author Linze Schaap says.
But the lecturer in public administration also says it is difficult to gauge Nawijn's motivations. "Very few people know what he is trying to do," Schaap says.
As a one-time government minister with the populist LPF — founded by Dutch anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn — Nawijn has watched the party disintegrate since it made a stunning electoral debut after Fortuyn's assassination in May 2002.
What does Nawijn have in store for the Netherlands?
"Self-interest is an important motive," Schaap says of Nawijn's decision to collaborate with Dewinter.
He says the think tank — controversially launched in Fortuyn's house in Rotterdam despite the fact the LPF founder had refused to work with Dewinter — attracted a lot of media publicity.
Schaap also says Nawijn could ride the wave of Dutch negativity towards further European integration; evidenced by the 'no' vote against the EU Constitution.
He might set up his own political party or link up with right-wing independent MP Geert Wilders to contest the Dutch national election in 2007.
A joint approach
A Flemish Interest spokesman says Dewinter and Nawijn will write a book about immigration and integration issues. He says they have common ideas about how best to tackle such policy areas.
This means preventing the mass immigration of other cultures.
"We are not saying close the borders, but we can protect our culture and language by not doing it the way we are doing it now," he says.
"Our door in Flanders is open and everyone can come inside. By allowing the mass immigration of Muslims we are getting a Trojan horse."
Dewinter protests as Belgian's Prince Laurent arrives at the Flemish Parliament
Dewinter hopes to be elected mayor of Antwerp and the spokesman is confident the political scene is swinging in favour of the Flemish Interest.
He says the 'cordon sanitaire' — an agreement between the traditional political parties in Belgium not to co-operate with the Flemish Interest — might soon be dismantled.
Coffé agrees the parties might break the agreement at a local level, but rules out the possibility of this occurring nationally.
She has also warned against a possible split in the Flemish Interest as debate continues between more radical elements of the party and those wanting a more moderate policy base.
Both Coffé and Schaap cast doubt on whether the Flemish Interest will gather strength in Belgium by linking up with Nawijn, a relative unknown in Flanders. However, Coffé says the think tank could lead to a strengthening of policy.
The immediate future
Nawijn and Dewinter initially wanted to name the think tank after Willem of Orange, considered the father of the Netherlands (which initially included Belgium) when he led the revolt against Spanish rulers in the 16th Century.
However, the Dutch royal family knocked that plan on the head and the two politicians changed the name to Marnix van Sint Aldegonde, who was mayor of Antwerp and sided with William of Orange in the war against the Spanish.
The aim is to promote Dutch culture and stimulate debate on immigration, but the Flemish Interest spokesman emphatically denied talk of a new cross-border political party.
Nevertheless, he is emboldened by the political shift witnessed in the Netherlands after the emergence of Fortuyn. He says Fortuyn opened the eyes of many people in a nation once considered a multicultural success story.
And it is not unlikely that a new political party will be set up in the Netherlands, where Nawijn might seek to emulate the heights reached by Fortuyn.
He has even placed on his website the slogan made famous by Fortuyn: "At your service". But that service is not terribly swift: Nawijn failed to reply to any questions lodged by this reporter.
It seems he was too busy thinking.
29 June 2005
[Copyright Expatica 2005]
Subject: Filip Dewinter, Hilbrand Nawijn, Flemish Interest, LPF