6 June 2005
AMSTERDAM — Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende and his Belgian colleague Guy Verhofstadt agreed on Monday to put an end to a diplomatic row sparked by ‘unacceptable’ criticism aimed at the Netherlands’ leader.
Both the Dutch and Belgian leaders said in a joint statement they had decided during a telephone conversation to put the matter behind them.
The diplomatic row was sparked after Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht described Balkenende in a newspaper interview as “a mix of Harry Potter and goody-goody rigid, old fashioned conservative attitudes; a man in whom I cannot detect any trace of charisma”.
De Gucht offered his apologies in a letter to Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot, but this was initially considered insufficient. Bot summoned the Belgian ambassador to a meeting on Monday morning, demanding an explanation.
Both Balkenende and Verhofstadt later said they regret the interview De Gucht gave to Belgian newspaper ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’.
De Gucht initially claimed he was falsely quoted, stressing he only pointed out how the media described Balkenende. But the tape of the interview clearly indicated he had not referred to the media at all.
Instead — and despite saying he was an “intelligent man” — De Gucht described Balkenende as “een mix van Harry Potter en brave stijfburgerlijkheid, een man in wie ik geen spoortje charisma kan ontwaren”.
Newspaper cartoonists and comedians have frequently drawn a comparison between the looks of Balkenende and the fictional boy wizard Harry Potter. But it is the first time a senior politician in Europe has dared to make that link.
The term “brave” refers to being overly well-behaved or “goody-goody”, while “stijfburgerlijkheid” can be translated as rigidly middle class, bourgeois, provincial or small-minded.
Besides the statement itself, the Dutch government was very critical of De Gucht’s claim that he’d been misquoted. However, both Balkenende and Verhofstadt said good relations between the two countries deserved priority.
De Gucht made his remarks in an interview over the Dutch ‘no’ vote against the EU Constitution last week. He wanted to point out how fickle Dutch voters were, first supporting the charismatic Pim Fortuyn and then his opposite, Balkenende.
The weekend comments from De Gucht, a Liberal VLD minister, sparked the most serious diplomatic row between the Netherlands and Belgium in years.
However, several Dutch MPs reacted laconically on Saturday. Liberal VVD MP Hans van Baalen and Socialist MP Harry van Bommel said Balkenende must not “over-react” or be too quick to take offence.
Belgian opposition party Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang) has demanded De Gucht break off his China visit and apologise in the Belgian Parliament. The small New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) is calling for De Gucht to resign.
The Christian Democrat & Flemish (CD&V) party said De Gucht does not appear to be aware of his responsibilities.
CD&V Flemish Prime Minister Yves Leterme said the minister’s remarks could affect Belgian-Dutch talks over the IJzeren Rijn freight train line and the Schelde, the extension of the Westerschelde inlet that services the port of Antwerp.
Meanwhile, Belgian newspaper editorials and letters to the editor were understanding on Monday about Balkenende’s angry response, pointing out that he would be sensitive following the Dutch no vote on 1 June, Dutch news agency ANP reported.
De Gucht — who sparked a diplomatic row with the Democratic Republic of Congo last year when he said there were few convincing leaders in the central African nation — remains critical of the Dutch ‘yes’ campaign conducted in the lead-up to the referendum on the EU constitution, stressing it was too negative.
[Copyright Expatica News + ANP 2005]
Subject: Dutch + Belgian news