Quiet Riot

Quietly, there seems to be a tiny crisis affecting European politics. For a start, there’s the rocambolesque imbroglio making Belgium a generic cynosure. It would be hard to do better than to point again to Crooked Timber, although it’s worth pointing out that Jean Quatremer is doing a good job too. I especially like the quote from the Flemish prime minister about the 40,000 Flemish hunters (or light infantrymen – the context is missing and the word is the same) who can defend Flanders in the event of civil war; now that’s what I call statesmanlike.

Of course, nothing of the sort is going to happen – in fact, if you wanted my prediction I’d say nothing at all will happen. Belgium may consist only of the King, the army, a football team, some diplomats and taxmen, and the capital, but that’s more than the Austro-Hungarian Empire had in the way of central institutions. In fact the similarities are marked; the overlapping divisions, competing governments, large and permanently different capital city. But whatever happens, the result won’t be the first world war, or for that matter the end of the European Union. Whatever the collectif antiliberale says about it.

Apparently it’s all a neoliberal plot to destroy the EU and socialism, based on this FT thinkpiece. Sadly, Jerome seems to have missed a bit:

the vital importance of a functioning EU to the continent’s stability and prosperity

And another one:

Democratic pragmatists, who support European integration as a means to enhancing national interests rather than as an end in itself, can plausibly argue that their vision of the EU has never been more relevant. If the Flemish and Walloons do unhook from each other, they can quickly hook back into the EU as separate entities bound by common European values. The very existence of the EU allows us to contemplate a resurgence in national sentiment without fear of violence or confrontation. In the context of Europe’s past, that is no small achievement.

No hostile paraphrasing there, eh.

Of course, Robin Shepherd is right – it’s precisely why we need the EU. I would expect that nobody will notice very much difference even if Belgium is abolished; funny little nationalisms are a luxury a continent where borders are meant to be irrelevant can afford.

Meanwhile, a million miles away (well, it feels like it..), Britain may be about to have another spasm of Euro-politics. The European issue in Britain has traditionally swung across the political spectrum, like a cow on a rolling deck, blundering into political parties and sending them flying like skittles. To kick off in the 1940s, Ernest Bevin as Labour Foreign Secretary was keen on the proto-Euroinstitutions, the OEEC, the European Payments Union, and NATO, and the idea of Europe as a “third force”, but was opposed by the Labour Left who thought the “same old gang” were behind the Schuman Plan, trying to get their hands on the nationalised coal industry.

Then in the 50s, there was a split in both parties – the Tories were unenthusiastic until MacMillan, but always had strong European and diehard imperial tendencies. Then, a period of consensus around the three applications to join. Then, in the 70s and early 80s, the Labour Party swung back against, before the 1988 Policy Review espoused “social Europe”. The Conservatives, meanwhile, passed Labour in ’88 going the other way, from ratifying the Single European Act of 1987 to the Eurosceptic wars of 1990-1997. It looks like the issue is about to crash into Labour again, but the ricochets will be widespread.

What has happened? Well, some of the trade unions are keen on holding a referendum on the not-constitutional treaty, and are deploying the same arguments as the Tories for it (it’s really the same thing, Blair promised one on the constitution, &c). But their reasoning is opposite; they are concerned about the bits about free trade from the Treaty of Rome. They’re hoping for a non de gauche, having seen what a triumph this was for their comrades in France. Of course, the problem with the entire argument is that turning down the treaty won’t reverse this, as it’s the status quo.

At the same time, the Conservatives are in favour of a referendum, because they think it’s something even they could win. (Yes, it’s harsh. Harsh, but fair.) And so are the Liberal Democrats; who probably don’t think they could win, but feel that it would be best to support a referendum. Not just any old referendum, though, but an all-out balls-to-the-wall one on British membership of the EU.

Risky, no? Not that anyone’s listening. Even if the only time this was done, the pro-membership side won convincingly, and every government that has been elected since 1970 has been more or less supportive of the EU, this positively frightens me. The upshot? The Prime Minister may be tempted to shoot the fox; more like sweep the whole field with a machine gun. That would be achieved by calling an election with ratification as a manifesto commitment; which may just have become more likely.

Belgium holds the line

Brief recap: about six months ago, the EU suspended candidacy negotiations with Serbia because Belgrade was refusing to cooperate with the Hague Tribunal.

In particular, the Serbian government had stopped even pretending to look for accused war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. As chief Hague prosecutor Carla del Ponte put it, “I’m telling those who still wish to receive me – and fewer and fewer prime ministers and foreign ministers now find the time or interest to do so – that since last October, Belgrade has not been cooperating with the Tribunal at all. Not only has it failed to provide full cooperation – there has been no cooperation whatsoever.”

So the EU shut down candidacy negotiations. Kudos all around, right? Cooperation with the Hague was always a clear prerequisite for negotiations. The EU had made that clear, and the Serbs had agreed. No cooperation, no candidacy.

Then some EU members started getting cold feet.
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Google news without Belgian news

The Belgian court of Justice has ordered Google News to remove all feeds of Belgian newspapers and journalists. This news was broken by Chilling Effects:

…to withdraw the articles, photographs and graphic representations of Belgian publishers of the French – and German-speaking daily press, represented by the plaintiff, from all their sites (Google News and “cache” Google or any other name within 10 days of the notification of the intervening order, under penalty of a daily fine of 1,000,000.- € per day of delay;

The original court order, in French and dating from September 5th, can be found here (pdf). Google News seems to be charged with violating laws concerning copyright (publishing of headlines and first paragraphs) and databases (publishing cached articles after they have been retired by editors). If I understand the Belgian and Dutch press correctly, the court order concerns only publications in French and German as Dutch-language publishers have already had their headlines removed from Google News. It is possible that publishers will use this court order to negotiate, in which case Google News could eventually be forced to share its advertising revenues with the respective publishers.

SWIFT will likely escape criminal penalties in Belgium

Today’s Le Soir is reporting on the conclusions that the Belgian parliamentary committee on intelligence services (the Comité R) seems to be coming to in its closed door hearings on the SWIFT banking information affair (see here and here). The article is in the print edition of Le Soir, and online for a fee.

According to the paper, SWIFT will likely escape criminal sanction, but may face civil penalties if the courts decide they gave the Americans more data than was strictly necessary to fight terrorism. Much of the logic appears to be based on the fact that the data itself is outside of Belgium, in the Netherlands and the USA. Furthermore, it seems likely that SWIFT employees will not face charges for failing to inform the Belgian government of its decision to give the CIA access to its records, since such a disclosure would have meant criminal penalties in the US.

The article also claims that the Belgian National Bank, which was informed of the program, will likely face the most criticism. The bank had decided that since SWIFT’s decision did not affect financial stability, it was not the bank’s responsibility to take any action. The committee, however, seems to have decided that this was a serious error. The National Bank had a responsibility to inform the state and would not have been subject to criminal penalties for doing so.

The committee has also apparently let the state security services and the federal police off the hook for not doing anything, claiming that the first had no responsibility outside of military threats and that the second didn’t know until the New York Times broke the story. As is typically the case in Belgium, the legislation controlling the police’s responsibility is somewhat vague. The federal police are supposed to protect Belgium’s “scientific and economic potential” and no one seems clear on what that means in practice.

Belgium yet again in turmoil over killings

In the night between May 6th and 7th 2006 five skinheads, coming from De Kastelein, a known extreme right café in West Flanders, beat up Raphaël Mensah, a fifty year old Parisian artist of Gabonese descent, and his thirty seven year old Belgian friend Alain Bouillon. Bouillon was heavily wounded and Mensah is now lying in a coma. According to Bouillon “the skinheads weren’t after money, they went after us because my friend has the wrong skin colour”. In fact, according to Belgian French-language La Dernière Heure, Mensah’s wallet was recovered on the crime scene with the 150 euros he carried on him still in it.

On May 11th, in an Antwerp street very close to where I used to live, an 18-year old man, Hans Van Themsche, went on a killing spree. His first victim, 46-year old Sonhul Koç, a Turkish woman who was sitting on a park bench reading a book, was heavily wounded. Van Themsche had shot her in the back from a distance of six meters (6.5 yards).

The second and third victims were both killed. They were a 24-year old Malinese woman called Oulemata Niangadou who worked as an au pair and the little Belgian girl she was looking after, two year old Luna. Van Themsche had spotted Oulemata and Luna walking down the street, he passed them, turned around and fired at them, in theirs backs, from point blank range. When he was later questioned about his motive for killing the little girl, he is reported to have said: “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time”. In all it took Van Themsche just four minutes to destroy three lives. He was stopped by a policeman who arrived at the scene and shot Van Themsche, apparently a willing target since he shouted “just shoot me”, in the stomach. Van Themsche is now in the hospital, but he will survive.
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Joe Van Holsbeeck

I’m not sure how much this story has been covered elsewhere, but the big story in Belgium for the last couple weeks has been the murder of Joe Van Holsbeeck, a 17 year old who was killed for an MP3 player in the main hall of Brussels Central train station during rush hour.

I left for vacation in Tunisia two days after the murder and returned just last Saturday, so I missed much of the development of the story. On Sunday, some 80,000 people marched, nominally in solidarity with the family but a little more realistically in response to fears about their security. I want to point out that much of Belgian society has behaved admirably. The victim’s family specifically did not want this to turn into a partisan cause. Almost all sectors of society expressed their horror at this crime without resorting to racialism. I’m actually kind of proud of my land of residence, which is not something that happens very often.

I, however, will not be abiding by the family’s wishes. I have a partisan statement make about this killing.
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Open borders and bottleneck jobs

I have learned via the unlinkable newsfeed site NOS Teletekst that The Netherlands will be opening its borders to East European workers coming from the new EU member states, starting January 1st 2007. Dutch Parliament pushed back the original entry date, May 1st 2006, that was proposed by employers. The big fear is abuse of social security.

In Great Britain, Ireland and Sweden the borders are already open. Portugal, Spain and Finland will follow suit on May 1st while Germany and Austria keep their borders closed for the time being.

In Belgium there was some debate about allowing workers for so-called bottleneck jobs, jobs for which there are hardly any qualified candidates in Belgium.
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Parents of Kurdish political refugee murdered in Turkey

There is some friction between Belgium and Turkey.

First there was the case of Fehriye Erdal, a far-left militant that was convicted last Thursday in Belgium for being a member of a criminal organisation (Turkish group DHKP-C or Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front). Trouble is, when Belgian authorities proceeded to arrest her she had disappeared. A big fuss ensued with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül demanding an investigation and the extradition of Erdal to Turkey.

Today another story has emerged in the Belgian press. The unlinkable VRT Teletekst reports on pages 157 and 158 that Flemish Minister of Foreign Policy Geert Bourgeois has written the Turkish ambassador to Belgium a letter asking an explanation for the murder of the parents of Derwich M. Ferho, the president of the Kurdish Institute in Brussels. Ferho’s parents were kidnapped last Thursday in Turkey and killed in what some people, notably the Kurdish Institute, suspect to be an assault by Turkish death squads and local security services. It seems that Ferho’s parents had previously been threatened by Turkish authorities because their two sons, both political refugees living in Belgium, had engaged in, and I quote from the unlinkable news item on VRT Teletekst, “anti-Turkish activities abroad”.

Geert Bourgeois has asked for an explanation and warned that there could be a problem if Derwich’s parents were indeed murdered by Turkish authorities, especially in view of Turkish negotiations to enter the EU. When Bourgeois himself was asked if there could be a link with the missing Erdal, he responded: “It would be too early to say, but I would not rule out that possibility”.

Since nothing seems to be confirmed yet… to be continued

France 2005: the quest for greatness?

It has now been a year and a half since I moved to France. I am not going to bore you with all the domestic challenges the move caused me, do not worry, but I need to mention this since I have only just begun to explore life in France. This post about France will therefore be rather impressionistic. Yet I am sure our esteemed guest poster Emmanuel, and hopefully our French readers, will chime in with corrections, elaborations and the like. I also need to mention that I live in the countryside of Brittany, which means there is some distance between me and whatever happens in Paris and the rest of France.

The first thing I noticed about France is that my day-to-day life has not changed much compared to my extended stay in Belgium. People basically talk about the same things: life is expensive, the weather is relatively mild for the time of the year, the bathroom needs painting, sports, etc. And naturally there has been some cultural talk, since I am a new kid on the block with a heavy foreign accent, mostly about culinary and linguistic differences. Every now and then the conversation turns to politics and society. Rarely so, but still.
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The headscarf: Radical Islam’s greatest secret weapon

When I first came to Belgium, one of the things that genuinely surprised me is how people seem to think Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is a children’s programme. Admittedly, the title doesn’t exactly say “socially relevant drama”, but I doubt that the show’s success on American TV would have been possible without the age 24-55 market. Eventually, I started asking people what it was about the programme that made them come to that conclusion.

In most cases, people never really got past the name. Fantasy on the continent seems to be a very different animal than in the US. For example, when I suggested that Buffy is no more fantasy than Le Fabuleux destin d’Am?lie Poulain, I was greeted with shock. No, no – I was told – Am?lie is magical. The Paris it is set in – the clean one, without the graffitti and street crime – is fictional, of course, and the plot is certainly not realist, but that doesn’t mean it belongs in the same category as vampires.

In a lot of cases, the real problem was linguistic. Buffy in French sounds very childish, spouting verlan and action movie clichés. The wit and prose skill of the original writers is completely lost, and even if you watch it in English on Flemish TV or the Beeb, I guess non-native speakers just don’t get it.

But I had one answer that surprised me. One person thought it belonged in the same category of American TV as Beverly Hills 90210. Why? Because of the clothes Buffy wears. No school would ever let a girl dress like that to class. I had to explain that in California, Buffy’s clothes aren’t even close to excessive.

The Belgian school system places some demands on students that American schools don’t. Personally, I don’t have a real problem with the imposition of a reasonable dress code in school. It is, if anything, one of life’s most minor injustices. Besides, I remember what it felt like to wear clothes from K-mart at a school where designer jeans were de rigueur.

However, I have some problems with this:

Deux s?nateurs veulent interdire le voile ? l’?cole

BRUXELLES Deux s?nateurs de la majorit?, Anne-Marie Lizin (PS) et Alain Destexhe (MR), ont d?pos? une proposition de r?solution qui invite les autorit?s f?d?rales et f?d?r?es du pays ? adopter des textes l?gislatifs portant sur l’interdiction ? l’?cole, et pour les agents de la fonction publique, de signes manifestant une appartenance religieuse.

Anne-Marie Lizin esp?re que le bureau du S?nat mettra sur pied une commission ad hoc qui pourra se pencher sur cette question d?licate, avec comme fil rouge le texte de la proposition de r?solution.

Pour Alain Destexhe, qui s’appuie sur la position de la Communaut? fran?aise, sur l’avis du Centre pour l’?galit? des chances, sur les diff?rentes d?clarations politiques et sur divers arr?ts, rapports ou recommandations tant belges qu’?trangers, le d?bat est clos, il est temps d’agir. Pour le s?nateur MR, il faut se demander ce qu’implique de vivre ensemble en Belgique au 21?me si?cle.

Il s’agit de d?fendre la libert? de conscience et la compatibilit? des libert?s dans l’espace public, ce qui implique un certain nombre de r?serves au sein de l’administration et ? l’?cole. L’?cole doit ?tre le lieu de l’apprentissage d’une conscience critique et de la promotion de valeurs universelles, ajoute-t-il.

Pour Anne-Marie Lizin, ?le voile, c’est la pression sur l’individu au nom d’une religion ?. La s?natrice de Huy estime qu’il est urgent de l?gif?rer au nom de l’?galit? homme-femme et pour soutenir le combat des femmes musulmanes dans chaque pays o? elles disent ?non? ? l’inf?riorit?.

L’initiative des deux parlementaires se fait en toute autonomie. Tant au PS qu’au MR, on ne se prononce pas pour l’interdiction du port du voile ? l’?cole. Le pr?sident du PS Elio Di Rupo a m?me estim? qu’il n’?tait pas opportun de d?battre de cette question en p?riode pr??lectorale. Mais pour Alain Destexhe, ?ne pas en discuter en p?riode ?lectorale revient justement ? alimenter le poujadisme et le vote d’extr?me droite?.

(Read on for the English translation)
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