In this essay, I revisit the way the Belgian federal government is once again mismanaging the Covid crisis. For perhaps six months, at the start of the last, Delta wave, when vaccinating the public was the key challenge, Belgium was doing outstandingly well. The country was at the top ranks in the EU in terms of percent of the adult population fully vaccinated. However, as we now prepare for wave 5, omicron, the government of Prime Minister De Croo is going off the rails, sparking a rebellion in the cultural establishment which is gaining traction and creating fissures across the political establishment. It seems that our leaders have forgotten that the revolution which gave birth to the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830 was started precisely in the Opera House de la Monnaie, which is at the center of the present fight on behalf of Culture, as I noted in an earlier essay a couple of weeks ago.
I pay particular attention to the restrictions on public life imposed last Wednesday following the latest periodic meeting of the steering committee on Covid which takes in the leaders of the country’s three Regions to reach decisions affecting us all, supposedly based on the latest advice of medical professionals but actually based on politics as usual, meaning trade-offs between the power brokers that have little to do with science or facts, and ride roughshod over the interests of one part of the population, while arbitrarily favoring the interests of other parts.
In the week before Christmas, in the name of sanitary considerations to combat Covid, the Belgian federal government mandated the closing of all theaters, concert halls and the like, while it left untouched existing rules permitting the near-normal functioning of hotels, restaurants and bars. Health clubs are to remain open. Professional sporting events may proceed but without spectators.
Lest you think this is a parochial issue in the small and go-with-the flow EU member state that is the Kingdom of Belgium today, I insist that it is symptomatic of Europe’s non-democratic coalition governments which favor incompetence over competence in our national leaders. Incompetence and conformism bear directly on Europe’s setting up and running the present confrontation with Russia, which is otherwise my professional preoccupation. ‘Go with the flow’ and cronyism have led Europe to the brink.
As we all know, Belgium has over the past decade come close to a split-up between the Dutch speaking north and French-speaking south. A divorce was avoided back in 2010 for financial, public-debt related reasons, but no renewed romance came out of the walk away from divorce lawyers. Rather we saw a pragmatic accommodation as the French-speakers armed themselves with an insurance policy for the future by formation of a union of two of the three Regions which happen to be majority French-speaking: Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Regions. For their part, Flanders in the north satisfied itself with de facto control over the federal government.
The last coalition government run from behind the scenes by the largest Flemish party, the N-VA, and nominally led by the French-speaking MR party, headed by Charles Michel, who was prime minister, lasted so long as Michel did the bidding of his partners. When he raised objections to the anti-migrant position of the N-VA and supported the liberal migration platform of the United Nations, the N-VA showed openly who calls the shots in Belgium, withdrew its support and the government fell. Michel walked away from this disaster, left Belgian politics and assumed the presidency of the European Council within the EU Institutions. What personal merits may account for his being EU President today are beyond my comprehension. Eventually, in October 2020 the premiership in Belgium was assumed by the son of a liberal Flemish political dynasty, Alexander De Croo, a photogenic young man with a pleasing demeanor.
Over the past several months, when the Delta wave of Covid-19 arrived and the government had to face the contentious issue of what restrictions on socialization and on business to put in place, the Flemish power behind the throne moved out of the shadows and became pugnacious in the gatherings of policy-makers. Indeed, the Minister President of Flanders, Jan Jambon, who coincidentally is also Minister of Culture of Flanders, began to browbeat his colleagues in the committee deciding Covid restrictions, and reports of their wrangling appeared in the otherwise tame Belgian press. I will go a step further than what the papers have dared to say: Jambon has made his personal predilections law for the country, and these predilections tend to be crudely philistine: food for the stomach is good; food for the mind is bad. He is known to have a particular dislike for the performing arts.
The Minister of Culture of Flanders is a killer of culture, as posters proclaimed in the anti-government rally in downtown Brussels that I attended and will describe in a moment.
Belgians are generally a very law-abiding society. True, they have for generations played cat and mouse with the tax authorities over undeclared income and real estate owned abroad. But when the government says ‘wear a mask,’ they nearly all do. When the government says ‘work at home wherever possible,’ they do. When the government says ‘get vaccinated against Covid,’ they nearly all do.
However, the latest ruling from on high closing all venues of the performing arts has been a step too far and has touched off a popular rebellion, the likes of which I have never seen here in 30 years.
It all started and to this day remains limited to the French speaking regions of Wallonia and Brussels Capital. And the very first rebel was a cinema owner in the city of Liege who declared publicly a couple of days ago that he had no intention of following the new edict and closing shop. Other cinemas and also some theaters in Wallonia and then in Brussels have followed suit. The Wallonian regional government said it would not pursue them. And today the Brussels police said they also will not bother the cinemas which remain open.
The movement of protest has the backing of two opposition parties, one of them the heirs to the Communist party in this country, the other being a French-speaking liberal party.
This afternoon, 26 December, protesters gathered under heavy rain at the appropriately named Mont des Arts in central Brussels to express their outrage at the latest government rules closing theaters. I was among them and took the photo shown below. According to the French daily “Le Soir,” the crowd was officially estimated at 5,000 while organizers claimed the turnout was 15,000.
It was an orderly demonstration. Nearly everyone wore masks. A stage was erected and speakers from among well known theater actors took the microphone and delivered spirited remarks in defense of culture and against its killers in government offices. It was noteworthy that Flemish speakers alternated with French speakers, so that the movement may be against Minister President Jambon but it is not yet openly against the powers in the north of the country. True, Flanders is the only Region not now in rebellion, but since all the arts institutions there receive the subsidies they require to stay afloat from Jambon’s ministry, their silence is understandable.
What will happen next at the federal level no one can say. But we all will be watching closely.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021
Scene from today’s demonstration at the Mont des Arts, Brussels
P.S. – 27 December. The refusal over the weekend of courts, police and local administrations in Wallonia and Brussels to enforce the royal decree of 23 December closing theaters, concert halls and cinemas on grounds of Covid infection risk amounted to an unprecedented revolt against the federal authorities. Some commentators said it put in question the rule of law. Others said it put in question the political intelligence of the federal authorities.
Now the afternoon online edition of the daily newspaper Le Soir reports that a lawsuit has been brought before the Tribunal of First Instance in Brussels against the Minister of Interior Annelies Verlinden in support of the demand of a group of cultural institutions that the decree be rescinded. These include the Society of Authors and Dramatists, the Uion of Producers of French speaking Films and a number of film production companies.
Their suit argues that the royal decree must not be implemented “because of its discriminatory nature and disproportionality with regard to the objectives of public health that it aims to protect.” The plaintiffs’ lawyers cite the findings of a research institute in Berlin that the risk of infection by aerosol-born virus is very low in theaters, concert halls and museums where the sanitary regulations are observed, whereas the real present sources of contagion are in supermarkets, open plan offices and secondary schools. This is supported by the official body in Belgium monitoring the pandemic, Sciensano as regards clusters of infections identified between 6 and 12 December.
The plaintiffs demand that the judge immediately forbid the Belgian State to implement the law of 23 December or face a penalty of 100,000 euros per violation.