Flemish Minister-President at the College: an elusive speech on a stronger EU

 

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Photo: © CoE, S. Parmentier

Last Thursday, Flemish Minister-President Geert Bourgeois was invited for a lecture at the College of Europe to lay down his vision on the European Union. At the same time, however, he avoided any discussion of the future of Flanders. 

By: Bram de Botselier 

Many College students and even some external guests found the way to Verversdijk’s ‘auditorium 1’ for the ‘I want my EU back’ speech by Geert Bourgeois, the Minister-President of Flanders and a member of the pro-independence New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). After a short introduction by the rector, mainly to thank the Flemish government for their continuous financial generosity, Minister-President Bourgeois tried to touch upon as many subjects as possible in his 50-minute speech.

One of the first hot topics he discussed, was the refugee crisis. While he condemned the dehumanizing attacks on Syrians and the refusal of some member states to participate in a fair redistribution of refugees, he also called for a “humane deterrent policy” without going into much detail.

Stressing the importance of learning the local language, something that should fit within a comprehensive integration policy framework, he stated that newcomers should only be able to rely on the welfare system after contributing to it.

Geert Bourgeois’ criticism of the EU’s immigration policy and call for better coordination was described by some students as “ironic”, since his New

Flemish Alliance is a member of the ECR Group, together with the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party and Polish Law and Justice party.

The irony became even more apparent when he finished his speech talking about a “military power Europe”, stressing the need to strengthen the Battlegroup system in order to come to a real European defence policy.

The ECR Group, however, underlines “the sovereign integrity of the nation state [and] the transatlantic security relationship in a revitalised NATO.”

Much of the rest of his speech focused on the economy, he came out as a proponent of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and a ‘soft Brexit’, calling for an even stronger relationship than the European Economic Area. Furthermore, Geert Bourgeois proposed to finally counter the “defragmentation of Europe” by completing a cross border infrastructure, energy and digital union.

The most interesting part of the speech, however, was the one that did not exist.

Despite Flemish independence being among the main points of Geert Bourgeois’ New Flemish Alliance, he only implicitly referred to nationalism through his support for Scottish and Catalan autonomy. It is unclear whether he avoided the subject because he presented his government’s point of view, which includes anti-independence parties, or because of the recent intra-party struggles within the New Flemish Alliance.

At the end of September, two prominent members of the Flemish Movement left the New Flemish Alliance after a critical interview on the party’s, according to them, absence of a real Flemish nationalist platform for the next federal election. Consequently, the party lost two out of its 33 seats in the Chamber of Representatives, but more importantly, seemed to be losing the support of its core base: the Flemish nationalist civil society.

While the impact of these recent events on the New Flemish Alliance remains unclear, Geert Bourgeois does not seem to think that a stronger EU necessitates a more autonomous Flanders.

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