It could have been curtains for the Vlaams Blok this week - the far-right party whose slogan "Our People First" is chillingly reminiscent of something that Joseph Goebbels might have come up with.

But instead the Blok is stronger than ever, forecast to do well in a forthcoming general election (scheduled for May 18) and able to adopt the moral high ground.

It could have been very different; the Belgian establishment and particularly the socialist party must be kicking itself. Unable to crush the Blok at the ballot box, its detractors took the misguided step in 2000 of trying to get it banned by the country's law courts. The move has backfired spectacularly.

This week the entire court case collapsed leaving the establishment with egg on its face and the Blok resurgent and cocky. The fallout is regrettable: the entire affair has served only to provide the Blok with oodles of free publicity and allowed it to portray itself as unfairly persecuted.

The case, which the Blok characterised as "the attempted murder of the Vlaams Blok" centred around allegations of racism. Belgium's Human Rights League and the Leman Centre on Anti-racism took the Blok to court in 2000 on the grounds that some of its manifesto commitments were openly racist.

At issue was a pamphlet published by the Blok in 1999 calling for separate education for Muslims, a special punitive tax for companies employing foreigners from non-EU countries and cuts in child support for those same employees. The Blok says it has since abandoned these manifesto pledges, but that did not stop the court case.

The stakes were high. If the courts had found against the Blok it would have seen itself stripped of its state funding - the only legal source of party funding in Belgium. In the Blok's case that amounts to some £2.7m a year.

In the event, however, a Brussels appeal court this week refused to rule on the case, effectively kicking it into the long grass. The case was too political, the judge complained, and way out of his jurisdiction.

His decision can be appealed but only in a criminal court and before a full jury, something than even the Blok's detractors are unlikely to want. The Blok could scarcely conceal its glee.

"This ruling is an enormous political victory for the Vlaams Blok and a setback for our detractors," crowed Frank Vanhecke, the Blok's president.

"It's now time to stop treating the Blok and its electors as pariahs. We're not.

"It's only in banana republics that judges decide the manifestos of political parties."

The crestfallen anti-racism campaigners said they would consider an appeal but they should think carefully before they do so.

"This is hard to swallow for us," said the lawyer Jos Vandervelpen. "In other European countries their laws work to prevent the rise of far right political parties. Ours should too."

Of course it goes without saying that many of the Blok's policies are deeply repugnant and do appear in some cases to be motivated by naked intolerance and racism. However, banning the party and excluding it from the mainstream altogether would be ineffective and dangerous.

The recent past is testimony to that fact. In theory the party's leader, Filip Dewinter, should be the mayor of Antwerp since the Blok holds 20 of the city council's 55 seats - far more than any other. However, the mainstream parties have erected a cordon sanitaire, an exclusion zone, around the Blok since 1994, joining forces to keep what some call "a disease" safely away from the corridors of power.

That strategy was supposed to see the Blok wither on the vine but it has not - it shows no signs of disappearing and is forecast to win as much as 20% of the national vote in the next election.

Like it or not (and many do not) the Blok is a force to be reckoned with. It is the third largest party in Flanders, where 60% of Belgians live, polled over 15% in the last general election in 1999 and is supported by one in three people in Antwerp, Belgium's second city.

Interestingly the Blok itself has also changed tack. Desperate to become respectable it has toned down its rhetoric, silenced its most outspoken members and become slicker at public and press relations.

Its policies, however, remain largely unchanged. It wants Flanders - the northern, Flemish-speaking part of Belgium - to break away from Wallonia, the French-speaking southern half and become an independent republic.

It is the Blok's views on immigration, however, which have proved to be the most contentious. It wants what it calls "a watertight immigration stop" and for non-European foreigners to be sent back to their countries of origin. Asylum seekers, it argues, should only be accepted if they come from Europe, citizenship requirements should be drastically tightened and foreigners who commit crimes immediately deported.

Such policies should clearly solicit a robust response from mainstream politicians and must be challenged in the strongest possible terms. But pretending that such views do not exist would be foolish.

In a democratic society the Blok's detractors would do better to spend their energy and time demolishing the party's policies in the debating chamber and on TV instead of trying to suppress such views.

Or as one Flemish journalist wrote recently: "The battle against the Blok is not going to be won or lost in the courts but rather in everyday politics."

Perhaps it is time the Belgian establishment took note - before it is too late.

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