Rise of nationalist parties threatens to stall progress on race discrimination in Belgium

Protesters of right-wing and far-right Flemish associations march during a protest against the UN Migration Pact in Brussels, Belgium. [Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis]

This article is part of our special report Where is discrimination in Europe?.

In 2021, Belgium will mark 40 years since the national Anti-Racism Act was passed. However, despite efforts to combat racism and ethnic discrimination, complaints of racism rose by almost 50% in 2020.

After the 2019 general elections, the rise of Flemish anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang rang alarm bells as it emerged as the second-largest political force in Flanders, behind another far-right separatist party known as the N-VA.

Belgium’s political parties have in general adopted a policy of non-cooperation with Vlaams Belang.

The party has called for the expulsion of “foreigners who will not adapt to what it sees as Flemish cultural norms, considering as “foreign” anyone who has two nationalities, a category that includes the vast majority of descendants of immigrants.

But although they are shut out of the current federal government, many analysts think it likely that these parties could achieve an election victory in 2024.

‘Structural character’ 

According to Unia, an independent public institution that fights discrimination and promotes equal opportunities, it received a record number of complaints relating to racism and discrimination in 2020, 49% more than in 2019.

“All figures and examples of individual situations illustrate the structural character of the racial discrimination that occurs in our society. These are not examples that stand-alone,” Els Keytsman, director of Unia, said in a statement on the World Day against Racism.

In 2020, at the initiative of former Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, Belgium established an inter-ministerial conference on the fight against racism and anti-Semitism to better coordinate the actions of the country’s various authorities.

“It is hopeful that Belgian politicians are finally working on a national action plan to combat racism,” Keytsman said, adding that Unia will participate in the inter-ministerial conference.

“We are confident that after hesitation and no real commitment, the goal is to adopt a national action plan this year,” Unia co-director Patrick Charlier, told EURACTIV.

“The key question at the political level is to admit and recognise the fact that there is a problem of structural discrimination in our society,” Charlier said.

Flanders in transition

In 2008, Flanders introduced its own ambitious anti-discrimination legislation. However, according to De Standaard, only fourteen cases have been brought to court.

“The Flemish legal framework converts the  EU directives on equal treatment, and goes even further,” Tom De Bruyn, from the Department Equal Opportunities, Integration and Civic Integration for the Government of Flanders, told EURACTIV.

In September 2019, the new Flemish government announced its intentions to stop subsidising Unia from 2023 and to create a Flemish-led Center for Human Rights.

Some observers believe that this is one of the traces of the influence of Vlaams Belang on the new Flemish government, De Morgen reported.

“The Flemish coalition agreement of October 2019 states that the cooperation with Unia will be discontinued at the end of the current agreement,” De Bruyn said.

He confirmed that the current cooperation agreement will run until March 2023.

“Flanders will then set up an equal opportunities centre, which will work on the basis of the Flemish anti-discrimination legislation and will integrate the tasks of Unia and the Gender Chamber of the Flemish Ombudsperson’s Service,” De Bruyn said.

According to Charlier, the decision was also due to the fact that the Flemish government has been “reluctant” to recognise structural discrimination, which caused tensions with his organisation.

“As we are promoting, speaking and communicating on the issue of structural discrimination, a nationalistic party like Vlaams Belang and N-VA are not keen to participate in an inter-federal process like with Unia, but instead want a Flemish body having the competences,” he added.

One area where Flanders, but also Belgium, are lagging behind, according to Unia, is tackling discrimination on the labour market.

Last summer, Flemish lawmakers approved a resolution to “map” racism by monitoring biased or discriminatory incidents across different activity sectors, led by an independent and academic monitoring system.

This, however, fell short of the left-wing opposition’s aim to introduce a legal framework for so-called ‘field tests’ in Flanders, whereby inspection services specifically check whether there is discrimination or racism without making themselves known, in areas such as on the labour market or in the rental of homes.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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