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How the issues of migration and asylum are reshaping the politics of Belgium

Ahmad Abu Sen

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It was a big surprise for many people seeing the Belgian government break up after intensive negotiations between all parties involved. Mr. Charles Michel , the prime minister, representing the center-right and liberal parties supporting the UN Migration Compact on the one hand, Mr. Theo Francken (State’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration) and his N-VA-colleagues occupying ministerial posts within the government strongly opposing the Compact on the other hand. The NV-A (New Flemish Alliance) even threatened to leave the government if Mr. Michel insisted on approving the Compact, hoping that by doing such, Belgium would not approve the Compact or at least abstain.

Through his political career as a State’s Secretary for Asylum and Migration Mr. Francken demonstrated a very strict policy towards migrants and asylum seekers as well as refugees. By implementing extremely tough measurements, he hoped to limit the numbers of asylum seekers who choose Belgium as the final destination of their long often journey of hardship and misery.

Starting from discharging massive campaign  against refugees and asylum seekers in media, social media and even his own twitter account, executing one of the largest deportation action in Europe, to his putting a limit on the number of daily asylum applications by only allowing 60 people per day submit such claim, the latter sparking widespread anger. All of these procedures aimed solely at making Belgium less attractive a country of destination for asylum seekers, as Mr.Francken himself expressed. The strategy he maintained throughout his time in office was and is a clear reflection of the party he represents, the N-VA which has recently used improper photos for its campaign which they took form a campaign launched by one of the notoriously well-known extreme right German party.

The clearly incoherent cabinet, later to be known as Michel I,  survived for almost 4 years with visible discordant voices, though. It all started with “marathonic” negotiations to form the new government in 2014. At the time the N-VA , the relatively new formed party , won the largest number of seats among other parties in federal Belgian parliament , beating the deeply rooted Belgian  parties like the Christian democrats, the liberals, the socialists and the green. Allied with the Christian democrats  and the liberals the new Flemish alliance could successfully form the new cabinet.

The newly formed cabinet, at the time, would soon be hit by a series of problems, migration wise, amongst which the huge influx of refugees in 2015, which some refer to as the ‘asylum crisis’, was the first one. Apparently there were different voices within the government on how to handle the matter. The right wing was overwhelmed by the public pressure  to present a humane solution for these poor people  in the Maximilian Park. The park , which will play a central role in the shaping of Mr.Francken’s migration policy at a later stage, was in 2015 a place where over the course of several months thousands of asylum seekers took shelter including elderly, women and children while awaiting their asylum claim to be registered.  A Park that over time has also become be synonymous to a different approach on migration.

Soon after the biggest influx of asylum seekers in the history of the Belgian kingdom, a phenomenon that had existed  for decades started to draw public attention, the phenomenon of transmigration, people on the run who are in Belgium but only plan to stay there temporarily awaiting a change to get to the United Kingdom or another European country. The Maximilian Park became a meeting point for these people on the run who are mainly originary from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia and who range from young children (as young as 12 years old) to grown-up men and women. Being forced out if their little tents in Calais and Dunkirk, they found themselves in the heart of the Belgian capital, profiting from the presence of international bus lines at the nearby Brussels-North railway station to try and get to the United Kingdom clandestinely. Or using the national railway network to get to local ports or highway parking lots to get aboard lorries or containers, hoping these would set course for the United Kingdom. Living conditions in the Park being in human, soon a citizen’s platform of hundreds of families willing to offer a place to eat and sleep to these people on the run emerged. This initiative was wildly criticized by the right wing and hardliners in the country . The police force was on high alert especially in the surroundings of the Park and the earlier mentioned Brussels North station.

New tough measurements were introduced including a wide spread man hunt for the (transmigrants) by the police, a scheme which was designed by both the Home Office and the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration. The photos of young men handcuffed ignited public outcry asking for a humane solution rather than arresting the unknowing migrants.  In the meantime Mr. Francken was bringing up even more sensitive issue for the public. With his broad scheme of deportation and his record number that no minister of migration has reached before, he began to lock up asylum seekers who failed to get their claims accepted by authorities as well as people who stay in Belgium illegally in detention centers as a step to deport them to their homeland soon after. A step which was widely criticized keeping in mind that families with children were also locked up.  The European supreme court issued a statement that this step contradicts the European laws and firmly stated that (you cannot lock up children in detention centers).

Among other things Mr. Francken also tried to introduce a separate social security system for refugees so they would receive lower social benefits than the Belgians, his attempt was doomed to fail due to the strict European equality laws.

The internal conflict within the government, reached its peak with the issue of signing the UN Migration Compact. With strong  opposition from the N-VA (which only started to criticize the Compact after 2 years of negotiations and after a formal approval by – amongst others – their own government ministers earlier on in 2018) and the willingness to sign it from its counterparts, many analysts expected the end of the coalition. N-VA constantly threatened to withdraw from the government if Michel insisted on going to Marrakesh to approve the Compact  . Michel decided to consult the parliament as a whole about the issue and the Compact was approved of by a majority of government and opposition parties, except the N-VA and the far-right Vlaams Belang.

Shortly after Michel travelled to Marrakesh and stated there Belgium approves of the pact. A collective resignation from N-VA ministers took place only one day before. A new State’s Secretary of Asylum and Migration was appointed, Mrs. Maggie De Block. Mrs. De Block introduced her first day at the office by declaring that she would l abolish Mr. Francken’s 60 asylum applications per day policy. She also promised to clear the mess in the federal asylum department ,known as FEDASIL , in order to fetch more places in the reception centers for the new asylum seekers. Furthermore, she gave her orders to offline the social media anti-asylum campaign.

It is a bit early to judge and to determine whether there is actually a new asylum policy, but it is crystal clear that the new State’s Secretary has come with a different tone. The coming months will reveal more about the new adapted policy.

While Mrs. De Block was busy clearing the mess in her new ministry, Mr. Michel’s new government, also known as Michel II, has failed to gain trust from the parliament. Both N-VA and Vlaams Belang are calling for early elections. The King himself has intervened to put an end to the chaos. He consoled all the parties except the extreme right wing Vlaams Belang.

Whether there will be early elections or not, the federal elections of 2019 will definitely shape the new governmental façade of Belgium including its migration and asylum policy. But more importantly the issue of migration and asylum will be heavily present in the parties programs. So it is not only the politics changing migration, but migration changing politics as well.

Policy officer at Flanders Refugee Action (Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen) Syrian, Freelance journalist/blogger and lecturer Writes in Arabic and English

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Will the political face of France change?

Mohammad Ghaderi

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Political and social equations are wrapped up in France! Protests against President Emmanuel Macron continue. Most analysts from European affairs, however, believe that Macron will not have a chance to survive in the presidential race in the next presidential election.

On the other hand, many analysts believe the likelihood of a nationalist presence at the Elysees Palace is high! Le Pen is now trying to remove Macron from power through holding an early election; “It is necessary to implement proportional representation and dissolve the National Assembly in order to hold new proportional elections.”

Simultaneously, she attempts to attract the attention of French citizens to herself as France’s next president. “We believe that the way out of the crisis is essentially political. This decision excludes any use of violence that only adds chaos to adversity,” Le Pen said in a letter published on the party’s website.

Le Pen also emphasized that the political solution to the recent crisis depended on the French officials while uttering that French President Emmanuel Macron “is deprived of sympathy for the people, constrained by arrogance and indifference of the elites.”

As the French National Front can make its way to power, the EU and Euro area equilibrium will change: a matter that many European and French politicians have warned about.

In 2014, the President of the French National Rally political party, Marin Le Pen was able to shine exceptionally well in the European parliamentary elections and overcome other French political parties. In the 2017 general election, Le Pen was able to reach the final round of the presidential competitions for the first time since the establishment of the French National Rally. However, at that time, Le Pen couldn’t act against the broad opposition of the Socialist and Conservative parties. But the equation seems to have changed now!

The French president is not in good shape now! Polls conducted in France suggested a decline in the popularity of Emmanuel Macron as the country’s president. This is while only 21 months have passed since Macron’s presence at Elysee Palace. Under such circumstances, Le Pen and her companions will naturally try to change the French citizen’s mind to the benefit of the French National Rally. This is a very good time indeed, as many of the French citizens no longer trust Macron and his promises for making economic, social reforms in France.

The main question is whether the French National Front will succeed in achieving its goals? It is not clear, however, that Le Pen’s calculations would all come true. The French National Rally President opened a special account on Macron’s former supporters to change their minds, and as a result, their votes to her benefit! This is while some of these votes may turn into silent votes or white votes.

Also, it’s quite possible that France political atmosphere in 2017, would once again repeat in 2022, or during the country’s possible early elections. In this case, to right-wing extremists of French National Rally are going to lose the elections again. Therefore, Le Pen is really cautious about her positions right now, though she believes that Macron’s incapability provided the ground for her political and social success in Paris.

First published in our partner MNA

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Europe has changed its mask

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Face” of peaceful and friendly Europe has changed. Europe even does not try any more to wear a mask of past tolerance. Tensions are constantly increasing. Unrest like wildfire is sweeping across Europe. Though riots caused by different events and decisions, political convulsions make Europeans feel uncomfortable. People are tired of being unheard by the authorities.

Misunderstanding between ordinary people and authorities is more clearly visible, especially in the so-called “old Europe”. Once prosperous countries, France and Italy, actively resist the new world order. Social instability, deterioration of living standards on the background of militarization has led to unprecedented unrest. All attempts to reduce tensions have not brought about results.

Democracy has plaid a dirty trick with all of us. Freedom allows people to go on the streets and introduce their position. On the other hand, delegated powers give the authorities the possibility to “calm” the riots, to suspend the activities, to ban meetings, even using police.

French political movement for economic justice, the so-called “yellow vests”, went beyond the country and caused diplomatic crisis between France and Italy.

German workers also expressed solidarity with “yellow vest” protests in France. Workers in Germany share the same grievances and recognize they also confront policies that favour the rich.

Another irritating thing is militarization of the region, NATO expansion. Many Europeans link the fact of increasing national defence expenditures with deterioration of life. That is why anti-NATO and anti-war campaigns on the Internet gain momentum. Among them are: no-to-nato.network, notonato.org, no2nato2019.org, popularresistance.org/no-to-nato-spring-actions-in-washington-dc. The more so, “Stop Air Base Ramstein” campaign in Germany started October 5th, 2008, gains more popularity and organizes protests in Germany and abroad. It has its representatives in the US, Austria, Australia, Poland, Ireland, France, Japan and the UK. The international network No to War – No to NATO calls for broad actions against NATO in Washington DC and worldwide.

The next occasion for such organizations to become more active is the signing an agreement with Macedonia on February, 6 allowing the country to become the military alliance’s 30th member. This particular step could become the catalyzer for more violent protests and political disobedience. It brings chaos to Europe, raises tensions and leads to the loss of trust in Peace and Democracy.

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Unrest in Bosnia

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For Bosnia and Herzegovina many analysts will say that is artificial creation. That is why there is a saying for Bosnia: ”Where logic ends, Bosnia begins”. Anyway, the latest Bosniak initiative, has surprised many, because it strikes at the very basis of existence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Recently, the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), the main Bosniak party in the country, announced that will initiate a legal procedure before the Constitututional Court to challenge the name of Bosnia`s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.

”The previous practice of the Republika Srpska institutions showed that the entyty`s name was intensively and efficiently used to discriminate against the other two constituent peoples – Bosniaks and Croats, “ the SDA said. “Linking the name to only one people living in the multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina is contrary to the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.” The strongest Bosniak national party, further said that the Constitutional Court made an earlier decision on the constituency of the people which stipulated that the entities must ensure full equality of all constituent peoples in their legal systems.

Reacting to calls for the Constitutional Court to review the legality of the name of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, the leader of ruling Republika Srpska party Alliance of Independent Social Democrats and current Chairman of Bosnia’s Tripartite Presidency, Milorad Dodik, strongly condemned the Party for Democratic Action initiative at a press conference the same day and called upon the SDS (second strongest Serb party) to support a decision on the “independence of the Republika Srpska” if the initiative is submitted to the Constitutional Court.

“Our authentic and original constitutional rights is for us to decide on our status. We will do that,” he said, dismissing earlier statements by the High Representative Valentin Inzko, named by the international community to oversee the civilian implementation of the Dayton Agreement, who said that Republika Srpska can not secede. ”He was put here to conduct repercussions against Republika Srpska. But this is a moment where there will be no calculations,” Dodik said. ”If you wanted to throw us, Republika Srpska, out of Bosnia and Herzegovina, you are doing best job possible. Finish it. I have nothing against it,” Dodik said, referring to the Party for Democratic Action.

This attack on Republika Srpska showed that Serbian politicians are united in its defense. The move drew condemnation from both the ruling Republika Srpska Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), and Bosnian Serb opposition parties in the entity, such as the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) and the Party of Democratic Progress (PDP).

In one of the first reactions to the Bosniak Party for Democratic Action announcement, the Republika Srpska National Assembly Speaker Nedeljko Cubrilovic said this was a nothing but a provocation and that it represents an anti-Constitutional act.

”The SDA’s claims are disgusting and laughable at the same time because they are the ones who refuse to implement the Constitutional Court’s decision issued 12 years ago, stipulating that Serbs must be equally represented in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Cubrilovic said. ”Initiating a Constitutional Court discussion on the name of the Republika Srpska would mark the end of the project called Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Cubrilovic noted.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR), top international institution overseesing the peace implementation in the country stated that the initiative to dispute the name of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity before the Constitutional Court amid the post-election government formation is “irresponsible and counterproductive.” Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two entities, the OHR said, and the Peace Implementation Council continuosly expresses its commitment to basic structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an integral, sovereign state that consists of the two entities.

The international community’s High Representative was installed to oversee the civilian part of the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement, the peace threaty that ended the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Its Peace Implementation Council (PIC) Steering Board, which is composed of foreign ambassadors in Bosnia, meets twice a year to assess the progress in the process.

Background

The statement of Bakir Izetbegovic, leader of the strongest Bosniak party SDA, who addressed the public saying that he is ready to consider abandoning the initiative to change the name of Republika Srpska, if in the next six months “the SNSD change its behavior”, and accept the further path of Bosnia and Herzegovina towards NATO, clearly shows who is standing behind this initiative. Even “Croatian” member of Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency Željko Komšić – several days before Bakir Izetbegovic- conditioned the appointment of a mandate for the Council of Ministers (which currently belongs to the Serbs) by membership in the NATO. It should be added that this initiative of the Bosniaks comes shortly after the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Serbia, where he met, among other things, with the leadership of Republika Srpska.

An interesting analysis of the events in Bosnia was published on January 13 in National Interest, American bimonthly international affairs magazine, by Sean Maguire and Ryan Scherba, with title: “The Bosnia Boondoggle: This is Why Sarajevo Can’t Join NATO”. In the analysis, among other things, is written: “If the United States is serious about backing NATO membership for Bosnia and Herzegovina, then it has to get serious about the failures of the Dayton Peace Accords and drop its support for them as Bosnia’s governance system. They may have ended Bosnia’s civil war in 1995, but they have become synonymous with stagnation, frustration, despair, poor governance and weak institutions. This not only hinders the joint U.S.-Bosnian aspirations to join NATO, but has stagnated Bosnia overall, enshrining ethnic divisions (and tensions) legally between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs that have left Bosnia divided and ripe for geopolitical goals of Russia. The recent elections in October that delivered a hardline Serb-nationalist who is stridently anti-West and NATO to the Bosnian presidency are evidence of this, while serving as a wake-up call to Washington that it is time to re-engage in Bosnia.” In addition to the National Interest, from Turkey also arrived messages regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina future. During a meeting with Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged for the revision of the Dayton Agreement. Turkish President and Croatian President apparently agreed that this document, prepared in haste for only three weeks to stop the war, did not create the conditions for finding a stable solution for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the international community representatives who oversee the implementation of the agreement that ended Bosnia’s war, said they recognize the concerns regarding discrimination of constituent peoples and citizens across the country as legitimate, but that the name “Republika Srpska” is enshrined in the Constitution. The PIC recalled that the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognizes that the country consists of two entites, the Bosniak-Croat shared Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska.

Challenging the name of the Republika Srpska entity before the Constitutional Court would be counterproductive and irresponsible, the Peace Implementation Council Steering Board stated while it also condemned recent rhetoric and actions that question the territorial integrity of Bosnia.

Russia refused to join the statement that foreign diplomats in Bosnia issued in response to the recent initiative to challenge the name of Republia Srpska before Bosnia’s Constitutional Court, the Russian Ambasador confirmed to journalists.

”Russia did not give consent for the PIC’s (Peace Implementation Council) joint statement because it is too general. It is everyone’s yet no one’s fault,” Petr Ivantsov told media after the meeting of ambassadors. The conclusions his colleagues passed has a broad meaning that speaks of mistakes of all political actors in Bosnia, said Russia’s diplomat, adding that the statement does not focus on current problems. According to Mr. Ivantsov, the SDA’s “threat” to dispute the Republika Srpska’s name at the Constitutional Court is “a serious mistake” and is not in line with the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement.

Conclusion

The Bosniaks would never undertake such a radical move if they did not have the support in the first place of the West, and also Turkey. After undemocratic accession of Montenegro into NATO, and soon Macedonia, NATO directs its attention to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The main opponent of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entry into NATO is Republika Srpska, whose Assembly passed a resolution on military neutrality.

The West makes it clear that it will not give up until all Balkan states become NATO members. The most important land and riparian transportation corridors between Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, and between the Baltic and Aegean Seas, run through Serbia. Because of that, the main goal of the West is Serbia’s entry into NATO, which would also leave Russia without a strategic ally in the Balkans. The main obstacle to this is the “second Serbian state in the Balkans”, that is Republika Srpska. This is precisely why the Bosniaks are encouraged to strike on the basis of Dayton.

The structure of Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina plays a major role in the political life of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it consists of three foreign judges, two Bosniaks, two Serbs and two Croats, which means in practice and it has been established so far – that three foreign and two Bosniak judges have majority, and they use it. So arbitrarily impose their decisions on all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

If the initiative to abolish the name of Republika Srpska go to Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbs must show their determination, which is now announced by the most powerful Serb politician Milorad Dodik. A decision must be made to declare the independence of the Republika Srpska. Such a decision carries a risk of conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, Republika Srpska has no other choice.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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