Belgian politician, Bart De Wever, was in London last Wednesday to receive the Edmund Burke Award. The award is given each year to honour the politician who throughout their career has done the most to advance the Burkean philosophy; the principles of private property, open competition, individual liberty, national sovereignty, sound money, low taxes, parliamentary supremacy, and free trade.
De Wever holds two powerful positions: He is the mayor of Antwerp, and the leader of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). In 2010, De Wever presided over his party’s victory in the federal elections, which saw N-VA becoming the largest party in both Flanders and Belgium as a whole.
Shortly before the ceremony, De Wever sat down with New Europe Editor, Alexandros Koronakis to talk about the present and future of Belgium, the European Union, and the conservative movement. De Wever is not known for bland rhetoric, or soft political positions. A few years ago he received a bullet in the post from an extremist and had to receive police protection. In London, the Belgian politician received a standing ovation for his acceptance speech during the award ceremony. The feeling in the room: De Wever is going to be the next Prime Minister of Belgium.
Apart from being an avowed admirer of Edmund Burke and his political philosophy, De Wever explained that the meaning of the award to him personally related to the fact that it came from “a space in which conservative philosophy can thrive.”
De Wever’s concerns during the interview were carefully balanced between the local, the national, and the European, and in the backdrop: political and moral philosophy.
On Belgium, and its coming elections in 2019, De Wever reflected on the country’s make-up: “Although [Belgium] is a small country, it is fairly complicated. It is a mini Europe. It’s not one democracy, but two, with their own political parties, and two languages.”
De Wever focused on the split in Belgium, but broke it down in terms of the political leaning: “You have one democracy in the north and one in the south. The one in the south is predominantly left wing, with the socialist party … historically very strong. You have a communist party now … and an ecologist party which is also very very left wing. The north is more center-right oriented. We founded the (N-VA) party in 2001. We wanted to create the space for a philosophically conservative center-right party which was lacking in the landscape.”
Even though there are 8 Flemish parties represented in parliament, the N-VA has achieved 32% of the vote, and opinion polls show they are still up there. With the N-VA in the government both in the regional and the federal level, De Wever concluded that “The influence from the southern democracy … has diminished.”
Indeed, the N-VA leader explained that Belgium, especially in the north, is undergoing a transformation. “We have more of a conservative, modern oriented government which seeks a connection with north-western economies like Holland, Denmark, Scandinavian countries, [and] Germany. The predominant political tendency in government in the south is to seek more of a connection with the south; what we call the ‘club Med’ countries.”
In De Wever’s mind, things changed drastically when the Conservative Party left the EPP in 2009. But since then, a lot has changed in European politics. What does he think about the current state of European Politics? “… The EPP … is just a power platform; there is no ideological coherence in the Group and it is in full decline. The Socialists are also in full decline and could lose a lot in the European Parliament. At this time everyone in Europe is wondering whether there will be a [regrouping]’, and who can take the lead,” De Wever explained bluntly. But the UK referendum and everything that have followed have redrawn the map, and reignited important political questions in his political party.
“Brexit is a gamechanger … it makes us wonder what we should do and how we can forge alliances that can make a difference for us. Our party is looking north … to form a new counterbalance for the outspoken federalist view in Europe which is articulated by [French President Emmanuel] Macron at the moment.”
Though the feeling London for De Wever and his party focused on leadership of Belgium, the big question was what will the N-VA do at the European political level? De Wever took a macro view of the current situation.
“With the axis Paris-Berlin without London as a counterpart there is a menace there. Macron has the political dream, and the Germans are there to pay the bills. The Germans … never want to translate their economic power into real political power in Europe because of historical reasons. They tend to follow the federalist dream, at least in words, but I think they realize it’s a very expensive dream them.”
De Wever’s belief is that Europe is in dire need of a counter-narrative in Europe. Who can deliver that? “You need to expect that from the alliance of a group of relatively small but economically powerful countries and our ambition is to be part of that group.”
The most difficult part of reconfiguring the European landscape, from De Wever’s perspective, is that parties are holding on to their traditional alliances with the political parties in the European political spectrum. “A lot of parties … know that they are not in the right place, but do not immediately see a better option, and fear the transition.” And If these parties do change political family, “public opinion takes notice of it,” De Wever explained. “Most of the broad audiences in Europe are unaware of how the European Parliament works, who is who, and in what groups they are. I think the Christian Democrats make a lot of effort not to attract attention that they are together with the Hungarians and so on. But when you change your allegiance, then of course people notice. When we joined the ECR, there was a huge public debate, ‘They’re joining the British… What are they doing? They’re crazy… It’s unacceptable…’, and we had to go through that. That explains why there is reluctance and everyone is looking at the others. People will tap you on the shoulder and ask ‘what are you going to do? Are you going to move? Could we form a new group?’”
The big question mark for De Wever: Emmanuel Macron, which he refered to as a potential “game-changer”. De Wever insisted that it is not improbable that “Macron will not only join ALDE but take it over. But what will that mean for that Group?”, he askeds rhetorically. “There are some parties that might feel very very uncomfortable with [Macron’s takeover]. That could loosen up some things. The fact that the EPP and Socialists are declining, and will together not hold a majority any more, could loosen up things as well.”
De Wever was cryptic when it came to talking about his party’s future with the ECR. Asked if he was looking at making a play for more power and prominence as the seats of power open up, De Wever paused for a moment before answering. “It’s a delicate question because from our perspective we see Brexit as a big setback. We became a big political party, and of course were not willing to join the EPP let alone the Socialists. The big question was – where do we go? We are a relevant political force in our country and needed to be in a relevant political place. The fact that David Cameron left the EPP and took the gamble of forming his own Group was a very welcome move to us because it opened the possibility of forming an alliance with a big power; a neighboring country; a friendly government next door. With the Brits out [of the EU] it changes the game. To be honest we are looking at it; we are unsure. We are talking with our colleagues about it, seeing where it will go, and what exactly the British interests will be in the European and international organizations.”
To close the interview, the discussion moved to the local and national level, and what lessons De Wever has learnt as mayor of Antwerp that can be applied to Europe.
“A lot can be learned looking at Belgium, which is a kind of an experimental country where you also have to reconcile very different groups, opinions, and democracies, which is a European challenge as well. You can learn a lot from our history.”
His advice for Europe: “[Don’t] dream of an ever-closer-union as a sort of religious dream that you force upon the people, and even moralize [it] in a way that people who do not follow the dream are bad people, who should be… pushed aside.”
People who think in this way, De Wever explained, are the same people who look at Brexit in a very vindictive way. “‘Punish the British’ because if the punishment is not there maybe others could follow the ‘bad’ example and also leave the European religion which cannot be put into question. We cannot have a rational debate on that; ‘more Europe is good’, and even questioning the idea that it is good is sinful and bad. That’s not the way to do it. It will be the shortest route to destroying the European integration that we hold very dear. The bottom-up approach is the [correct] approach, and focusing on the things that could really improve people’s lives: making the internal market function better, fixing the Eurozone, and fixing the Schengen zone by policing your outer borders.”
“If Europe would focus on these three things I think they would get a lot of popular support. That’s what people are worried about: That we have an outer door. Is somebody guarding it? Or can anybody just walk in? Can we profit more economically by reinforcing the internal market? And fixing the Eurozone so I don’t have to explain to my plumber that his taxes go to a Communist government in Greece that he didn’t vote for, and would prefer to vote against.”
The problem, De Wever explained, deigns behind closed doors. With who some refer to as the unelected bureaucrats who run the EU. “I’m very sure that in meeting rooms of these Jacobean European thinkers, they consider the member states as obstacles; as a hindrance. But the member states are the people,” De Wever said with a look of wonderment.
“If only the people would be obedient, to the big religious dream of Europe…” De Wever ended, sarcastically.