Eigen Volk Eerst!

Nick Ryan
2 July 2003

Brussels is quiet. The train pulls through grey, decaying suburbs, north towards Antwerp. It slows down at last, half a dozen stops from Brussels, and we pass beneath a lattice of steel girders. Mechelen station seems over-large; few people are around. Coach stops and a bus station. No crowd, no noise.

After 20 minutes, a battered Renault 25 pulls up, swerving round fast, tyres screeching, right in front of me. The metallic coat glints dully in the muted afternoon light. Then the side door swings open. “Hi!” A wide, smiling face, framed with glasses, leans over the passenger seat. “Nick, right?” The driver thrusts out a hand, straining against the seatbelt. An open leather jacket reveals a pale shirt. He looks momentarily bemused, trying to reach towards me, then glances down, tuts, clicks open the belt, and leans towards me again. “Sorry I’m late. You weren’t waiting too long, were you?”

Geert. He looks younger than his 41 years. “No, no problem. I was just enjoying the air, really!” I jest. He seems puzzled, but the smile, with the hint of a gap tooth remains as he motions for me to hop in. For these next few days, Geert will be my guide, chaperone, and personal spin-doctor into the world of Flemish nationalism.

A plump, balding white man

We park the car and, just as I’m stepping out, a teenage girl runs past us, nearly bowling me over. She has a Middle Eastern complexion and is screaming. A plump, balding white man wearing a flapping checked shirt runs after her. A boy follows him, also shouting. Counter-demonstrators are gathering on a flyover bridge above and behind us. Ahead, the canal traps any further progress. “We should do something,” Geert says. I squint at the man. He’s clearly out of breath and angry. He calls after the girl. She screams abuse at him. People start wandering past us, small groups, in dribs and drabs. A police car crawls slowly down the road. I can hear the milling crowd now.

The man catches up with the girl. She’s fighting in his grasp. I walk slowly ahead, not sure whether to get involved. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, Geert,” I say. I’m worried about joining this march, and that we might be trapped by left-wing protesters. Geert doesn’t reply, but trots over to the police car and launches into earnest conversation with the cops. They call the man over. An exchange follows, then Geert runs back to me, looking relieved. “He’s her social worker. Says she’s absconded from the hostel and he has to take her back.”

“These illegals are stealing into the most poor areas, and then pushing out the locals, and this is causing a lot of problems.”

As we chat, Pol tells me he’s a doctor, a general practitioner. He’s a former lifelong conservative, who voted for the Christian Democrats. In the district he represents, 50 percent of the electorate voted for the Vlaams Blok. “How do you see yourself?” I ask. “As a Flemish nationalist,” he answers, looking straight at me through a rounded pair of spectacles, as his eyes lock beneath the V-shaped furrow of his brow. He wraps part of his coat around his arm. “As a Christian, too.” “So what’s the main problem you’re dealing with?” “Immigration. Uncontrolled immigration is causing a lot of trouble. These illegals are stealing into the most poor areas, and then pushing out the locals, and this is causing a lot of problems.” “Really?” “Oh, yes. These people find it very difficult to integrate, and they often come from the lowest social classes.”

Pol is so easy to talk to. I’ve met a thousand people like him. If the right is attracting men like this, something must be going on. Either the problems really are as bad as they say – or else respectable folk are being driven by fear. He’s just the sort of guy that Nick Griffin of the British National Party (BNP), back in England, would love to have on his side. This very fact already makes me doubt whether the Blok is anywhere near the BNP or the other groups I’ve seen. It certainly seems to have mass support. And not just from the working class, although they’re much in evidence today.

Two old ladies stand by the kerb, clapping vigorously for us. The roar of the helicopter drowns out the early speakers. Then the party leadership begins taking to the plinth, head mikes crafted to their skulls, and the TV crews move in. Dramatic music sweeps over the crowd from the huge speaker stacks.

The party president, a trim, tanned, handsome man named Frank Vanhecke, is taking the stand, talking about the power of the Freemasons, when all hell breaks loose. Two riot vans shoot up and start offloading cops. A couple of helicopters hover over a field at the back of the leisure centre, and suddenly all the skins – and others – are running towards the Vlaams Blok marquee, behind the stage.

Ambulances edge through the crowd. Vlaams Blok leaders shout for calm.

A sizeable crowd has gathered in front of the marquee, against the temporary fence that separates us from the remainder of the playing field. Roaming young North Africans on the other side hurl over missiles, whilst the skins taunt them and try to clamber over the railings. Several figures are carried past me, rivulets of blood tracing over their alcohol-flushed faces. Ambulances edge through the crowd. Vlaams Blok leaders shout for calm.

A young skin charges past me, followed by two girls. With his shirt open revealing tattoos and muscles, and a beer can dangling from one hand, he seems a pastiche of a fifties rebel. He joins a huddle of his fellows near the fence.

The Vice President

Geert steers me towards a stocky figure who looks like a kindly old schoolmaster: dark-haired, bearded, with a friendly grin, glasses, and a tweed jacket. His trousers are tucked into his socks. “What’s your name, again?” I shout over the din, as we shake hands. “Oh, my name will be double-dutch to you!” he jokes, in decent English. “Francis Van den Eynde. Here, have one of my cards. I’m Vice President of the parliamentary party, and what you call an MP for the town of Ghent.” He smiles, but I can’t read his eyes.

“How did you get involved with the party?” I shout over the sound of generators and the helicopter. Something whizzes past my head: a piece of paving stone. “I’m involved since 30 years,” he says. “Since I was 14 years old. At first I was in the old nationalist party – the Volksunie,” a more liberal independence movement, from which the Vlaams Blok split in 1977. I explain I’m an outsider. “Why does the party have such a controversial reputation?” “In my opinion, because we are the only party that asks the independence of Flanders.”

“But they try to catch us about the problem of the foreigners in this city. Well, not only this city, this country. Because we have a big problem with, ah, immigration. In our opinion, enough is enough. We don’t want to take all the multicultural society.” I ask him what this means. “The problem for us is that they never mention what is a multicultural society. Our opinion is that everybody who lives here has to respect our language and our culture. And if they do that, they are welcome. No less, no more.” “Are other parties elsewhere similar?” “A lot of them are similar in different ways. If you ask me which parties I admire, hmmm…then in the East, the Legas (Lega Nord/Northern League) in Italy. And Sinn Fein in Ireland.” These two groups encompass the political spectrum: extreme right and left, I point out. “For us, both very interesting,” says Van den Eynde, adjusting his spectacles with a thick finger.

In this time of globalisation and mongrelisation, we try to save our own identity.

Although he maintains that independence is their original aim, others claim immigration/foreigners is really their first issue. “In fact, our first aim is to save our own identity. And that’s the reason why we have problems with the immigration. We have no home rule, at all. We have a kind of federalism in this country. We want independence. In this time of globalisation and mongrelisation, we try to save our own identity. Everybody in the world, even when he is black or yellow, who is struggling to save his own identity, is our ally.” He seems fired up. “This is the world of McDonald’s and Coca Cola. It’s very important to be against globalisation. It’s one of the major problems. In the future, that will be more and more the big problem. What is it?” he asks, rhetorically. “It’s the One World philosophy.”

The unknown soldier

A hand clamps on my shoulder, and five steel-like pincers lock into muscle and bone. Shit. A spurt of unintelligible language bursts from behind me, aggressive and demanding. The genial figure in front of me looks momentarily nonplussed, then his bearded mouth begins moving, in what seems like slow motion. A sudden burst of “Eigen Volk Eerst!” rises again. A flare shoots across the sky. Cobblestones land near the marquee. I’m facing a blunt-faced, heavily built skinhead, his head completely shaved and garbed all in black. I explain that I speak only English and that I’m a journalist.

“Who are you?” I ask. “I’m just someone, a Fleming, fighting for my country,” he answers, leaning in close. I can taste his breath and see his solid, stone-like grin from close quarters. His teeth are stained, and his eyes are shocking blue. “What’s your name?” “Ah, I don’t give my name. I’m just here to support the Flemish people.” “Are you a member of the Vlaams Blok, then?” “No, I’m not a member of the party, because of my job.” “What’s that?” “I’m a soldier. We can’t get involved in politics.”

“So what are you doing here, then, if you can’t get involved?” I cup my hands together, to speak over the noise. “I’m just here to fight for my country. And to keep the cool, to make sure the young people don’t lose it so much.” “Fight for who, though?” “My country. When it’s necessary, that’s what I’ll do. It goes back a long way in my family. My grandfather fought in Stalingrad.” He tells me he supports the IRA and ETA, the Basque paramilitary movement and that he’s been four times in Croatia with the United Nations.

The spokesmen

The Vlaams Blok headquarters is housed in a large, shabby tower block. It’s reminiscent of Eastern Europe, a pharmacy and sandwich shop on either side of the entrance. Inside, past the security buzzer (the building was bombed not long ago) a cramped, old-fashioned lift takes you to the third floor. Then the door swings wide, and I’m spat out into modern office surroundings.

The corridor outside is a flurry of activity. Most of the people here are preparing one of the biggest challenges the organisation has faced in years. A government-funded anti-racism centre has lodged a suit, alleging that the Vlaams Blok incites racial hatred. If successful, this would mean a withdrawal of central funding and potential destruction for the party.

I meet Johan Demol, the party’s law and order spokesman. He’s a former police commissioner, much championed as an advocate of zero tolerance policies. His words become a blur, and an unhealthy film of sweat coats his pasty-looking skin. He talks about the Mafia’s growing power among Belgium’s ruling classes. I’m more taken with the tacky John Wayne statue sitting on his window. His small, beady eyes narrow as he reminisces about cleaning the streets of prostitutes and drug dealers.

Perched on the North Sea coast, the old trading centre of Antwerp oddly reminds me of towns in Eastern Europe, China, even the Middle East. The smell of the sea and decaying ozone. Tug boats and barges wending their way towards the open sea. It’s a place of memories, history – and sudden change. A place of peeling decay and faded glories.

I talk with Gerolf Annemans, the party’s parliamentary leader, and Filip Dewinter (who I learn has changed his name from Philip, to sound more Flemish). Annemans is a bearded, eloquent figure, sitting in a little pool of light from the angle poise lamp on his desk. He compares the Belgian state to East Germany and complains about the party’s treatment from the press, as he carefully toys with the leather writing pad on his desk. Dewinter arrives late, and flustered. He has just a touch of grey eating at his temples, the first real sign of age on the young orator’s face, and sports a neat V-neck pullover. His eyebrows meet in the middle.

Much of our conversation concerns the economic situation of Flanders. Other matters, like immigration, are couched in seemingly reasonable language. Annemans admits he’s met Haider, as well as Le Pen and Umberto Bossi, head of Italy’s separatist Northern League. Dewinter claims the Italian right is a source of inspiration. In just a few days’ time, both the Northern League and the former fascist party, the Alleanza Nationale, will enter into coalition with Silvio Berlusconi. Two parties of the right, helping to govern Italy. Things are changing.

The beast

The Leeuw Van Vlaanderen (Lion of Flanders) is an infamous Flemish nationalist pub, traditionally popular with harder elements of the movement. Gerolf Annemans said that many journalists called it “The Beast”. Geert is uncomfortable. By now, I’ve learned that he doesn’t drink or smoke, and he seems ill at ease with some of the more zealous signs of nationalism.

We enter the narrow, snaking alleys and paved lanes of Antwerp’s old town. Heavy metal music blasts out into the street from an Irish bar called Mollys. The Lion of Flanders itself is tiny and nondescript; a brown facade that seems trapped in time, surrounded by newer, brasher restaurants. Old newsprint papers the walls. The wizened bartender, sporting a beard with no moustache, takes our order with a quizzical, suspicious eye fixed on me.

Geert blurts out something in Flemish – telling the guy I’m a journalist, he explains to me in English – and suddenly everyone in the small room is staring. I gulp down the strong lager and ask for another. The barman pretends he can’t understand English, so I’m forced to point at the beer tap. In the corner sit two long-haired guys wearing blue, white and orange sashes. Dutch students from a nationalist organisation, Geert whispers. I think he looks more out of place here than I do. He’s hardly touched his beer.

He admits that the night classes in law are taking a toll. But he must do them if he wants advancement. That’s the only way up in politics, he believes. I decide to quiz him about these beliefs, and he talks about the growing sense of alienation and frustration building up in cities like Antwerp, and his support for a “Greater Netherlands” project.

“I have a partner,” he says. “Flemish?” “No, she’s Greek,” he says, quickly.

He also mentions the need to build strong family units. I smile and ask him – if he doesn’t mind – about his own marital arrangements. “I have a partner,” he says. “Flemish?” “No, she’s Greek,” he says, quickly. They cohabit. I stay silent. “But this is a party of choice, too,” he remonstrates. “We don’t want to tell people what to do with every aspect of their lives.”

When we talk about race, he claims, “I can’t just go to the States. I need a permit from the US. And if I don’t behave while in the US, I’m out. That’s not racism.” “Aren’t we just trying to turn the clock back, though?” I suggest. “Refugees aren’t going to stop leaving countries, are they?” “That’s the sad thing. We need to invest and support those countries, so people feel they have a reason to remain.” His manner is persuasive, the language of liberalism.

“So what’s the biggest issue facing Flanders’s potential independence? Wallonia – the French – or (as I suspect) immigration?” “Oh, Wallonia, no doubt. Of course, there would be tensions about immigration in an independent Flanders,” he admits. “It’s a nationalistic issue also. If we allow members of other cultures to keep all of their cultural values, like their languages and certain non-democratic practices, that affects us too. If indeed Turkish and Arabic become an official language, and if people from abroad know that, that will affect immigration even more. And that to us is unacceptable.” It all sounds so reasonable. And I think Geert is genuine in his beliefs.

When the others learn Geert is a prominent member of the Vlaams Blok, they suddenly break into smiles and begin chatting and slapping backs. I swallow hard, feeling relieved. As the guy next to us blows cigar smoke into my face, the barman grins and says, “Hey, English, look here!” He removes several glasses from a shelf. Behind it are dozens of different stickers, from all kinds of nationalist and national liberation movements. Groups in Sweden, Corsica, Cuba, Sardinia. Near the door, fading pictures show members of militant groups, many now swallowed into the Vlaams Blok.

Then the bartender reveals the pride of his collection: a Sinn Fein emblem from Ireland, with a Lion of Flanders inside it. He rewards me with a gap-toothed grin, as I mutter what I hope sounds like appreciation. He regales us with stories of how he’d been coming to this place since 1958. He used to go around the countryside, he says, painting out all the French signs.

Geert and I leave the pub, to share one last meal together. We dine on spaghetti in a trendy restaurant called Travel, served by a Thai waitress. Saying goodbye, I feel a twinge of sadness.

My trip ends in the medieval city of Ghent. Another demonstration: a sea of banners fluttering against a backdrop of old buildings and churches. This time, the action involves both the Vlaams Blok and members of other Flemish movements. Thousands have turned up, and there’s little or no visible opposition.

This is an edited excerpt from Nick Ryan’s Homeland: Into A World of Hate (Mainstream, 2003), which tells the stories of his journey into the heart of the European and American far right.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData