‘Security’ is a major theme of the rhetoric of the populist radical right in Flanders, the Dutch speaking North of Belgium and arguably played a role in its success, which by far exceeds that of the extreme right in the French-speaking South of the country. The Vlaams Blok (VB - Flemish Bloc) was founded after the split of the more radical wing of the already nationalist Volksunie (People’s Union) in the late 1970s. It was renamed Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) after having been found guilty of racism in 2004, and then became one of the most successful populist radical right parties in Europe, experiencing its zenith between the late 1980s and the mid 2000s.
‘Security’ has been an important signifier in the rhetoric of VB since the late 1980s. The party presented itself as the defender of the Flemish people’s security from a range of threats, including crimes against private property, drug use, and terrorism. Most crucially, the party has consistently connected ‘insecurity’ to the presence of people of foreign descent. VB's electoral upsurge in the early 1990s was due to a large extent to the party’s emphasis on the ‘migrant problem’. This unspecified category includes ‘illegal’ immigrants (labelled ‘illegals’), refugees, migrants without the Belgian nationality as well as Belgian nationals of migrant origin and their offspring. Clearly, everyone living in the Flemish territory who does not belong to what VB considers to be ‘the Flemish people’ are thus singled out for opprobrium. In the following two decades, the party insisted that the presence of people of foreign descent was the cause of an increasing sense of ‘insecurity’.
Since people are organically tied to ‘their’ people, culture, and homeland, so the argument goes, when they migrate and settle in a country with a different culture to their own, they are ‘uprooted’. This uprootedness, according to VB, leads migrants to anomie and to sociocultural and socioeconomic disintegration, thus to crime. Slogans such as “Less foreigners, more security” and “Stop immigrants, safe city” show how VB constructs this direct causal link between the presence of foreigners and crime.
The solution offered by VB is quite simple: fewer aliens and more law and order. VB used to demand that all foreigners be sent 'home'. The slogan ‘Hand in hand back to their own country’, usually combined with the picture of an airplane lifting off, gives an idea of the party’s viewpoints as well as of its ways of dealing with antiracist criticism – the slogan being a parody of the antiracist 'Hand in Hand' campaigns of the early 1990s. Later, the party took a somewhat milder approach , demanding the total ‘assimilation’ of people of foreign descent into what it considers to be Flemish culture. However, the party programme still includes a zero-immigration policy, the deportation of criminal migrants and the withdrawal of their Belgian nationality if they happen to have it. It also supports a decisively repressive stance against irregular migrants and undocumented refugees. In April 2012, VB launched an ‘Illegality Hotline’, asking people to report cases of‘abuse’ of social security, of crime, of undeclared work, etc. The information gathered in this fashion is to serve as the basis for a document criticising existing immigration policies.
VB’s anti-foreigner rhetoric has always been focused on migrants from Islamic countries, mainly Moroccans and Turks - two major migrant groups in Belgium. Like other populist radical right parties, VB’s rhetoric has increasingly shifted towards a form of ‘cultural racism’ stressing the cultural incompatibility of people from different ethnic backgrounds. Islam is unsurprisingly singled out as one of the main factors for such a clash. Especially since 9/11 the defence of ‘European’ values and identity against Islam has come to occupy a key role in VB's rhetoric. Having depicted in vivid colours the threat of ‘Islamisation’, the party is able to present itself as the defender of the Flemish people and of Europe against it. This has led to rather far-flung claims that the populist radical right is best suited to defend democracy, gender equality and even lesbian and gay rights against the intolerance of Muslims. This is quite a leap from the party’s earlier ultra-conservative takes on electoral democracy, women’s rights, and homosexuality – all arguably still present in its core values. By summing up reality in a simple slogan, ‘Freedom or Islam?’, illiberal VB thus manages to position itself as the defender of freedom.
Like many populist parties, VB presents itself as the only true alternative against the too soft political mainstream ‘pampering’ migrants and failing to take the threat of ‘Islamisation‘ seriously. They are the only party really telling the whole truth. For example, VB published in 2005 a book called The foolish taboo using existing scientific research in an attempt to expose the connection between ethnicity and criminal behaviour. This fuelled the party's populist self-identification as representing the view of ordinary people who really know what it is to live in areas where they are faced with crime and other negative effects deriving from the presence of migrant communities, against a distant ‘political elite’ accused of turning a blind eye to these real problems.
VB's electoral strength has been one of the factors explaining the move to the right of other parties in matters related to ‘multiculturalism’. As they increasingly align themselves with what is now a dominant discourse declaring it a 'failure', mainstream parties find their immigration policies of the last decades increasingly criticised for being too soft and for attracting immigrants. The Flemish populist radical right can applaud itself for having been the one and only party to have always said things as they are.
Benjamin de Cleen is a Ph.D. candidate at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, where he examines the populist radical right and culture in Flanders.