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Nazi row rattles Belgium's new 'kamikaze coalition'

Fed up already? Belgium's new PM Charles Michel (right) endures a gruelling first day in parliament
Fed up already? Belgium's new PM Charles Michel (right) endures a gruelling first day in parliament Laurie Dieffembacq, AFP

A few years ago, Belgium famously went 589 days without a government. Its new ruling coalition, which includes Flemish separatists and alleged far-right sympathizers, will do well to last that long.

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On Tuesday, Belgium's new prime minister faced a turbulent first day in parliament as opposition lawmakers hijacked his policy speech, demanding that he explain the attitude of two ministers towards wartime collaboration with Nazi occupiers.

Chaos erupted as Charles Michel, the 38-year-old French-speaking PM, dodged repeated questions about the behaviour of the two Flemish nationalist ministers in his new centre-right coalition, which was sworn in last Saturday.

One of them, the country’s new interior minister, Jan Jambon, had appeared to justify collaboration with Nazi occupiers during World War II in an interview published on Monday by French-speaking daily La Libre Belgique.

“Collaboration was a mistake, but those who collaborated with Germany had their reasons,” Jambon was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, his colleague Theo Francken, the new immigration and asylum minister, was accused by opposition lawmakers of attending a meeting to mark the 90th birthday of a Flemish far-right activist convicted of collaborating with the Nazis.

Both ministers belong to the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the largest party in the coalition, led by the controversial separatist campaigner Bart De Wever.

Jambon, in particular, has a history of courting controversy.

In 2001, he spoke at a gathering of an ultra-nationalist group known to include former Flemish volunteer members of the Waffen SS.

He has also been pictured attending a rally by France’s former far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who notoriously described the Holocaust as a "detail of history".

His comments this week triggered a furious backlash, prompting his party to release a statement condemning both wartime collaboration and the “dishonest exploitation” of Jambon’s quotes.

Mission impossible

The row has reopened old wounds over Belgium's wartime history, a divisive chapter in a country that is already bitterly divided between the richer Flemish north and the poorer French-speaking south.

The purge of Flemish collaborators after World War II has left a sour taste in the country’s north, where some believe that the French-speaking south failed to prosecute collaborators from their own ranks.

On Tuesday, Belgium’s new prime minister sought to quell the row over his two controversial cabinet ministers, telling public broadcaster RTBF that “both had assured [to him] that they considered collaboration unacceptable”.

Michel also warned cabinet members to be “prudent and exercise restraint”, slamming what he described as the opposition’s attempt to “inflame tensions between communities”.

Michel's right-leaning Reformist Movement (MR) is the only French-speaking party along with three Flemish parties in the coalition, which was formed last week after five months of intense negotiations following inconclusive elections in May.

His decision to join forces with the N-VA, a party founded on the principle of Flemish separatism, has ruffled feathers in a country fractured by a deep cultural and linguistic chasm.

"I want a government that unites, not divides," Michel told MPs on Tuesday.

But even by Belgian standards, the current coalition appears impossibly fractious.

Judging by Tuesday’s raucous sessions in Parliament, Belgium’s new prime minister “doesn’t project the image of a leader in control of events,” wrote Belgium’s French-language evening daily Le Soir, describing Michel’s performance as his “first failure”.

His cabinet is expected to secure a confidence vote on Thursday, but few pundits would put their money on it lasting a full five-year legislature – so much so that Belgian newspapers have dubbed it the “kamikaze coalition”.

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