I also felt sympathy for the particular situation of the Senator who was looking for assistance. He had left the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), a party I always disliked. In 1992, I had spoken at a party gathering about Islam, on the assumption that “la vérité est bonne” (“truth is a good thing”, and saying it to people will always be beneficial). Apparently I was bolstering a change in policy advocated by some party leaders concerned about Islam, but that became the party-line only years later. Anyway, at the reception afterwards, when I first met ordinary party members, I was appalled by the ease of some members with tough policies and violence in general, and with the nostalgia for the war years that some evinced. For the enemy it would prove easy to shoot down the good cause of opposition to Islamization by associating it with these elements in the party. At that time it became very clear to me that resistance to Islam would have to come from the mainstream parties (as it has to some extent in the neighbouring countries). Anyway, I was satisfied to see that more of the party’s politicians started to understand this and defected.
Ceder’s analysis was that times had changed but the party had not. It had started out as a radical Flemish-Nationalist party but had broken through once it restyled itself as anti-immigrant. At that time, foreigners were still something to look at. Today they are present in every classroom, and our youth is perfectly used to them. As the Government’s commissioner for anti-discrimination affairs, Father Johan Leman, had said in the 1990s, the political field was polarized between the VB on the far Right and everyone else, either Leftist or forced to follow policies dictated by the Left, while numerous people really wanted to vote for a moderately Rightist party. That party materialized when the N-VA was created, and especially when the articulate conservative Bart De Wever became its leader. In 2010, it became the largest party by far, though the Belgian establishment kept it out of the Government. This move away from the mainstream parties’ failed policies as well as from the VB’s failed opposition seemed to be the kind of political project I wanted to be part of.
The hardest part of the job was to shut up. In the commission meetings, only Senators are allowed to speak, so when I heard something to which I badly wanted to react, I had to keep mum. Otherwise it was fun, meeting all those faces from TV in the hallway or the conference room. Most memorable for me were the interviews with Serbia’s Deputy Prime Minister, who pleaded Serbia’s case for admission to the European Union, and the General Director of the Israeli prison system.
Unfortunately, the Belgian Senate does little of tangible importance, though it meddles in many conflicts. The Syrian government, the Congolese militias or the Somali pirates must have a fit of panic when the Belgian Senate passes yet another resolution about them. It is presently getting worse, as the Belgian Government agreed on institutional reforms that will leave the Senate with fewer competences and fewer members from 2014 onwards. The important politicians found it harder and harder to even show up. Already it was difficult to reach the quorum and hold a valid meeting. When I started working, the commission met two or three times a week; my last week, it was only once.
Chairman of the Commission was Karl Van Louwe (N-VA, i.e. Flemish Nationalist), with whom I had a good understanding. Also of his party was Piet De Bruyn, a very active committee member. My impression of Bert Anciaux (Socialist, ex-Flemish-Nationalist) improved a lot while on the commission. He was very active, often asking a third or so of the parliamentary questions to the Foreign Affairs or Defence Minister. Likewise his Walloon counterpart Marie Arena (Socialist), a very imposing presence. Not so often present was Christian-Democrat Rik Torfs, a mediagenic law professor, but when he spoke up, he made a difference. He turned out to be a real intellectual, nuanced and with the gift of seeing the larger picture. I also liked Jacky Morael, the avuncular Ecologist who was often the only member to vote against a proposal or even to abstain.
One issue of some real importance for the past year was whether to intervene in Syria or not. Our Foreign Minister, Didier Reynders, usually stays close to French foreign policy, as exemplified by the Belgian eagerness to send troops to Mali to help the French troops on their (so far) victorious march against the Islamist militias. Maybe the satisfaction of this successful intervention in Mali put an end to his enthusiasm for following France into active help to the Syrian opposition. At any rate, I strongly opposed this support, military or otherwise, to the Syrian rebels. They are increasingly dominated by Islamist forces, and they are given lots of money, weapons and mercenaries by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. If at all they were worthy of support, it should not come from crisis-stricken Europe but from these Arab states, flush with money and unemployed young men spoiling for a good fight. But so far, there is every reason to think that their coming to power will not improve matters, and will unleash a persecution of the Alawites, Christians and other minorities by the majority Sunnis. As Bert Anciaux said: “The present regime is bad, but we have no idea whether the opposition will prove better.” This is not a cause worth risking the lives of our boys for.
All along, Didier Reynders proposed to support the opposition, but the prospect of tangible military losses (i.e. body bags) kept the French Government and him from implementing these ideas. And now he has come to muse how strange it would be “to support Islamism in Syria while we have gone to fight it in Mali”. I feel strengthened in my analysis that, while drones may be a powerful weapon, the Muslim world really needs a thaw. Peace and stability are far more conducive to relaxation and change than the present polarization.
To get a taste of foreign policy, I attended a lot of symposia and workshops of the numerous think tanks in Brussels, and meetings of the many political advocacy groups. India, its province Kashmir, Brazil, China, the Middle East, every topic that interested me regularly featured in our capital. It started with the big event of the Iranian opposition, the Mujahedin-i-Khalq, in autumn 2011. Many veterans of French, British and American foreign or security policy were on the panel, all united in their support for the Iranian opposition, and full of forgiveness for its former terrorist record. If I were the Iranian Government, I would have simply broadcast the speeches, for they constituted the best proof that these Iranian opponents and dissidents are but lackeys of Western imperialist policies.
The biggest surprise of my time as a senatorial assistant was the false accusation against my Senator. In his student days in 1984, Jurgen Ceder had been accused of breaking someone’s leg, leaving him seriously limping for the rest of his life. Someone else did it, and there was no way an honest witness could have confused the black-dressed Ceder with the actual “culprit”, who reacted when a Leftist demonstrator splashed white paint all over him. For the man who was presented as the “victim” was not so innocent. Anyway, Ceder stood trial and was fully acquitted twice. Yet in July, when he had announced his decision to join the N-VA, he was accused of the crime once again in the daily De Morgen and the weekly Knack. He did react once, but I think that after the commotion he should have pleaded the guilt of the journalists who had shown contempt of court and contempt of the truth. Apparently he wanted to avoid further upheaval as it could have hurt his new party, just before the crucial municipal elections of October 2013.
Of course, I know from experience that in the hands of the Leftist media, slander is a powerful weapon. But it is powerful only because they have the bourgeoisie in their pocket. Thus, fearful or opportunistic employers will never employ someone with a negative press, even if it is lies from A to Z, because of the bad name it would give their institution or company. The untruth of the media slander may be obvious but makes no difference. How many times have employers or organizers of conferences not told me: “I know you are right, Dr. Elst, and I know they are wrong, but you must understand that our institution cannot afford to bring in someone controversial like you.”
The whole incident looked very familiar to me. It reminded me that I was lucky to have been offered a job at all. I have never gotten a job by applying for it, all my time in job applications has been wasted, it was always an offer coming my way. After my heart disease and medical operations, I was given a second chance, a fresh start with this job at the Senate. Now, on to new breakthroughs.