Three weeks ago, all the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Belgian Senate received an invitation of the US Embassy in Brussels to attend the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama at the Embassy on 20 January. Senators Karim Van Overmeire and Freddy Van Gaever, both belonging to the Vlaams Belang (VB) party, the largest party in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of Belgium, accepted the invitation.
On the very morning of the inauguration, however, the secretary of the two VB senators received a phone call from the U.S. Embassy. The embassy told her that the invitation of the VB politicians was “a mistake” and requested them “not to come.”
Senator Van Gaever is a good friend of mine. He is not easily discouraged and does not take “No” for an answer. That is how he made his fortune in the aviation business. Before he went into politics Freddy was a successful businessman with many American contacts. He knew the late President Ford personally and was invited to attend the inauguration of the late President Reagan in Washington. When Freddy was told not to come to the Embassy he decided to go anyway and see what would happen. Would he, a democratically elected politician and a lifelong friend of America, whose daughter lives there and whose grandchildren are U.S. citizens, be barred from entering the Embassy?
As it happened, Freddy was not prevented from attending the inauguration at the Embassy. He chatted with the former Belgian Prime Minister Mark Eyskens and former Aviation Minister Rik Daems and the guards did not dare to throw him out. “Everything went fine,” he told me afterwards, “but it was not nice of the Embassy to ask us NOT to come.”
Who took the decision to snub the VB members of the Belgian Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee by disinviting them, while members from other parties, such as the vehemently anti-American Socialists and Greens, were welcomed most heartily?
Vincent Chiarello, a former American diplomat who in his 22-year career has served in five different U.S. embassies in Latin America and Europe, where he was involved, often directly, in organizing the embassy’s proceedings on election night and inauguration day, writes:
“Never in my tours of service have I ever heard of any political party’s representative, especially those members who are part of the foreign policy machinery of the government, being ‘disinvited’ after a formal embassy invitation had been proffered; it flies in the face of diplomatic protocol and good judgment.
“The closest similar incident that I recall happened after the election of Reagan in 1984, and there were questions raised within the embassy about inviting the head of the Fremskrit (‘Progressive’) Party to the inaugural celebration because of his very strong opposition to Third World immigration into Norway. In the end, Karl I. Hagen was invited, for it was considered improper, and a violation of protocol not to do so.
“The decision to ban the members of Vlaams Belang to the inaugural viewing had to have come from Washington. No ambassador – at least no perceptive one – wishes to burn his bridges to the legislative body of the nation to which he is accredited; aside from being stupid, it is counterproductive in fulfilling his objectives.”
Since the VB strives for the dissolution of Belgium and the independence of Flanders, some people in Flanders suspect that the U.S. Embassy might have disinvited the VB politicians at the request of the Belgian authorities. The fact that the Belgian authorities are not inclined to protest the improper treatment of one of the country’s major parties by the U.S. Embassy gives some credibility to this suspicion. However, even if the disinvitation of the VB came at the request of the Belgian authorities, it is highly unlikely that the Embassy would grant such a request by a foreign government without conferring with Washington first.
Hence, in my opinion, those responsible for snubbing our party, and hence all the voters who elected us, must be sought in Washington. Was disinviting the VB the first foreign policy decision of the new U.S. administration – an administration which prides itself on its respect for democracy and its willingness to bring people together?
Hon. Alexandra Colen, Ph D, is a Vlaams Belang member of the Belgian Federal Chamber of Representatives. She is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Belgian Parliament and the chairperson of the Advisory Committee for Social Emancipation of the Parliament.