Row over planes revives Belgium`s language war

In a political rumpus some would say could only happen in quirky Belgium, a dispute over new flight paths and noise pollution is reviving the nation`s language war just over two weeks before elections.

AFP| Last Updated: May 08, 2014, 23:04 PM IST

Brussels: In a political rumpus some would say could only happen in quirky Belgium, a dispute over new flight paths and noise pollution is reviving the nation`s language war just over two weeks before elections.

Stepping into the increasingly tense row, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo on Thursday announced the "immediate suspension" of a move by his transport minister this week to reverse the controversial new flight paths blamed for noise over central Brussels.

In a written statement, Di Rupo also called for a "constructive and peaceful dialogue" over an issue undermining his coalition government before a general election on May 25.

He is Belgium`s first premier from the French-speaking south in more than three decades and the first Socialist at the nation`s helm since 1974.

The fact that Brussels airport was built in Dutch-speaking northern Flanders just two kilometres away from the Belgian capital -- with its special bilingual status -- has poisoned the country`s political life for 20 years.

The airport runways lie east of Brussels but the prevailing winds are westerlies, forcing many aircraft to take off towards the city of a million people, most of them French-speakers, and its surrounding Flemish suburbs which have hugely expanded in the last years.

One after another transport minister has tried to little satisfaction over time to set flight paths limiting noise pollution from the overflights, the last being French-speaking centre-right minister Melchior Wathelet.

In February he ordered the implementation of an existing project to change an air corridor, which to the government`s surprise has set off a massive row.

Aircraft that previously overflew Dutch-speaking areas now roar over the largely French-speaking capital instead, with 35,000 planes per year due to use the controversial route.

That means that the number of Brussels residents affected by the overflights has risen in two months from 152,000 to 388,000, according to city officials, who have filed a judicial complaint against what is now known as the "Wathelet Plan".

Facing criticism on all sides, including from his own coalition partners, Wathelet this week announced he would cut by half the number of planes overflying the heart of Brussels from Friday morning, sending them instead over Flanders.

But his Dutch-speaking allies in government were livid and the regional Flemish government -- Belgium also has regional governments -- has decided to take judicial action.

"The direct legal consequence of that procedure," said Di Rupo, "is the immediate suspension of the execution of the instructions" of minister Wathelet.

As the nation`s air control authorities Belgocontrol weigh what to do next, tens of thousands of would-be voters have signed petitions against the new flight paths.

In just over two weeks, Di Rupo`s coalition of parties on the left and right, from northern Flanders and southern Wallonia, faces general elections with Dutch-speaking separatists expected to emerge the largest force.

Di Rupo took the helm of the country that hosts EU and NATO headquarters just two and a half years ago after an embarassing record-breaking political deadlock that left Belgium without a government for 541 days.
The latest polls show the Flemish N-VA separatist party headed by bullish Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever leading the pack with 32 percent of the vote in northern Flanders, up four percentage points on his 2010 results.
Top in the French-speaking south with 30 percent are the Socialists.