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Belgiums new clash over coronavirus response

Belgiums feuding political tribes have anot..

Belgiums feuding political tribes have another topic to disagree about: a second coronavirus wave.

The discord between French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders goes beyond the merits of each governments response to the virus, claims Rudi Vervoort, the premier of the Brussels region.

Vervoort told POLITICO that what he described as fear-mongering in Flemish media about a second spike of the virus in Brussels is motivated by “a political project” to further alienate right-leaning Flanders from left-leaning Wallonia.

The Flemish nationalist party N-VA, for example, has claimed the Brussels government “waited to respond until the numbers were red.” Vervoort rejects that charge and says such attacks are part of a long-term objective by Flemish nationalists and their supporters in the press to split Belgium.

Thus far, neither Flanders nor Brussels has covered itself in glory in terms of keeping a lid on cases during the long summer break. Rising numbers in Belgium have spooked a handful of European countries — including the U.K. and Germany — into imposing extra restrictions on travelers from the country or regions of it.

“At the peak of the crisis, we went to the limit of what is legally possible” — Rudi Vervoort, premier of the Brussels region

But Vervoort, a member of the Francophone Socialist Party (PS), counters that Brussels has fared better than second city Antwerp, a stronghold of the N-VA, where the virus made its fiercest comeback in late July.

“Antwerp went up to 200 infections per 100,000 people and [Brussels is now around] 73, 74, but they already speak about a second wave,” he said in an interview conducted last week.

Pandemic measures

The summer surge prompted the Brussels government to impose a mask requirement in public spaces across the entire region on August 12. That measure, Vervoort said, will remain compulsory until at least mid-September to evaluate the effect of peoples return from holidays and the reopening of schools.

“We needed a gesture that functioned as a barrier, a way for people to keep a distance,” Vervoort said. “It is also simple and coherent.”

But to prevent cases running out of control, test and trace capacity is also crucial, he added.

“Today were at almost 14,000 tests per week,” Vervoort said, adding that Brussels is now the area in Belgium with most tests per 100,000 inhabitants.

The tracing, Vervoort conceded, is trickier. Contact tracers call people who come back from holidays, but “we dont have the police or judicial capacity to follow up. The doctors will not be ringing the doors, either, as they have other things to do,” he said.

Vervoort, who studied law at the Free University of Brussels, expressed concern that the tracing would encroach on individual freedoms.

“We should keep in mind that at the peak of the crisis, we went to the limit of what is legally possible,” he said. “The curfew [in Antwerp] is a measure we hadnt known since the German occupation.”

It was during his student years, in 1980, that Vervoort joined the PS ranks, which he climbed to become the mayor of the municipality of Evere and member of the Brussels parliament — jobs he still holds today.

Belgiums Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes Rudi Vervoort, premier of the Brussels region, in June | Stephanie Lecocq/EFE via EPA

He has been minister-president — the official title for the head of the Brussels region — since 2013. “The job is to synthesize sometimes opposing views, to make trade-offs and play the role of the guardian of the coalition agreement,” Vervoort said, adding, “That doesnt mean the minister-president becomes politically disembodied.”

Political clash

His term has included a period of intense constitutional tension. Belgium has not had a full government since December 2018 and a summer effort by political leaders on either side of the Wallonia-Flanders divide to formRead More – Source
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