Belgian government of current affairs: "we just follow Washington"
4 minutes

Democracy and waging war do not go together well. As the number of military operations abroad is increasing, democratic and public control is diminishing, dangerously diminishing. This is occurring in stages. International organisations like NATO are only equipped with a fake parliament that by far doesn't meet the standards of a normal democratic control structure. The European Parliament has but little competence over external and security policy. It has the right to be informed, can debate and give advice, but falls short of a normal democratic role. This democratic deficit appears on national level too. Apart from some exceptions (Denmark, the Netherlands) national parliaments do not have the authority to allow in advance that troops will be sent abroad. As a rule they don't have much of a decision power over the budget of external missions. Members of Parliament have too little means to follow the stream of documents between EU, NATO and UN, that often fall under the mark of secrecy or limited public access. This often causes frustration, growing feeling of poitical impotence or less interest with members of parliament.

Last year offered quite some examples of democratic deficit in Belgium. During a discussion in the defense commission of the House on the delayed delivery of newly purchased helicopters Minister of Defence, Pieter De Crem, was not pleased at all that the 'confidentiality' of military purchasing files had not been lived after. He added he would start an investigation to see whether or not it concerned an offence of criminal law. A simular incident happened when social democrat MP, David Geerts, complained about the price of a set of prototypes of hypermodern army jackets at € 125,000 each. Again Mr De Crem, suppported by some other MP's, threatened with a judicial inquiry. Maybe it can be true that in some military purchases secrecy is important, but it seems as there is a trend emerging to shield off for the public the entire defence policy. It also appears to be sometimes an easy way to escape the answer on critical questions. In this field minister De Crem regurlarly refuses to answer questions on Afghanistan with the excuse that the 'rules of engagement' for our troops should be kept secret. Thus no one is informed about the operations of the Belgian F-16s, whether they participated in combat missions or not, how many bombs they delivered en how many death their actions caused.

A flagrant example of mistrust of the parliamentarian institutions was the process towards NATO's new strategic concept (NSC), that apparantly doesn't like much democratic participation. Initially some optimism was justified when the expertgroup's findings on the NSC were made public in May 2010. The NATO website organised a special forum on NSC. Secretary-general, Rasmussen, opened his PR register by stating that this reviewprocess would be the most transparant and comprehensive of NATO's history. But after the show the door of transparency was shut definitely. When some of our Members of Parliament asked the Belgian government – of current affairs since last elections of June 9, 2010 – for a parliamentarian debate at the occasion of the EU meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence (Oct 14, 2010) where NATO's NSC draft would be discussed, it was bluntly refused. After long insistance the debate was scheduled... two days before the Libanon NATO Summit. This was far too late to have any influence on the NSC document. Moreover this parliamentarian debate was held without any written document. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Steven Vanackere, simply declared that Rasmussen's draft was labeled 'top secret'. Protest didn't help. In his statement Minister of Defence, De Crem, told in his known arrogant way that the NSC offered a good occasion for 'public diplomacy' and to present “NATO to the public opinion as an essential and irreplacable element of our external policy...” . After the Libanon Summit a green Member of Parliament wondered if a government-of-current-affairs can decide over the participation in missile-defence-programmes. According to Foreign Minister Vanackere, however, Belgium just joined a consensus within NATO, so there cannot be any problem. “On the other hand”, he added, “to take a decision that would not follow the consenusus would have been problematic”. So, Belgium had no choice but to agree with the consensus on the nuclear policy and missile defence, the global character of NATO and all political and budgetary consequences. All of which is primarily decided in Washington and the Pentagon. It is absolutely clear: Washington decides and our Belgian political instutions have to accept. Bye bye democracy.

Ludo De Brabander

January 5, 2011

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