Last Monday, the Belgian prime minister handed in his resignation to King Albert II and another Belgian government fell. The cause: the withdrawal of a small Flemish party from the Christian Democrat Yves Leterme’s five-party coalition. New legislative elections have yet to be called but in the meantime Belgian politicians have managed to find something they can all agree on.
On Thursday, the lower house of parliament voted almost unanimously (136 deputies out of 138, with two abstentions) to ban the wearing of the full Islamic veil, or niqab, in public places. The legislation doesn’t anywhere actually mention the veil – merely forbidding ‘all clothing completely or mainly hiding the face’ – but no one has suggested that it’s aimed at motorcycle couriers or people whose idea of a good night out is a masked ball. The penalty will be a fine of 15 to 25 euros and/or up to a week in prison – opponents of the veil who describe it as a prison mobile seem to have no problem with putting women who wear one into actual prison if they have their best interests at heart.
Of Belgian’s 10.3 million citizens, 400,000 are Muslims. Let’s say that half of them (almost certainly an overestimate) are women. Of these, it’s possible that as few as 30 of them wear the full veil. And the Belgian police already have the power to stop and caution women with covered faces. In the last year and a half there have been 29 bookings in the whole of the central Brussels-Capital region, although it’s not clear if the warnings were issued to 29 separate women or one very persistent repeat offender.
But let us rejoice with the Liberal deputy Denis Ducarme in this rare moment of Belgian unity:
Our country’s image abroad is more and more incomprehensible, but, at least, in relation to the unanimity this vote in our parliament banning the burqa and niqab in our country will show, there is an element of pride in being Belgian.
Where Belgium leads, many hope, the rest of Europe will follow. Next up is France where, Le Figaro reported on Friday, a draft bill banning the full veil (sorry, ‘clothing intended to hide the face’) in public places will be presented to the council of ministers on 19 May. The fine proposed is a whopping 150 euros, with UMP deputies in favour of a 750-euro fine. Perhaps Belgian members of parliament, especially the Dutch speakers, will feel less pleased with themselves once they see an influx of cheapskate Francophone veiled burqa-wearers from next door.