Sunday

19th Nov 2017

Brussels flightpath politics cause public furore

  • Posters in Brussels against the Wathelet plan (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Thousands of people living in Brussels are up in arms about a new overflight plan in place since February which has seen the east and west parts of the city subject to the thundering noise of planes taking off and landing at the busy nearby national airport.

Yet the Belgian government has only a couple of weeks left to find a solution for a problem that dates back many, many years.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

It is complex task in a very complex political environment. Brussels Airport is located close to the city centre and thus in a densely populated area.

In whatever direction airplanes fly, a part of the population is always going to be affected by noise pollution.

But the question is which part exactly.

Belgium has been discussing this for over a decade. Unfortunately for all concerned, there is no clean solution.

The big question is how the flights are spread, so that everybody around the airport takes a bit of the burden. Over the years various routes have been selected, tested, used and rejected.

While the issue has slipped up and down the political agenda over the past years, the 6 February entry into force of the new flight path over Brussels has once more brought it to the fore.

Posters dot Brussels protesting the new flight paths and they are a repeated topic of conversation for many residents.

The new overflight routes are down to a decision by state secretary for mobility Melchior Wathelet, a member of the francophone Christian Democrats (cdH).

With elections approaching in May – at the EU, regional and local level – Wathelet decided he wanted to do a political favour for the party's vice prime minister, Joelle Milquet, who was candidate to become minister president for the Brussels region. It was a goal almost within her reach but she needed an extra push.

So Wathelet proposed tweaking the flight paths so that those living in Brussels – the capital has some 1.1 million inhabitants and around half are said to be affected by the noise of the planes – would be less affected.

That sounds reasonable enough on paper. But the reality was more complicated and led to immense squabbling. First of all among the French-speaking parties, who accused cdH of playing an electoral game as the municipalities where Milquet needed extra votes were favoured, to the detriment of municipalities not in cdH-territory.

Then the Flemish parties realised that Flanders would also take a hit. Brussels airport lies just outside the Brussels region, within the Flemish region.

So airplanes taking off and landing are either flying over Brussels or over Flanders.

Delaying tactics

From a legal point of view, Wathelet was entitled to change the routes, even though it was to help his cdH vice prime minister.

So his opponents had to be creative. That is why Flemish socal democrat (sp.a) vice prime minister Johan Vande Lanotte put the constitution to good use.

The document foresees a way for the Flemish government to temporarily block a decision by the federal government, if the decision contains a conflict of interest.

The decision is then blocked for 60 days – a time period that is coming to an end at the beginning of July.

The big advantage of this trick is that it postponed a definitive decision until after the elections.

Under the Wathelet-scenario the decision on the updated flight paths would have been taken just before the 25 May elections – the main reason for the change in the first place.

Now the decision and the implementation will fall in calmer times.

What that final decision will be, is hard to say. One thing is sure however – Wathelet's plan for aiding Milquet did not play out well for them.

There was so much protest against their move, with many voters punishing them. Milquet did poorly in the elections, and has no chance of becoming minister president. She is now very close to the end of her political career.

In the hours following the publication of the election results, Milquet blamed Wathelet, claiming that without his "mistake" the party would have done better at the polls. This comment did not increase her popularity with voters.

Last point on the agenda

It's highly unlikely that Belgium will have a new federal government in time to take the decision by the 60-day deadline.

So it will have to be the out-going coalition that decides. And the issue will certainly be less important than the machinations of forming a new government.

Each party in the old coalition will take any decision on flight paths in light of how it will potentially affect their chances of getting into the next governing coalition – favouring potential future allies and disfavouring political enemies.

So the complexity of Belgian politics will add to the complexity of the issue of overflights. As the signs within Brussels airport say: "Welcome to Belgium."

Agenda

EU agencies and eastern neighbours This WEEK

EU ministers will vote on where to relocate two EU agencies from the UK, while later EU leaders will host six eastern European countries in Brussels. Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic awaits his verdict in the Hague.

News in Brief

  1. Bonn climate talks extend into Friday evening
  2. UK needs to move on Brexit by early December, Tusk says
  3. Puigdemont extradition decision postponed to December
  4. Ireland wants written UK guarantees to avoid hard border
  5. US did not obstruct climate talks, says German minister
  6. EU signs social declaration
  7. Puigdemont to be heard by Belgian judges
  8. Steep fall in migrants reaching EU

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressAntisemitism in Europe Today: Is It Still a Threat to Free and Open Society?
  2. Counter BalanceNew Report: Juncker Plan Backs Billions in Fossil Fuels and Carbon-Heavy Infrastructure
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic countries prioritise fossil fuel subsidy reform
  4. Mission of China to the EUNew era for China brings new opportunities to all
  5. ACCASmall and Medium Sized Practices Must 'Offer the Whole Package'
  6. UNICEFAhead of the African Union - EU Summit, Survey Highlights Impact of Conflict on Education
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council Calls for Closer Co-Operation on Foreign Policy
  8. Swedish EnterprisesTrilogue Negotiations - Striking the Balance Between Transparency and Efficiency
  9. Access EuropeProspects for US-EU Relations Under the Trump Administration - 28 November 2017
  10. World Vision20 November: Exchange of Views at the EP on Children Affected by the Syria Crisis
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable Growth the Nordic Way: Climate Solutions for a Sustainable Future
  12. EU2017EEHow Data Fuels Estonia's Economy

Latest News

  1. EU keeps former Soviet states at arm's length
  2. EU leaders make pledge on social issues after populist backlash
  3. EU agencies and eastern neighbours This WEEK
  4. Germany slams Dutch call for more ambitious EU climate goal
  5. Mind the gap: inequality in our cities
  6. Climate activists 'disappointed' with EU at climate talks
  7. Davis outlines UK vision on Brexit in Berlin
  8. German coalition talks in near collapse

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Step Up Water Management Cooperation
  2. CECEMachinery Industry Calls for Joint EU Approach to Develop Digital Construction Sector
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersMale Business Leaders Gather in Copenhagen to Advance Gender Equality
  4. EnelNo ETS Deal Means It Can Still Be Strengthened
  5. EU2017EEEstonia Anticipates More Digital Cooperation With Sweden
  6. Mission of China to the EUChina Launches Campaign to Protect IPR of Foreign Companies
  7. European Jewish CongressEJC Condemns Attacks on Ruta Vanagaite and the Shredding of Her Books in Lithuania
  8. Bio-Based IndustriesDiscover the Future of the Bio-Based Economy. Register Now for the BBI Stakeholder Forum!
  9. European Free AllianceWelcome Catalonia!
  10. UNICEFGrowing Number of Unaccompanied Refugee Children in Greece in Need of Shelter
  11. Counter BalanceNature Destruction Cannot Be Compensated For, Say NGOs
  12. CES - Silicones EuropeSilicones - Enabling the Next Big Leap in Prosthetics and Health