Thursday

23rd Feb 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.

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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."

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