Joke Schauvliege, minister in the Flemish government for agriculture, nature and the environment, has resigned following a claim that the current wave of protests for better climate policy were aspects of a larger conspiracy. Schauvliege claimed, in a speech to an association of farmers that she had been informed of the existence of the plot by someone from the state security intelligence service. State security rushed to issue a denial.
Reaction to her claims was not rushed: the speech was given last Friday; the uproar only really took off on Tuesday. But when it did, her party, CD&V, had no option but to demand her resignation, which she announced in a tearful press conference yesterday, flanked by party president Wouter Beke and federal minister and former minister-president Kris Peeters, who had first brought her into his government a decade ago.
The trigger for Schauvliege’s conspiracy theory was a campaign by one group of climate protesters which saw her work telephone flooded with text messages calling on her to meet the protesters’ demands. At one point, she said, she had more than 6,000 unread texts, and her family were unable to contact her. This led her to think there was more to the issue than a series of spontaneous popular protests, but some over-arching organisation.
The mention of the state security’s confirmation of that suspicion may have made the theory appear more credible, but realistically there was no possibility that state security would do anything but deny her claim.
“I had to laugh out loud when I heard,” said Anuna De Wever, the 17-year-old behind the student marches on the VRT. “But at the same time it’s a shame, because it’s manifestly untrue.”
On social media, a consensus emerged that Schauvliege would not be missed as far as climate policy is concerned. She was only one of four climate ministers Belgium can boast: one for each of the regions and one for the federal government. Nevertheless, the farmers to whom she was speaking are the only one of her policy groups she has not alienated, unlike environmentalists and nature conservancy organisations.
Geert Bourgeois, Flemish minister-president, described Schauvliege’s remarks as “unfortunate. The participants in the demonstrations are marching out of idealism and concern. As I have said before in the name of the government, their concerns are our concerns.”
“Joke Schauvliege has apologised, and that doesn’t happen often in politics,” said party president Wouter Beke, before the party meeting which pushed his minister in the direction of the exit. However Schauvliege will still lead her East Flanders party list for the regional elections in May.
In the meantime, a replacement is expected to be named at any moment, for a job that will last little more than three months, before the next Flemish minister-president redistributes the portfolios post-election.
Meanwhile the organisers of the weekly student demonstration have announced tomorrow’s march will take place in Leuven, with future demonstrations being held in other towns and cities in the country. The movement started among secondary school students from Flanders, before spreading to French-speaking schools, tertiary education and even primary schools. The move to a more peripatetic demonstration aims to attract other students who may not have been able or willing to make it to Brussels in the past. The Leuven police chief has warned would-be visitors to avoid the city on Thursday.