The decision yesterday by the hunger strikers in Brussels to suspend their action brought widespread sighs of relief, as the protest ended without a fatality, and the strikers are now in medical care.
But the political repercussions of the affair may take longer to recover from, as the so-called Vivaldi coalition headed by prime minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD) appears to be seriously divided.
The 400 or so hunger strikers – in the Beguinage church in Brussels and on the campus of the ULB and VUB in Ixelles – were calling for a collective regularisation of their official status, to allow them to work without the exploitation by unscrupulous contractors taking advantage of their undocumented status.
On the other side, asylum and migration minister Sammy Mahdi (CD&V), who held fast to the legalistic line that the rules do not allow such a thing. He was backed by De Croo personally.
When later in the emergency calls went out for the prime minister to take over from Mahdi and bring the matter to a conclusion, they ignored the fact that De Croo had already nailed his colours firmly to the mast.
The situation went on, and the days of the strikers’ ordeal reached 60, by which point the first fatality was not only feared but anticipated. Mahdi in desperation launched another initiative. He proposed a ‘neutral zone’ not far from the church, where the sans-papiers, as they are known because of their lack of official documents, could find out about their rights, and file a request for papers if they wished.
The trouble was, according to a reporter for De Morgen, that even in the vicinity of the church, no-one seemed to know where the neutral zone was located. And by that time, few if any of the hunger-strikers were in any state to take part in a detailed interview about their case.
Mahdi also named Dirk Van den Bulck, who has been Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons since 2005, as an intermediary with the strikers and the organisations that represent them.
But Van den Bulck was careful to point out that his official position did not allow him to make deals, far less to order the hunger strikers to undergo medical treatment, as was by that time being proposed in some circles.
Then socialist party president Paul Magnette (PS) and his Ecolo counterpart Jean-Marc Nollet, dropped a political bomb: the two parties, who make up the coalition in power in the country, would quit the government within an hour of the first fatality among the strikers.
The threat was almost instantly watered down, with Magnette insisting there was no crisis within the coalition, but the damage was done.
In the end, the whole affair ended not with an agreement, but a sort of cease-fire. The hunger strikers in the church will stop their strike and accept medical treatment. The situation of the strikers at the universities remains unclear.
The men and woman who have gone without food for just short of two months remain in a grave physical state, emaciated and dehydrated, and with many running the risk of irreversible damage to major organs.
The priest who looks after the Beguinage has said those who are not in hospital can remain in the church to recover.
“There is only one way in our country and that is that of legality,” De Croo insisted on the announcement of the agreement.
“A government can never accept blackmail. If physical damage were to remain, anyone who has encouraged the hunger strikers in recent weeks, given false hopes or provided unobjective information, would bear a crushing responsibility.”