The Belgian “nuclear bomb” on Glasgow: a call for a de-ideologization of political debate

Written by John De Coster, IMS 


As the COP26 summit came to a close, it is still unclear just how historic the final agreement struck in Glasgow really is. Only time will tell. The only thing we are certain of is that the world’s elite gathered once more and tried their best to secure net zero emissions by 2050; protect human communities and natural habitats; mobilise finance is the fight against climate change; and to boost global cooperation. The whole point was to transform the COP21 enthusiasm and to finalise the Paris Rulebook. A true “Point-After-Try” in an international policy area that looks a lot like a long-winded rugby scrum.


Mixed Feelings… Again


Unsurprisingly, the public got to witness its fair share of earth-shaking announcements, ambitious declarations and not-so-detailed roadmaps that usually accompany this kind of international summit[1]. And, of course, anyone faintly preoccupied with what was about to be decided for the sake of Planet Earth inevitably stumbled upon Glasgow’s uplifting leitmotif: “Work together to deliver”[2]. Come to think of it, it might as well have been a phoney marketing baseline.  


The European Union departed for Glasgow with noble intentions. I believe we can all agree Commissioner Timmermans was relentless in his efforts to propose a united front on the world stage. Landing in Scotland equipped with its Green Deal and its “Fit for 55 Package” – a.k.a. the Green Deal’s fitness test[3]– the EU was set to lead the example. The 27 contemplated an aggregated Union-wide emissions reduction of 55% by the year 2030. Subsequently, each Member State was assigned its own tailored contribution[4], in a way mirroring the UN “common but differentiated responsibility” framework.


Prior to the conference, opinions varied widely about the strength of the EU’s position. For some, optimism was the order of the day, with the Committee of the Regions deeming the EU’s strategy as “fair, just and deliverable” although it stressed that good old subsidiarity was the most crucial element of the plan[5]. After all, a recent Ember and Agora Energywide study on the European Power Sector in 2020 found that, “[for] the first time, renewables overtook fossil fuels as the EU’s main source of electricity”[6]. For other, scepticism abounded, with Greta Thunberg and others describing the COP26 as a big greenwashing fair. It is true that Qatar was showcasing how “green” its brand-new World-cup 2022 stadiums are, or that the F1 was explaining how its racers were driving against climate change[7]. For still others, the overriding attitude was alarmism, with the Greens/EPA asking for the summit to be envisioned as an “emergency situation”[8]. Everyone will likely concede that even though “the future is now”, the future has been knocking on our door ever since the seventies. It simply hasn’t set foot in our greenhouse gas-filled house yet.


A full analysis of the COP26 pledges would require many hundreds of pages: my intention instead is to discuss the disappointing and often retrograde attitude taken by the Belgian delegation throughout the summit.  


Error 404: Agreement Not Found


We all know Belgium is a troublesome democracy: Politico even went so far as to ask whether the country was not a failed state[9] after the Brussels attacks in 2016. Yes, when Belgium fails, it does so big time. Most of the time, however, the country clicks… somehow. I was at peace with the fact that Belgium must send 4 Ministers of Climate to international gatherings because, since the COP23 in Bonn, our federated entities managed to deliver a common declaration prior to joining the fray. But this time, no such internal agreement could be found[10]. Once more, our questions surrounding the equilibrium between unitary “Belgicanism” and regionalised “efficacy” were raised[11]. However, the true disappointment was not Belgium’s institutional intricacies, but rather the way its intra-national negotiations were held before and during the summit.


Energy turned out to be the breaking point, a topic of particular relevance given a “series of market, geographic and political factors have coalesced into a perfect storm”[12] causing energy prices to soar. In Belgium, competences around energy have been partially delegated to the regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and the Region of Brussels Capital). This makes Belgium’s nuclear, Greens-led phase out plan (a federal competence) a thorny matter, as nuclear energy is to be replaced by renewable energy, which is a regional competence. Yet, energetically speaking, Belgium’s renewable sources and networks cannot sustain steep winter-related demand spikes, at least for the near future. Therefore, a “Capacity Remuneration Mechanism” (CRM), one in which “capacity is being remunerated for being available”[13] has been created. Because this CRM would rely on yet to be constructed gas plants, which by definition are not-so-green energy sources, it is still unclear whether Belgium’s nuclear phase out, which was expected to be complete, will effectively be so. As a matter of facts, the Doel 4 and Tihange 3 reactors, agreed to be best in generation plants, might very well remain operational “if need be”[14]. Right…


Decisions never really get taken, which tends to politicise the debate beyond reason. Belgium’s energy mix will determine which reductions the country can contemplate. The fit for 55 package expected Belgium to observe a 47% benchmark at federal level. Subsequently, each entity came up with its own “climate plan” but failed to coordinate[15]: while Wallonia was willing to make a point and honour a 55% reduction in emissions (whether said plan is within reach remains to be seen), Flanders’s lacking ambitions were quite disappointing. Zuhal Demir, Flanders Minister of the Environment (N-VA) even had the audacity to request the EU’s expectations towards Belgium be scaled down. She did that while vetoing a construction permit for one of the gas plants supposed to accompany Belgium’s federal nuclear phase out, which lead Tinne van der Straten, federal Minister of Energy (Groen) to wonder whether the Flemish government was not actively seeking confrontation[16].


Unproductive Ideologization


With such a political line, Zuhal Demir, and by extension the Flemish Alliance (N-VA), expect to embody the new doctrine known as eco-realism, a strain of political pragmatism applied to environmental affairs. Meanwhile, Belgium’s Greens, and, to some extent, French-speaking socialists, seek refuge behind the sacred “government agreement” (upon which no one ever really agrees) while seeming to oppose any single sentence the government turns into policy. Belgian surrealism done right. In the end, Belgium is stuck, jammed between two opposing sides that just won’t compromise.


This is what a grotesque ideologization of political interactions does to democratic processes. As soon as one’s ideology turns from one’s engine to one’s anchor, any sort of exchange is untenable, any form of thinking outside-the-box is impossible. One becomes the prisoner of his or her school of thought and cannot even begin to fathom how the other conceives reality. This was Pierre Rosanvallon’s point in his 2014 essay “Le Parlement des invisibles” in which he describes how an excessive ideologization of the notion of “people” made the very idea of society hollow and unreadable to both citizens and decision makers. The same is happening with climate-related debates, especially energy. Such a point was inadvertently made by the Groenlinks activist Roel Niessen[17], who appeared at an event with a sign reading “Better nuclear waste than drowning”, a position which quickly saw him vilified by activists across the political spectrum[18].


It is literally a matter of life and death. If we cannot find it in us to start acting with reason and a sense of community, and get past our doctrinal barricades, we will never get anything done. And there can be no doubt that when it comes to climate change, world leaders’ optimistic façade won’t get us there, nor will sterile opposition.
















[16] Pierre ROSANVALLON (2014/2020), Le Parlement des Invisibles. Déchiffrer la France, Editions du Seuil, Points Essais, 141p.





About the author: 

John De Coster is 25 years old and he was born and raised in Brussels. For about three years, he was one of LYMEC’s member through the Belgian French-speaking « Fédération des Etudiants Libéraux » (FEL). Since then, despite having to renounce any involvement in said organisation, he has tried to keep a foothold in LYMEC’s circles. Entering our editorial team through Libertas then appeared to be a rather stimulating and thrilling experience. Plus writing can be fun!

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November 23 2021

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