Environment minister resigns in wake of statements to farmers’ union

Summary

Joke Schauvliege, who has served as Flanders' minister of the environment and agriculture for nearly four years, has resigned following communication problems in response to climate protests

‘I made a mistake’

Flemish environment minister Joke Schauvliege (CD&V) has resigned following controversy surrounding statements about the student-run climate marches that have taken place across Belgium over the last few weeks.

Secondary school pupils have been taking to the streets of Brussels every Thursday since 10 January. The weekly marches are part of the global School Strike for the Climate campaign, which sees pupils of all ages skipping school for a day to protest the lack of action by politicians on climate change.

Spurred on by the success of the Brussels march, organised by Youth for Climate, which drew 35,000 pupils on 24 January, the marches exploded across Belgium last Thursday. Students took to the streets in several cities, including Antwerp and Leuven. They were often accompanied by parents or school staff.

These marches were in additional to the two general marches for the climate in recent months, which together saw more than 120,000 people protesting in Brussels. March organisers have soundly criticised Schauvliege, and other politicians at the regional and federal levels, for not doing enough to meet sustainability goals.

Telephone number published

At the weekend, Schauvliege, also in charge of agricultural policy, addressed a farmer’s union, saying that the students did not realise that they were being used by “an organised game”, with the goal to discredit political policies. She further said that she “knew who was behind the climate marches” and that “State Security has confirmed it”.

That statement appeared to be untrue, and the minister took to Radio 1 yesterday morning to explain that it was an error of judgement. “I did not wilfully lie, but I did falter,” she said. “I made a mistake.”

Schauvliege said that she had, over the last week, been the target of harassment on social media and via her private telephone around the climate situation. Her private telephone number had been published online, and she had apparently received thousands of angry messages.

“The last week was extremely hectic, I barely slept, and I let myself be caught up in frustration and emotion,” she said.

The stream of critical reactions continues, and it is difficult to continue to function as environmental minister

- Joke Schauvliege

But the apology did not satisfy the organisers of the climate marches, citizen-run initiatives such as Climate Express and Rise for the Climate. “Climate Express is a volunteer-run organisation that, together with the Climate Coalition, organised the march on 2 December,” said a Climate Express spokesperson. “We honestly wonder how it’s possible that the climate minister can make this kind of accusation and how it’s possible that she doesn’t seem to know our organisation. We are wondering where she has been for the last 10 years.”

Anuna De Wever, co-founder of Youth for Climate, told Radio 1 that she “laughed hysterically” when she heard what the minister had told the gathered farmers at the weekend. “But I also took it as a compliment,” said the 17-year-old. “If you think that something so big is behind this, then our actions are clearly making an impression. But I also find it unfortunate because it is manifestly untrue.”

Yesterday evening, Schauvliege announced her resignation, flanked by fellow CD&V politicians Wouter Beke, president of the party, and Hilde Crevits, vice minister-president of the government of Flanders. “In my recent speeches and press conferences regarding the climate, I have always tried to communicate a balanced and conciliatory view,” said Schauvliege. “I have also always tried to propose solutions that are achievable, affordable and acceptable, with attention paid to our society’s most vulnerable people, those who are most affected by the measures that we all have to take.”

Emotional moment

Schauvliege became emotional as she continued her statement, saying that it was impossible to do her job in the face of personal attacks and that she could not communicate normally with her family or her colleagues because of the thousands of messages coming through on her mobile phone.

It was these circumstances, she said, that led to her troubling statements to the farmers’ union. “I passed along a rumour as if it was confirmed, and I apologised for that. But the stream of critical reactions continues, and it is difficult to continue to function as environmental minister.”

She mentioned several climate-related policies and proposals yet to be approved and carried out and said that she had decided to “submit my resignation and thereby ensure that the climate policy can continue to be rolled out, without having to pay for that with my personal life”.

Who will take on the role of Flanders’ agriculture and environmental minister is not yet known but will come from CD&V. That minister will be in the role for less than four months, as the next regional elections take place on 26 May.

Photo: Wouter Beke and Joke Schauvliege during the latter’s resignation from her post as environment minister
©Benoit Doppagne/BELGA