Traffic, tourism and animal rights: all in a day’s work for Ben Weyts

Summary

Flemish minister Ben Weyts spoke to Flanders Today ahead of a trade mission to West Africa, to discuss the challenges facing him in his portfolios, from trade to ritual slaughter

Never a dull moment

Considering it has a hand in the affairs of a population of more than six million people in an increasing number of policy areas, it’s rather surprising that there are only nine ministers in the government of Flanders. The wide variety of portfolios each of them is obliged to carry means there’s never a dull moment, as we found on interviewing Ben Weyts.

When we speak, Weyts is two days away from a week-long trip to West Africa to promote Flemish ports and other businesses. But his workload also includes cycle paths, First World War tourism, building work on the Antwerp and Brussels ring roads, the Flemish periphery around Brussels and the thorny issue of ritual slaughter of animals. 

The West Africa trip, taking in Guinea and Ivory Coast, includes a delegation of some 50 regional companies, but there’s a special emphasis on the ports. “We want to offer ourselves as a main region, as the front door of a European market of about 500 million consumers,” he says. “Because of our logistics and the expertise of our ports, it’s advantageous for countries – and for continents even – to enter the European market through our ports.”

Believing in what you’ve got

Port business is good, certainly not being affected by the terrorist attacks of 22 March as other businesses have been – like tourism. We’ve heard a great deal about the effects on Brussels of the attacks, but not much about Flanders. How have tourist destinations like the coast, the art cities and the First World War sites been affected?

“Cities that have tourists from overseas markets – Asia and America – were hit really hard,” Weyts says. “That’s Bruges and Brussels mainly, Antwerp less. Cities that have more European tourists, like Ghent, didn’t really suffer at all. In April and May, I think we had a setback of 9% in overnight stays.” 

The effect of terrorist attacks is very severe, but the pendulum also swings the other way: The situation is quickly restored to what it was

- Ben Weyts

The government’s main response was the Share Our Smile campaign, launched at Brussels Airport once it had got back on its feet after the attack. The principle behind it, Weyts says, was to counter the wave of sympathy – he even uses the word pity – immediately after the attacks. “That’s not how to promote yourself. You have to believe in your own assets,” he says.

The campaign was very well received, he says, because it was positive. “The effect of terrorist attacks on tourism is very severe, but the pendulum also swings the other way: The situation is very quickly restored to what it was. The effect tends to fade away in the short term. I hope the number of overnight stays will be back to normal next year.”

Some of the minister’s most pressing issues, though, return year after year. Back in 2014, when animal welfare moved from being a federal to a regional responsibility, Weyts announced a “dialogue” on the question of animal testing.

“Animal testing is sometimes necessary because it saves lives,” he says. “That’s just a fact. What we want to do is study the alternatives to animal testing more. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel: The alternatives are being studied all around the world.”

The Netherlands is home to the Knowledge Centre on Alternatives to Animal Use in Utrecht, and Weyts wants to work with the Dutch to avoid duplicating their work. “I’ve also recently been talking with companies that use animal testing to get them to take part in the studies into alternatives.” 

Ritual slaughter

Meanwhile, the proposed ban on ritual slaughter – slaughter of animals without stunning them first, for religious purposes – seems to have been dealt a death-blow by the Council of State, which said such a ban would appear to be a breach of the freedom of religion.

“I said in 2014 that we were not going to allow ritual slaughter in temporary slaughterhouses any more,” he says. “There was a great deal of discussion about that, and some judicial procedures. Now I want an overall end to slaughter without stunning, and I have to admit that even in my government there is not a consensus. I’ve tried to start a dialogue and appointed an intermediary to talk to the religious communities.” 

My position is that it would be a good thing for the religious communities to evolve in the direction of slaughter with stunning

The ban is built, he says, on the simple principle of animal suffering. “My position is that it would be a good thing for the religious communities to evolve in the direction of slaughter with stunning.

In other countries, like New Zealand and even in some Muslim countries, slaughter is halal even when there’s stunning. So if it’s possible in those countries why shouldn’t it be possible here?”

He knows, he continues, that it’s about religious rights, “but can’t we exercise our religious rights with respect for animal welfare? I think in a civilised society it’s our duty to spare animals from suffering whenever we can”.

And finally, possibly Weyts' most pressing daily concern: mobility. The latest proposal to cut traffic congestion on the Brussels Ring involves changing the road markings at certain junctions to improve traffic flow. It has been criticised as a cosmetic solution.

“It’s not a solution, but it helps,” he says, referring to studies of adjustments to road markings in Antwerp that showed a 35-40% reduction in traffic jams. The government is also putting more money than ever into mobility: an investment of about €2 billion in the Brussels Ring and €3.5 billion in Antwerp. 

Out of the car

“The biggest problem with the Brussels Ring is the number of incidents and accidents – about 1,100 a year,” he says. “That’s because there are a lot of exits, meaning through traffic coincides with local traffic going on and off.”

About 20 kilometres of road infrastructure will be changed, he explains, so there will be only four points where drivers can get on and off, compared to the current 13. “We’ll also add a new two-lane road on each side for local traffic, so there are fewer incidents between through and local traffic.”

The mobility plan also covers alternatives to the car: alongside the investment in the ring, funds are being used for 40km of bike infrastructure and 60km of tram infrastructure, with three new tram projects from Willebroek to Brussels North Station, from Jette to Brussels Airport via Vilvoorde and Grimbergen, and from Brussels North to Brussels Airport.

Weyts: “That’s an investment of more than €2 billion, not only in road traffic but also because we want to convince people to leave the car at home and use alternatives.” 

Photo: Luc Claessen/Belga