The number of people that took part had not been seen since the early 1980s, when many hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Brussels during peace demonstrations. The peace marches came to mind again last week when four ministers of state, including two former prime ministers, one former head of Nato and one former European commissioner, called for the removal of nuclear weapons from Europe. According to the four – Jean-Luc Dehaene, Guy Verhofstadt, Willy Claes and Louis Michel – the American tactical weapons no longer make any military sense. This is a view current Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme also supports.
The peace demonstrations of the early 1980s were unique for several reasons. For one, the people who marched against the placing of nuclear weapons in Belgium were not just the traditional left-wing “professional demonstrators”. They were housewives, elderly people, students and lots and lots of teenagers. For a whole generation, the yearly marches meant the start of their political awareness.
One of their heroes was the recently deceased Karel Van Miert – a fact that was a little understated in the many obituaries. During the anti-nuclear demonstrations, the charismatic Van Miert and his socialist party (in the opposition at the time) managed to reach out beyond their traditional electorate, which helped to end the compartmentalising of Belgian politics that had held sway since the end of the Second World War.
Even at the time, people realised that the peace protest would not stop the nukes being placed in Belgium. (In fact, the American planes carrying them had left before parliament even got a chance to vote on the issue.) Still, there was something significant in the protests. Since then, there has been a lot of talk about the gap between people and politics. These days, people often shrug indifferently about issues that excite politicians. In the early 1980s, though, people did care. The support of the same four politicians would have thrilled the peace demonstrators. Now, their views – like all politics – leave most people indifferent.