When Guy Verhofstadt became president in January 1982 of the Flemish liberal party in Belgium, he was at age 28 the youngest person ever to head a political party there. The Partij voor Vrijheid en Vooruitgang (Party for Liberty and Progress), is the Flemish, or Dutch-speaking, classical-liberal party in Belgium and works in tandem with a similar Walloon, or French-speaking, party. In 1961, the Liberal Party, founded in 1846, took this new name to symbolize a shift from historic opposition to the Catholic Church to a new stance in favor of religious toleration—or, as Verhofstadt puts it, "a change from anticlericalism to pluralism."
Today the two liberal parties each poll 21 percent of the vote in their respective linguistic groups, and under Belgium's system of proportional representation, they now have 52 out of the 212 seats in the national parliament. For the last year and a half, the liberals together with the Christian Social Party have constituted the governing coalition.
A lawyer and a former Ghent city councilman, Verhofstadt served as secretary to former PVV President Willy de Clerq from 1977 to 1981 and was president of the party's youth organization from 1979 to 1982. It is really as a youth leader and a radical liberal that he first made his mark in Belgian politics. He and other young liberals who came to prominence at the Flemish party's 1979 congress are seen as the generation of '79 that has brought radical liberalism to the forefront of the Belgian liberal movement. By "radical liberalism," Verhofstadt points out, he and his colleagues mean what in America is called libertarianism. And he says that European liberals who know of the American libertarian movement regard it as "very radical."
The most significant change wrought by the new generation of liberals at the 1979 party congress was a shift from support for public schools to advocacy of putting education in private hands. The whole history of the Belgian liberal movement had been one of opposition to the church and support of government- financed, exclusively secular schools.
Margot Lyon in her 1971 history of Belgium describes the bitterness of the cultural conflict in which the Liberals were a major participant during the 19th century: "'From papal vermin deliver our country' became a favorite Liberal song picked up by the Brussels crowds; while popular Catholic papers described liberalism as 'invective, lies, insults, spit, slaver, and mud.' In every commune [municipality] there were rival Liberal and Catholic butchers, grocers, and every other kind of enterprise, as well as a spoils system for municipal employees. Liberals wore cornflowers in their buttonholes and attacked religious processions with their walking sticks, while Catholics wore poppies and desecrated Liberal funerals."
The Liberal Party's 19th-century ascendancy (1847–1870) culminated in "the school war" of the 1870s and '80s, when the Liberals attempted unsuccessfully to impose tax-funded secular education on the country. Their defeat in this school war led to the creation of Belgium's rather extensive welfare state by the Catholic Party and kept the Liberals out of national office until after the start of World War I. Although liberal anticlericalism had somewhat abated by the 1960s, it is only against this background that the momentousness of the change in the liberal program by Verhofstadt and other young liberals in 1979 can be recognized.
Verhofstadt says the Flemish liberal party has a "social-economic focus," one of "opposing collectivism" and supporting the free market and individual liberty. He is enthusiastic about the prospects for radicalizing old liberal parties in other countries and believes this is the strategy most likely to achieve lasting libertarian results.
The PVV favors a zone free of nuclear weapons in Europe and calls for achieving this through multilateral, comprehensive negotiations dealing with conventional forces as well as tactical and strategic nuclear arms.
The PVV—together with a Brussels-based pro-market think tank, the European Institute—is largely responsible for the recent passage of a new law creating seven enterprise zones in Belgium. For at least 10 years within these zones, which are to be in economically depressed areas, various taxes will be abolished for companies and labor and price-control laws suspended. Verhofstadt mobilized broad support for enterprise zones by making them the theme of his highly publicized 1982 May Day speech as leader of the Flemish liberal party.
The PVV is also calling for the replacement of Belgium's existing governmental social insurance program with a negative income tax. Verhofstadt concedes that this reform is not "radical liberal"—but, he points out, the Flemish liberals are probably the only party in the world with a national parliamentary representative (Fernand Colla) who is calling for selling the freeways.
Verhofstadt's political experience and achievements show that the old classical-liberal tradition of upholding private property, the free market, and human liberty and of opposing conscription, public education, and socialism is not dead on the continent of Europe. And the strategic and tactical experience of someone like Verhofstadt in holding office and coping with large religious communities may well provide important insights for American lovers of liberty.
Guest columnist Bill Evers was the founding editor-in-chief of Inquiry magazine. He is a graduate student in political science at Stanford University.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Radical Party Man".