Boycotting mussels for a bigger cause

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It is hard to imagine Belgium without bustling restaurants full of happy patrons gorging on steaming cauldrons of mussels, next to a pile of hot fries.

The opening of the Dutch mussel season is a culinary obsession here, but this year politicians from the northern city of Antwerp are calling on Belgians to boycott the tender mollusks from across the border.

Belgium and the Netherlands, with intricately linked economies and open borders, rarely get into such serious tiffs. Now the shellfish are embroiled in an unusually testy dispute over a shared river mouth that is vital to Antwerp’s role as a major world seaport.

Furious Belgian politicians say the Dutch have reneged on a deal to deepen the Western Scheldt waterway, using environmental concerns as a smokescreen to choke off Antwerp’s trade to the benefit of its Dutch rival, Rotterdam.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Annick De Ridder, an Antwerp city councilor and member of the Flemish parliament. “If we don’t get the deepening of the river, the port of Antwerp, which is the second [largest] port of Europe, will come to an end. We won’t have a future any more.”

Antwerp port authorities say the city is already losing 70 million euros (more than $100 million) a year due to delays in dredging the estuary that links the port to the open waters of the North Sea.

With 180,000 jobs dependent on the port in Antwerp, De Ritter said the Belgians could go beyond cold-shouldering shellfish imports to take hard-hitting action against the Dutch economy. Belgian road and rail routes are vital for Dutch connections with much of the rest of Europe. Unless the problem is resolved, De Ridder said Belgium could slap highway taxes on Dutch trucks or restrict the passage of high speed rail lines linking Amsterdam to Paris, London and Cologne.

The dispute erupted over the summer, when the Dutch Council of State ordered a halt to work to deepen the estuary that links Antwerp to the North Sea. The ruling came in response to complaints from environmental groups who claimed the dredging plan would harm wildlife habitats.

Belgian at its eastern tip, the Western Scheldt is surrounded by Dutch territory for most of its 160-kilometer (100-mile) length. The two countries have periodically wrangled about management of the waterway since Belgium broke away from Dutch rule in the 1830s.

However, the outstanding issues should have been resolved in a treaty signed in 2005 that committed the Dutch to dredge a dozen shallow spots in the estuary to ensure the biggest container ships could sail unhindered into Antwerp. The work was supposed to be completed this year, but it fell foul of opposition from farmers and environmentalists north of the border.

Farmers and other locals in the Dutch border province of Zeeland were outraged over the fate of a strip of land known as Duchess Hedwige Polder. Reclaimed from the sea decades ago, the polder was to be returned to its natural marshy state and used as a bird reserve, to compensate for environmental damage caused by the dredging.

However, the idea of allowing good farm land to sink back below seawater goes against centuries of Dutch tradition and is a particularly emotive subject in Zeeland, where memories of a catastrophic flood of 1953 are still raw.

After local protests, the Dutch government ditched the “depoldering” plan, and proposed other compensation measures to maintain the ecological balance in the estuary. Those measures were rejected as insufficient by environmental activists who successfully brought the legal action to stop the dredging.

Outraged, the leader of the regional government in Belgium’s northern Flanders region summoned the Dutch ambassador to lodge a complaint. The Belgians have launched an appeal under the treaty’s arbitration clauses and are considering legal action at the European Union’s high court.

The Dutch government has assured its Belgian counterpart that it will meet treaty requirements to dredge the channel, but without an agreement to settle the demands of Dutch farmers and environmentalists hopes of a quick breakthrough seem slim.

“We have every intention of meeting our obligations,” said the Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende. “We are in a phase now were we all have to sit down and have a close look at how we can find a solution. There will be a deepening, that’s in our interests too.” Belgian politicians are not convinced. De Ritter said the delay can only benefit Europe’s biggest port, Rotterdam, just 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the north.

“We think the Netherlands is working from some sort of protectionism regarding the port of Rotterdam,” she said. “The biggest container ships are already having problems to enter Antwerp ... . The new vessels being constructed right now won’t be able to get in.”

Despite the uproar, there was little sign in the packed restaurants of downtown Brussels that Belgians were heeding the call for a ban on Zeeland mussels.

De Ritter however, said her seafood diplomacy had served its purpose.

“I’m not planning to spend the rest of my days passing by the all the restaurants and pubs to tell people you can’t eat them,” the Antwerp councillor said. “But we’ve woken up public opinion, so for us it’s mission accomplished.”