Connect to share and comment

Boycotting mussels for a bigger cause

Belgium and the Netherlands tussle over a waterway vital to the port of Antwerp.

Pots of steamed mussels are a late-summer tradition in Belgium (© Mamopictures M.G. Mooij)

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.