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