An oil stain extends through Belgium. The school mobilizations to ask for a package of measures against climate change, initially concentrated in Brussels, expanded on Thursday its field of action to a flood of localities across the country. In total, about 20,000 young people, according to the police, took to the streets to demand from the government a new, more ambitious law that accelerates the calendar of reduction of polluting emissions.
On its fifth consecutive strike Thursday, high school students have shown that the movement does not suffer from symptoms of fatigue despite its hyperactivity: there were demonstrations in Antwerp, Kortrijk, Hasselt, Liège, Herve, Mons and the Belgian capital itself. The main march had this time Leuven as a stage. There, 10,000 students they formed the most multitudinous procession, followed by the 5,000 in Brussels and the 2,000 in Arlon, near the border with Luxembourg.
Sustained student pressure has managed, in just one month, to influence high Belgian politics. On Tuesday, the Flemish Minister for the Environment, Joke Schauvliege, became the first victim of the protests. During a meeting with an agricultural union, the representative of the nationalist N-VA party said that the state security services had assured her that the students were part of a "conspiracy" and had been "manipulated". Hours later, in the face of criticism, he recounted and admitted that he had not received such a warning, but political pressure for his false accusation finally led him to announce his resignation in tears at a press conference. "The climate debate should not revolve around me, so I take this step that should restore serenity," he explained in his Twitter account.
The unexpected school storm has brought to the fore the climate debate, which in Belgium remained overshadowed by the clashes over agendas like immigration or the reform of the State to quench the thirst for new competences of the Flemish nationalists.
The matter can move from words to events in the near future. A dozen constitutionalists and experts in environmental law from several Flemish and Francophone universities presented last week a proposed climate law that extends to 65% the goal of reducing emissions to 2030 compared to the level of 1990. And is committed to creating new structures: an inter-federal climate agency and a committee of independent experts in environmental matters. Socialists and ecologists have managed to bring the text to the Belgian Parliament to be put to the vote in the coming weeks, although the closeness of the May 26 electoral appointment complicates its approval before the elections.
At ground level, the Swedish Greta Thunberg, has become an icon for the protesters. Most of them know her and have seen the videos of her interventions in Katowice and Davos, shaming the political class that does not think about the future of young people. The school strikes that Thunberg initiated in his country have had in Belgium the most important echo. And two of the leaders of the Belgian movement, Anuna de Wever and Adelaïde Charlier, aged 17 and 18, spoke on Skype Monday with the environmental leader. "You are our inspiration," they told him.
The school movement for climate has reached unthinkable levels in Belgium just over a month ago. In the strike of January 10 there were 3,000 demonstrators, a week after 12,500, the next 35,000, a Thursday later 27,500. And the last almost 20,000. The challenge in the streets of a segment of the population – that of the students of secondary and high school – little given to meddle in politics, has been consolidated. From the educational centers, the improvised revolt that has left empty the desks is perceived, in many cases, with good eyes. "We like to encourage our students to be socially committed, so we are very happy that Kyra has been so involved in the cause," they say from AP Hogeschool, the Kyra Gantois study center, together with Anuna de Wever and Adelaïde Charlier, one of the three young women who lead the student protests in Belgium.