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Belgian MEP’s 'gay' comment sparks rebukes from colleagues

Former Finance Minister Johan Van Overtveldt pictured during a congress organised by FEB - VBO (Federation of Enterprises in Belgium) in Brussels, Monday 04 February 2019. BELGA PHOTO LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ
19:53 11/11/2020

A brief comment by the European Parliamentarian Johan Van Overtveldt regarding the sexuality of a VRT journalist caused a storm on social media, even prompting the new secretary of state for asylum and migration Sammy Mahdi to say he was waiting for "explanations" from the former Belgian finance minister.

On Tuesday afternoon, Johan Van Overtveldt was speaking at a press conference on the EU's next multi-year budget. As chairman of the European Parliament's Budgets Committee, the former Belgian finance minister welcomed the agreement reached on the same day with the negotiators of the Council, a body representing the member states, on this important financial package.

But it was his comments after he had spoken on EU business that made the most impact. After Van Overtveldt’s speech on the EU budget, journalists then connected to the press conference by video where they had the opportunity to ask questions. The first to do so was the Flemish journalist Riadh Bahri, for VRT.

While the video screen moved to focus on the journalist and connect his microphone, the live broadcast of the press conference remained focused on the image of Johan Van Overtveldt and the other negotiators of the European Parliament, waiting for the question. The Belgian then indicated, microphone still connected, that the question would surely be for him. The spokesperson announced the journalist as “Miss Bahri,” which Van Overtveldt quickly corrected by saying “It’s mister.”

While waiting for Bahri’s microphone to connect, Van Overtveldt added, in English, “He’s gay.” The words were intended for his fellow negotiators but could be heard live by everyone following the press conference.

The comment sparked a slew of comments of social media with some calling the comment "amazing," “hallucinatory”, “not relevant” and “inappropriate”.

Chairman of Belgium’s Francophone socialist PS party Paul Magnette called Van Overtveldt a “perfect fool,” and Belgium’s secretary of state for asylum and migration Sammy Mahdi tweeted that he “would like an explanation”.

Van Overtveldt tweeted that he called Riadh Bahri as soon as he could to apologise. “Under no circumstances did I intend to hurt anyone. So, I am sorry.”

Written by Nick Amies