The Council of State, the supreme administrative court in Belgium, has cancelled a decision by secretary of state Elke Sleurs, in charge of scientific policy, to organise a maintenance mission to the Princess Elisabeth polar station in Antarctica without the permission of the International Polar Foundation (IPF).
Elke Sleurs had announced on October 20 that federal authorities would organize a mission to the Belgian polar station in the coming months. She added that three members of IPF were invited to participate in the mission. Since last year, there is an on-going dispute between IPF and the government about the management of the polar station.
The foundation appealed to the Council of State against Sleur’s decision. According to its ruling (27 October), the Belgian government was not competent to adopt the decision. The court did not question the urgency of the mission but stated that it is the IPF, under the applicable regulations, that is responsible for the maintenance of the polar station.
In response, the secretary of state expressed dissatisfaction with the decision and accused IPF of having rejected the government’s “outstretched hand”. She said that she would examine which measures could be taken to ensure the survival of the polar station.
According to IPF, it received already on October 5 a message from the Secretary of State through her Head of Cabinet, saying that “You will understand that despite the ruling of the Council of State the interests of the State come first”.
Following the latest court ruling, IPF said in a press release that it fears that the government will continue to disregard the court’s decision and continue to breach earlier agreements on the management of the polar station. It added that it has been calling for more than three years for an independent audit of the accounts of the station.
The polar station was financed and built in 20o4 by IPF who has been operating it since then. In March 2010, the IPF donated the Antarctic station to the Belgian state under a Partnership Protocol, governed by a set of conditions, enshrined in law, and which were implemented by an Executive Order laying down the rules for the functioning of a new body, the Polar Secretariat, managing the station.
This was to be a collaborative partnership between the private and public sectors, in the service of Belgian scientific research in Antarctica. However, the agreement was not accepted by the Belgian authority in charge of science policy (BELSPO), resulting in several court rulings which have not been respected by the government.
IPF writes on its website that ever since the days of the Belgica in 1898, Belgium has maintained strong ties to the white continent. An original signatory of the Antarctic Treaty, Belgium went on to build the King Baudouin research station, which closed its doors in 1967.
Four decades later, the International Polar Foundation initiated Belgium’s return to Antarctica, by conceiving, designing and building the “zero emission” Princess Elisabeth Antarctica research station, as a legacy project of the 2007-2008 International Polar Year. The new station is located at an altitude of 1 382 metres and about 220 km from the Antarctic coast.
As well as being powered by renewable energy, Princess Elisabeth Antarctica is also designed to minimize energy demand.