American nuclear weapons were almost sent packing out of Belgium on Thursday after a debate in the country’s parliament put their future in doubt.

Belgian MPs narrowly voted to let the weapons stay, but the decision could have gone the other way had just five MPs changed their minds – a reflection of how controversial their presence is.

The country’s socialists, greens, centrists and leftists, as well as one French-speaking liberal party voted to expel the US bombs – which are based at Kleine Brogel airforce base in the country’s north east.

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The calls to remove the nukes, which was rejected just 74 votes to 66 – was blocked only with the support of the far-right Vlaams Belang party, as well as those of the Flemish nationalist NV-A, the Flemish Christian democrats, and the Flemish liberals.

Flemish newspaper De Morgen reports that the US ambassador was “particularly worried” about the vote and that the US embassy lobbied multiple MPs on the issue ahead of the parliamentary show-down.

The position of far-right MPs on the vote was notably unclear until the last minute, with Vlaams Belang leader Tom Van Grieken stating: “We are opposed to the resolution of the left parties, because we are not naive pacifists. But at the same time, as Flemish nationalists, we have little sense in saving Belgium’s face.”

Theo Francken, a senior MP from the right-wing NV-A party said: “When it comes to a financial contribution to NATO, we are already among the worst in the class. A withdrawal of nuclear weapons is not a good signal to President Trump.”

The vote came after the parliament’s foreign affairs committee approved a motion calling for the weapons’ withdrawal from Belgium, as well as Belgium’s accession to the International Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

If passed the resolution would have instructed the Belgian government “to draw up, as soon as possible, a roadmap aiming at the withdrawal of nuclear weapons on Belgian territory”.

The presence of the weapons was only officially confirmed in July of last year in a report by the Nato parliamentary assembly – though their presence has been an open secret for decades, at times attracting mass protests.

The weapons are thought to be B-61 nuclear bombs, tactical nuclear weapons developed on the 1960s to be dropped by American military jets. Similar weapons are thought to be stored by American forces at bases in Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey.

A group of Green MEPs, including British representative Molly Scott Cato, were arrested at the Belgian base in February last year after holding a demonstration against the weapons. 

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