Flanders and the rise of separatism in Belgium

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In October, Belgium held local elections to renew all its municipalities. The outcome showed, similar to the recent national election, the increased political strength of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA). The Flemish party gained a large majority in Flanders, which is the most populated and the richest region in the country. Opinion polls also indicate that the N-VA is on its way to becoming the first party of Belgium.

The relevance of the N-VA’s victory in this local election will directly affect national politics for the next two years, right up until the national election when the future of the country will be decided.

The Flemish separatist movement is by no means a recent phenomenon; in fact it has a long history. To satisfy the demands of this movement, several constitutional reforms have been made in Belgium since the sixties. This has given the country a complex institutional structure, composed of three regions with wide legislative competencies, and three linguistic communities (German, French and Dutch) representing the three linguistic areas of the country. Regions and linguistic communities share power with the federal government, which holds very few competencies apart from foreign policy, social security and taxation/economic policy. Scholars called this institutional architecture “centrifugal federalism” because instead of decreasing the demands of the linguistic communities/regions, they have actually encouraged demands for further decentralization.

The ongoing conflict between the linguistic communities and regions and the central government has led to a series of political crises: in the most recent episode, in 2010, the government collapsed after failing to find an agreement over the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. Furthermore, the hyper-proportional electoral system and the presence of a very fragmented multiparty system allow even minor parties to veto the formation of a federal government. For instance, after the last national election held in 2010, more than 500 days were needed to agree on a new government. In the end, a coalition government composed of eight parties, very different from each other regarding linguistic affiliation and position on the political spectrum, was formed. 

Linguistic cleavages define the political spectrum more than ideological viewpoints. The weakness of the federal government together with the byzantine character of Belgian politics has served to boost the Flemish movement N-VA. This success can be explained by looking at the capacity of the separatist movement to re-position itself. If, at the beginning of the last decade, the separatist movement was politically represented by the extreme-right/racist party called “Vlams Belang”, the N-VA can legitimately present itself as a typical Western European conservative party.

The Flemish independent movement has gained control of Antwerp, the second largest city in the country. The new mayor of the Flemish city is Bart De Wever, the charismatic leader of the N-VA. The shock of the loss of Antwerp, together with the upcoming issue of approving the national budget, has brought Elio Di Rupo’s government coalition close to a breaking point. The recent austerity measures also seem to be benefiting the N-VA.

Against this background, the rise of De Wever can be explained by his ability to take advantage of his party’s veto role during the prolonged discussions after the 2010 elections. On that occasion, De Wever obtained concessions for Flanders while refusing to enter a coalition government: his strategy, from the opposition, aims to capitalize on voters’ frustration

in the next national election. The ultimate objective is probably the secession of Flanders, even though De Wever often speaks about making Belgium a confederation of States similar to Switzerland. The question in the short term is whether he can persuade voters about his skills as a government figure, given the unresolved problems  in reaching agreements with other parties to form a governing majority for the city of Antwerp – still without its new local government.

Belgium is not an isolated case, as the austerity measures taken by incumbent governments are benefiting various separatist movements across Europe.

Nevertheless, the strength of the separatist movement in Belgium, will not decrease when the recession ends. The Flemish movement has its roots in a very specific cultural and linguistic identity which characterizes the North of the country. Identity and money are now being fused in a single powerful message: De Wever often calls the federal government “the taxation government of French-speakers”, described as “welfare leeches”.

The next election will have an enormous impact on the future of Belgium, but independence is less popular than the national leaders want others to believe. Flemish voters, although they approved increased decentralization and less monetary transfer from their region to the French-speaking part of the country, do not want to see the country split.

Furthermore, independence has a cost: in particular, Belgium has one of the highest public debts in Europe, so the question is who will re-pay it if separation becomes a reality. Brussels, the capital of the country but also the Flemish capital, is a French-speaking city: so, where will the government have its seat after secession?

Even if the N-VA were able to achieve its aim, there is no certainty that an independent Flanders would be able to skip all membership procedures (which usually take years to complete) and immediately become a member of the EU. Many European countries would oppose any “direct” accession, and without direct membership to the EU, the probability of an independent Flanders significantly decreases.

Nevertheless, it now seems obvious that Belgium is a state in need of a deep reform of its political and economic system, not only to overcome the increasing popularity of the separatist movement, but also to better perform in the face of economic globalization and a rapidly changing and evolving world.