Belgium's Separatists Reawaken as Nationalism Stalks Europe

  • Europe-wide nationalism rekindles separatism in Flanders
  • National govt rules out constitutional revamp before 2019

The Europe-wide nationalist mood has stirred pro-independence murmurings in Flanders, home to the N-VA party that stalled the setup of a Belgian government for 541 days after the 2010 election.

Photographer: DirkWaem/AFP via Getty Images

Belgium’s secessionists are back.

No, a split-off by the Dutch-speaking northern half isn’t imminent, and for the time being the European countries at the greatest risk of a breakup are Spain (with a splinter movement in Catalonia) and Great Britain (due to the headstrong Scots).

QuickTake Catalonia

But the Europe-wide nationalist mood has stirred pro-independence murmurings in Flanders, home to the N-VA party that stalled the setup of a Belgian government for 541 days after the 2010 election. Four years later, the party set aside its separatist leanings and joined the ruling coalition when power beckoned.

The N-VA “cannot deliver radical change inside the Belgian government, so they are restoring their appeal, trying to keep the fire burning,” said Carl Devos, a Ghent University politics professor.

Flanders’s historic grievance is the cost of supporting the south -- Flemish per capita gross domestic product was 36,000 euros ($38,930) in 2013, compared with 26,200 euros in the French-speaking area -- but added fuel is coming from the upsurge in identity politics and anti-foreigner attitudes across Europe.

A call last week by Bart De Wever, head of the N-VA -- the initials stand for New Flemish Alliance -- for fresh proposals on stripping away powers from the national government was primarily a political tactic, in response to a dip in the party’s poll numbers in Flanders. Officials are planning to work on a position paper aimed at further devolution, prepping a campaign platform for the 2019 election.

As Europe was growing together with the euro and open borders, Belgium was drifting apart, cleaved between the wealthier, trade-intensive north and the more rural, industrially outdated French-speaking south, known as Wallonia. Six overhauls of the constitution since 1970 gradually gave the Flemings more control of their affairs.

Now that the European Union’s unifying achievements are under threat, there is even less glue to hold Belgium together. Flemish government chief Geert Bourgeois, one of De Wever’s right-hand men, spoke in a Jan. 16 De Standaard interview of a “two-country country.”

National debt of 106.7 percent of GDP, tied with Cyprus for the fourth-highest in the EU, makes the inner-Belgian feud a constant preoccupation of bond investors. During the 2010-11 impasse, Belgium’s intractable politics combined with the euro crisis to push 10-year borrowing costs up to 5.86 percent. Now Belgium pays 0.98 percent, up from a record low of 0.34 percent in April.

While the status quo will prevail until 2020, “disintegration of the Kingdom of Belgium will remain a possibility over the longer term,” Standard & Poor’s said in reaffirming Belgium’s AA credit rating on Jan. 15.

Flemish nationalists have made a career out of bashing the Walloons and their soulmates in Brussels, the largely French-speaking capital. So there was a bout of inner-Belgian score-settling after the Islamist plotters of the Nov. 13 murders of 130 people in Paris were traced to the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek.

Jan Jambon, an N-VA member who is interior minister in the national government, criticized the “rather lax” policing in Brussels and pointed to Flanders as an example of how to do things properly. Jambon has further cemented his agent provocateur status by consorting with Catalonia’s separatists, who are striving for independence from Spain.

“Catalonia is moving ahead, while on the Flemish side everything has come to a halt,” said Vincent Laborderie, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Louvain. “Flemish activists see what’s going on in Catalonia and are reacting to it.”


The party’s project goes by the name “confederalism.” The most talked-about scenario would hand each region full control of its tax, wage-setting and welfare systems, and replace the national prime minister with a council of regional appointees who rotate the job of representing the country.

Belgium could end up like Switzerland, with consensual (and plodding) decision-making and a shared executive. Or it could become another Bosnia-Herzegovina, its federal council the scene of perpetual strife. More likely, it would be something in-between.

In a yes-or-no vote on Belgium’s continued existence, the French side would have the upper hand since it has enough seats in Parliament to thwart the two-thirds majority needed to rewrite the constitution. The status of Brussels as a buffer zone between north and south is a further complication.

While the Twitter hashtag #FinDeLaBelgique petered out after the 2010-11 governing stalemate, predicting Belgium’s demise remains a popular parlor game. Liesbeth Homans, an N-VA member in the Flemish regional government, gave French speakers a target to shoot at this month when she voiced “hope” that Belgium will cease to be by 2025.

Speaking on VRT television, Homans said: “2020 would be too early.”