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Home Opinion Belgium and the shackles of the federal state
Flanders • Nationalism • Independence

Belgium and the shackles of the federal state

Wim Vermeersch - 25 February 2016

Never before have Flemish nationalists performed so well, and yet paradoxically never has it been so hard to envisage an independent Flemish state

Nationalist and regionalist parties are winning elections across Europe. Flanders is no exception: the (N-VA), a rightwing conservative and nationalist party, has been winning one election after another since 2009, thereby sidelining Vlaams Belang, a farright nationalist party, which got about 6 per cent of the vote in 2014. N-VA is now the largest party (32 per cent) in Flanders. It is also the largest coalition partner both in the Flemish government, headed by Geert Bourgeois, N-VA, and the federal government, headed by Charles Michel, Francophone liberals. Nevertheless, an independent Flemish state – N-VA’s main objective as laid down in its party statutes – is not on the agenda. And what’s more, N-VA does not seem able to free itself from the shackles of the federal state.

A complex and bizarre country

First of all, Belgium is a complex and bizarre country. There are no national parties in Belgium. The traditional parties – Christian Democrat, Socialist and Liberal – adopted a federal structure in the 1970s, with separate leaders and apparatuses in Flanders and Wallonia. Parties are now competing with each other in their own region, while often fighting parties in the other regions. Hence, it has proved to be a difficult task trying to form a federal government on different occasions. In 2010-2011 it took 541 days to do so. Not that the Belgian economy came to a standstill during these days. On the contrary, as it turned out, Belgium did not just survive the global financial crisis, but managed to do so quite well, one of the reasons being that no tough austerity measures were adopted during that period.

Such is the bizarre political landscape in which N-VA rose to prominence. The party provides a rightwing conservative alternative to the way things have been run for years by coalition governments with socialists. Its leader, Bart De Wever, mayor of Antwerp and by far the most able politician in the country, has continuously inflamed anti-socialist sentiments, the Francophone Parti Socialiste being made the scapegoat for all the ills of society. N-VA won the 2014 regional and federal elections with a message of ‘change’. It had refused to discuss its nationalist agenda during that election campaign, although Article 1 of the party statutes runs as follows: “While aiming at good governance and more democracy, N-VA wants to create the independent republic of Flanders, member state of a democratic European Union .”

Uneasy paradox

N-VA now has to tackle an uneasy paradox. It is facing a tough choice about how to proceed after the 2019 elections: either it takes further steps towards the creation of a so-called ‘confederal’ state,  despite such a move requiring a two-thirds majority of the members of the federal parliament, implying that N-VA forms a coalition government with the hated Francophone Parti Socialiste; or it rules out forming such a government, preferring rightwing economic policies to state reform, and thus shelving the idea of creating an independent Flemish state. N-VA has already done so in 2014, when the Flemish nationalists formed a coalition government with Flemish Christian Democrats, Flemish Liberals and Francophone Liberals.

Today, N-VA ministers hold the interior, defence and asylum portfolios, ie high-profile ‘Belgian’ portfolios. Ironically enough, they are, on a daily basis, providing us with proof that the federal structure of Belgium is functioning. In fact, they are undermining their case for an independent Flemish state.
New blockage in 2019?

N-VA has to live with this uneasy paradox. Part of the N-VA rank and file, which is linked to the Flemish Movement, has of course little appetite for ‘Belgian’ policies. They pressure the party into preparing for constitutional reform. That is why a working group has been set up in January 2016 to formulate new state reform proposals. This seems to suggest that the competences of the regions will again be a key issue in the 2019 election campaign.

Also in 2019 the nationalist party N-VA will be by far the largest party in Flanders. But new steps towards the creation of an independent Flemish state will inevitably block attempts to form a federal government in 2019. There are simply not enough members of parliament willing to support such steps, as has been shown by recent political research. On the contrary, this research showed that a significant number of MPs are in favour of shifting certain areas of competence in the opposite direction to the federal level again.

In sum, this  is fitting for Belgium, home to the surrealist painter René Magritte: never before have Flemish nationalists performed so well, and never before has it been so difficult for them to throw off the shackles of the federal state and create an independent Flemish state.

The comparison with the Catalan and the Scottish cases

The question of the creation of an independent Flemish state also raises another issue. Flemish nationalists like to refer to the Scots and the Catalans as ‘fellow travellers’. But can N-VA be compared with the Scottish and Catalan nationalist parties?

The answer is no. Flemish, Scottish and Catalan independence movements have distinct characteristics.,
First, the Catalan movement of independence enjoys massive public support, while the majority of the Flemish people strongly resists the idea of an independent Flemish state. Even the majority of N-VA voters opposes it, as has repeatedly been shown by electoral research. It is simply impossible to imagine that 100,000 people would march through the streets of Brussels in support of an independent Flemish state.

Second, Flanders administers the greater part of the country, while Catalonia and Scotland are ‘junior partners’ opposing centralist policies. Consequently, the dynamics of political change are different.  
Third, while leftwing political views prevail among Scottish nationalists (opposing the Tories in London) and leftwing groupings are a key component of the Catalan nationalist movement (opposing the Partido Popular, a ‘Francoist’ party in Madrid), Flemish nationalists fully embrace rightwing conservative concepts. Leftwing Flemish nationalists make up only a tiny minority.

Such is the distinct identity of N-VA, which is quite understandable from a historical perspective. The Flemish Movement was a cultural movement in its early days. It supported the emancipation of the Flemish people and challenged the dominance of Francophone elites. However, it espoused far-right views and policies in the 1930s and collaborated with the Germans during the second world war. Although N-VA has recently distanced itself from that period, it remains the historic disgrace of the Flemish movement.

Wim Vermeersch is editor-in-chief of Samenleving en politiek and staff member of the Gerrit Kreveld Foundation

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