Requiem for a nation?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Bart De Wever is not a big fan of Belgium. In fact, he would eventually like to see the nation “evaporate.” The problem is that his party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has just won an emphatic victory in the country’s general election. Is Belgium set to become the stuff of history books?

“Not yet,” says Pierre Vercauteren, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Mons. Although De Wever’s separatist party made a strong showing winning the largest number of seats in the 150-seat lower Belgian federal house, he says, that does not mean that there is an equal number of voters out there who want a divorce.

“These voters simply wanted to express a strong disappointment with the Flemish members of the outgoing coalition about the lack of success in the reform of the state which they promised in 2007,” Vercauteren said, describing the ballot outcome as “clear in its form, ambiguous in its meaning and complicated in its consequences.”

De Wever’s party won nearly 30 percent of the Flemish vote on a campaign to gradually disconnect Flanders from the rest of the country and has now entered what is expected to be protracted negotiations with the French-speaking Socialists (PS) of Elio Di Rupo, which came second nation-wide with 36 percent of the Walloon vote on the promise of increased public spending.

De Wever has said the Flemish “must be masters of their own fate” but following his victory he has watered down his separatist message. “We do not want a revolution,” Wever, a 39-year old historian, said. “We do not want to declare Flanders independent overnight. But we do believe in gradual evolution.” In an apparent bid to appease the francophone public, he suggested that he would make way for Di Rupo to be prime minister and rather pursue a deal to reform the federal state and finances – i.e. to devolve key powers to the regions. “Don’t be afraid. Have faith in yourselves,” the election winner told Wallonia voters after his victory.

“De Wever said he will not let Belgium explode but still remains deeply convinced that the end of Belgium is the future,” Vercauteren says. That would mean a slow death – but death nevertheless. For the time being, Flanders and Wallonia enjoy self-rule over employment, environment, agriculture, culture and sports but the former want to expand autonomy over health, justice and social security – a non-starter for their “dependent” cohabitants.

Since its creation in 1830, Belgium, the administrative center of the European Union, has seen little of the unity preached by the eurocrats in Brussels. Friction has been the leitmotif in the relationship between the nation’s two communities, the more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the more needy French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

The linguistic divide is evident everywhere: from political parties and boy scouts to road signs and license plates, while Brussels resembles a bilingual island at the heart of the nation. The linguistic apartheid between the 6.5 million Dutch speakers and the 4 million French speakers comes with a lot of luggage. Once a rural population looked down upon by their francophone kin, the Flemish are fed up with subsidizing their slacker neighbors. Wallonia has twice the jobless rate and 25 percent lower per-capita income. The discrepancy in the number of highway speed traps (a source of state revenue) is seen as emblematic of the divide: Flemish authorities have installed over 1,500 while the Walloon government just over 160.

A recent study by the RTL broadcasting company found 32 percent of the Flemish population want outright independence, 17 percent a confederation and 25 percent greater self-rule within Belgium.

If the past is any guide, negotiations between the different parties will be long and complicated. It took nine months for outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme to form his short-lived five-party coalition government in 2007, which collapsed over voting rights in Brussels’ suburbs.

Analysts fear that lingering uncertainty will prevent Belgium from curbing its huge debt making it, as the Financial Times put it, “the Greece of the north.” To make things more complicated, Belgium is set to take over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in July. Bart Maddens, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Leuven, says it should be possible to reach an agreement by September but even so, he adds, a prolonged crisis would have little consequences for the EU presidency. “There is a functioning government and prime minister, and the EU presidency is a matter which is largely dealt with on an administrative level,” he says.

Vercauteren is also not too concerned about the fallout, as the objective of EU integration has never been questioned in any of the two camps. “After all, the presidency has been prepared for more than 18 months. The new coalition government will comprise members from the outgoing government as well as the new one so you will have smooth transition and continuity,” he says.

Even so, the sight of a squabbling nation at the helm of the EU will not be a flattering one (neither for the perennially dysfunctional 27-member bloc of course). There is a question of Belgium’s image [abroad] but as the agenda has been already prepared there will be no paralysis,” says Vercauteren.

Pragmatism should be enough to save the day but not necessarily the nation’s face abroad.

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