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Belgium elections: Beginning of the end of a nation?

Will Bart De Wever's Flemish party victory in Sunday's Belgium elections mark a north-south split that leads to an independent nation of Flanders?

By Staff writer / June 14, 2010

Bart De Wever, president of the Flemish right-wing party N-VA (New Flemish Alliance), speaks at the start of a party meeting at the Flemish Parliament in Brussels June 14, 2010. The Flemish separatist N-VA party claimed victory after Belgium's parliamentary election on Sunday and projections showed they were on course to gain the most seats in the lower house.

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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Paris

Sunday's Belgian elections brought an unexpectedly big win for a Flemish separatist.

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The result leaves the existence of Belgium as a nation – and its heavy debt load – hanging the balance.

Bart De Wever, a Flemish-speaking Belgian centrist politician who hopes his country will “gradually evaporate,” won an outright victory yesterday. Analysts say Europe could be witnessing a slow motion train collision for Belgium’s fragile political unity – and a broader lesson on the rise of extreme or fringe in European politics.

Sunday's snap elections highlight festering language and identity differences in Belgium. The north is home to the wealthy conservative Dutch (Flemish)-speakers, a region called Flanders. The south is run by the less-economically robust socialist French-speakers, a region known as Wallonia.

What happens now? Mr. De Wever, who won 27 seats on a platform to slowly administer Flanders out of the country – will enter complex and lengthy talks on forming a new government with Elio Di Rupo of the French Socialists, who won 26 seats running on a campaign of higher spending.

De Wever’s separatist New Flemish Party, which is not xenophobic or far-right, rose from from six seats in 2007 to win resoundingly yesterday in elections that played more on Belgian social differences than pressing economic issues in a country that has the third-highest debt level in Europe, after Greece and Italy.

“The traditional European parties aren’t adapting well to social changes…and there some volatility out there,” says Mike Beke of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “When people are tired of the establishment they speak out…It’s quite remarkable at a time of economic crisis, with major cuts to consider, that the economy wasn’t a priority in this vote.”

The election of a Flemish separatist comes months after Europe finally agreed to a unity treaty that includes a European Union president and foreign minister and EU institutions based in Brussels. Belgium was to be a model of federal harmony. No longer.

Sunday's Belgium vote closely follows The Netherland's election of Geert Wilders, a Dutch anti-Islam and anti-immigrant extremist, heads the Netherland's third strongest political party. But De Wever, unlike Wilders, is avidly pro-Europe.

“What's common to Wilders and De Wever is that they both came from nowhere in a surprisingly short time,” Mr. Beke says.

De Wever not likely to be PM

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