Sunday's Belgian elections brought an unexpectedly big win for a Flemish separatist.
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
Whether De Wever will want to govern is another question. He could cede the prime minister spot to Mr. Di Rupo, which would leave him free to move to “devolve” federal powers such as justice, health, and social spending between Flanders and Wallonia.
De Wever modulated his separatist message during the campaign, starting with a strong call to separate, but ending last week saying, ''We do not want a revolution…We do not want to declare Flanders independent overnight. But we do believe in gradual evolution.”
After the election he said being prime minister was not as important as speeding the cause of Flemish autonomy. "The job of prime minister for me is not important, the key is to get a deal. If it helps the Francophones to trust us, I'm happy to make that sacrifice," he told a crowd of reporters.
Belgian tensions have long centered on language, but are spreading to social attitudes and spending. Dutch and French language are separate in the north and south for everything from license plates, schools, shop and road signs, to public events. Political parties are not national, but Flemish or Walloon, and north and south vote separately; yesterday’s vote was basically two elections for one government.
Walloons can irritate the Flemish for thinking of Belgium in a proprietary French historical construct, given a 180-year history dominated by French speakers. Currently the wealthier Flemish are chafing over subsidizing social security in the south, which has greater unemployment and lower income levels.
There are 6.5 million Dutch speakers, 4 million French speakers, and a German speaking minority in the state.
Jean-Michel de Waele, political scientist at the Free University of Brussels, says “extremists on both sides” are responsible for creating a politics of division.
French will take Walloons
Recent polls in France show two out of every three members of the French public would agree to absorb Wallonia as part of France. Meanwhile, a recent survey in Flanders by the Luxembourg broadcasting group RTL found that 32 percent want independence immediately, 17 percent would accept a "confederation" with Wallonia that is independence in all but name, and 25 percent want greater autonomy in Belgium.
French minister for Europe Pierre Lellouche said after the vote he hoped Belgium would not split along linguistic lines, and used the example of French-speaking Quebec in Canada as a model. "Has the point of no return been passed? I think not, I hope not," Mr. Lellouche told French radio. "Everyone needs Belgium to be unified, even if the separate regions assert themselves."