Independence: Who’s Next?

mixed be flags

A few weeks after Scots came close to breaking up the United Kingdom, Belgium will likely get a federal government that for the first time includes Flemish nationalists.

Will Belgium be the next to flirt with a breakup?

There are good reasons why it should. Belgium consists of about three-fifths Dutch-speaking Flemings and two-fifths French-speakers. Since the country was formed in 1830, these communities have never been that happy together, though individual Belgians rub along OK.

Francophones dominated for more than a century. They were wealthier. French dominated in universities even in the Flemish north. While the southern part of Belgium, Wallonia, had always been largely francophone, French also took over in traditionally-Flemish Brussels.

But since the 1960s, Flemings have produced more per person. They kicked French-speakers out of the university in Leuven. Traditional political parties split into francophone and Flemish units, while Flemish nationalist parties formed. The election on 25 May was the second time for the nationalist New Flemish Alliance, or N-VA, to win the largest number of seats in the federal parliament.

Still, I think Belgium will endure. And some of the reasons for that show why want-away regions elsewhere in Europe – Catalonia is planning a vote on 9 November – might find that true independence is not worth the trouble.

The first reason is that Scots’ ideas of independence appear more radical than Flemings’. Scottish nationalists seem to have in mind a traditional nation state – one people, one government. That’s understandable, given that Scotland used to rule itself and have its own monarchs.

But the world doesn’t work like that any more. It was unclear whether an independent Scotland could easily have joined the European Union or would have been welcome in NATO. Demanding continued use of the pound showed that even the Yes campaign was not prepared for full independence.

Flemish nationalists seem to have a clearer understanding of these hurdles. Flanders has never had its own state, and went through a series of proprietors – Spanish, French, Dutch – before Belgium was formed. So a Flemish nation state doesn’t seem as natural as an independent Scotland. Moreover, the EU is headquartered in Belgium (as is NATO) and the average Belgian probably understands better than the average Briton the limitations and costs of sovereignty in the 21st century.

So, despite the N-VA’s ultimate goal of independence, it speaks of “confederalism”, a system of extreme devolution with a minimalist central government.

Another problem for Flemish nationalists is the capital, Brussels, Belgium’s economic engine. Brussels is part of Flanders geographically and by tradition, and is the Flemish region’s seat of government. But it is a separate region in itself – along with Flanders and Wallonia – and has a large francophone majority. Only 16% of Bruxellois speak Dutch at home, according to one survey. So an independent Flanders might have to abandon Brussels –- the biggest, wealthiest city in the Flanders area.

Though Brussels’ status is peculiar to Belgium, it points to the entanglements that evolve in nation states and make splitting up messy and potentially costly. The Scottish equivalent of Brussels is the pound.

Thirdly, a lot of nationalist discontent is about money – so it can be dealt with by less-drastic means.

While Scots want to keep more North Sea oil wealth, Flemings want to keep more of their earnings. Wallonia has higher unemployment and lower output per person than Flanders, and Flemings are tired of subsidising Walloons through tax and social security contributions.

That’s why N-VA leader Bart De Wever spent the election campaign hammering home a Thatcherite message of smaller government. Look at this web page with 25 people each giving a reason to vote N-VA – and guess what they’re saying even if you don’t understand Dutch. Only number 19 seems to talk about devolution – and his main point is just that Flemings lean more to the right politically than Walloons. But these are not necessarily innate preferences. They’re more likely to do with who’s currently gaining and losing from wealth redistribution.

De Wever appeared to have grasp that most Flemings are tiring after four decades of wrangling over state reforms. The last such tussle left Belgium without a proper government for a year-and-a-half, which was considered bad for business. In the May election, while the N-VA gained six seats, the more radical separatists, the Vlaams Belang (“Flemish Interest”), lost nine.

So, the real story of the N-VA’s rise this year is a shift away from radical Flemish separatism, and towards a defence of Flemish economic interests. If these are promoted effectively enough by an incoming centre-right government, separatism might no longer have much point.


Illustration: Flags of Flanders, the European Union, Wallonia, Belgium and Brussels. Author of Brussels flag: Ssolbergj.