Flanders’ nationalists revived plans to split Belgium in two this week, angering their right-wing coalition partners in the federal government who had hoped to put the issue to rest.
Bart De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp and leader of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), tasked his party’s parliamentary whip with devising a strategy for separating the Dutch-speaking north of Belgium from French-speaking Wallonia by the time of the next election in 2019.
This comes as Charles Michel’s government, in which the N-VA is the largest party, is strengthening federal law enforcement following a terror scare in November that came after attacks in France.
While the N-VA has recently emphasized law-and-order issues — its interior minister, Jan Jambon, somewhat infamously vowed to “clean up” an immigrant neighborhood on the edge of Brussels where terrorist suspects were believed to be hiding last year — De Wever has another constituency in mind, Politico reports: core voters who back a separate Flemish state and have felt abandoned as the party successfully moved into the mainstream by smoothing off the rough edges.
The N-VA has all but obliterated the more right-wing Vlaams Belang with its pragmatic approach to Flemish nationalism. But since the party won the 2010 election, there has been precious little progress toward greater autonomy.
Flanders is already separate from the rest of Belgium in many ways. The country’s Dutch- and French-speaking parts share power nationally — with Brussels and a small German-speaking community caught in the middle — and largely control their internal affairs.
But the richer north still subsidizes what nationalists there see as a destitute south.
Wallonia never fully recovered from the decline of coal, steel and other heavy industries in the postwar period. Per capita income hovers below the European average. Unemployment is twice as high as in Flanders, which accounts for 60 percent of the Belgian economy.
The Socialists have a virtual lock on power in the south and continue to resist efforts from the center to reduce taxes and scale back a generous welfare system that the N-VA says traps people in dependency.
De Wever’s determination to move to a “confederation” that would effective end Belgium as a unitary state may irk his coalition partners but is unlikely to destabilize the government.
A more immediate threat is the possibility of Catalan secession.
The N-VA supports the Spanish region’s push for independence. The separatist parties that govern in Barcelona intend to break away from the rest of Spain in 2017.
Jambon said last year that his party could not risk losing its “credibility” by withholding Belgium’s recognition of an independent Catalonia. He later told De Morgen newspaper that Catalan secession would be “a difficult question for us.”
Prime Minister Michel’s liberal Mouvement Réformateur has said it would only recognize an independent Catalonia if it had the blessing of the Spanish state. That is unlikely to be the case.