The frontrunner in Belgium’s elections this weekend is running on perhaps the ultimate in divisive proposals: the breakup of the nation.
Despite its status as the home of the European Union, Belgium itself has long struggled with divisions between its 6 million Dutch-speakers and 4.5 million Francophones but until recently talk of a breakup has been limited to extremists.
Now, Bart De Wever of the centrist New Flemish Alliance is pressing for exactly that. What once seemed a preposterous fantasy of the political fringes has, in the mouth of a man seen as a possible prime minister, suddenly takes on an air of plausibility.
Carving up Belgium has been a cherished dream for the far-right in Flanders, Belgium’s economically dominant north, and a nightmare scenario for poorer French-speaking Wallonia.
Flanders has half the unemployment of and a 25 percent higher per capita income than Wallonia, and Dutch-speakers have long complained that they are subsidizing the lives of their Francophone neighbors.
De Wever’s party is forecast to win 26 percent of the vote–way up from 3.2 percent in 2007. That means his party will likely emerge as the biggest in parliament with the right to try to cobble together a coalition government. He will unlikely get other mainstream parties to vote for a Belgian breakup.
That is why he seeks no immediate split but advocates a gradual and orderly breakup of Belgium to punish Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists for three years of political gridlock that has prevented them from addressing Belgium’s urgent economic woes.
De Wever wants Flanders and Wallonia to be fully responsible for their own economies and taxation but “we do not want to declare Flanders independent overnight.”
He speaks of a confederation–presumably resembling Serbia’s ties with Montenegro–but was silent on the fate of the monarchy or the capital of Flanders. Today, overwhelmingly Francophone Brussels is the capital of both Belgium and Flanders.
An April study by French-language broadcaster RTL, showed the Flemish for change: 32 percent wanted outright independence, 17 percent a “confederation” with Wallonia–which would mean de facto independence–and 25 percent more self-rule within Belgium.
In Belgium just about everything–from political parties to broadcasters to boy scouts and voting ballots–comes in Dutch- and French-speaking versions, leading to myriad and sometimes comical spats.
The only French-speaking party that wants Belgium to break up is the far-right–and tiny–National Front which wants Wallonia to join France.
The Belgian divide goes beyond language.
Flanders tends to be conservative and free-trade minded. Wallonia’s long-dominant Socialists have a record of corruption and poor governance.
“We have become two different peoples,” explains Jean-Marie Dedecker, head of a Flemish party that bears his name. “We are socially and culturally divided. We don’t read each other’s newspapers. We don’t watch each other’s TV programs.”
Complicating Belgium’s linguistic puzzle is Brussels. The city is an enclave in Flanders, but overwhelmingly French-speaking, and for many embodies the political inefficiency that disturbs De Wever.
The bureaucracy-laden city offers jobs to almost 1,000 public office holders, hosts the national and Flemish governments as well as its own regional government and assembly, and has always remained an amalgam of 19 towns–boasting 19 mayors and 19 city councils.