Flanders: A Region in Search of Itself
In 2010 the Flemish nationalists became the largest party in the Belgian Federal Parliament for the first time. Does the rise in electoral support for the N-VA herald the end of the state of Belgium or can the country continue to adapt?
“The Belgians generally occupy themselves very little with political or moral speculations. Their principle attention is usually fixed exclusively on their material interests.”2 This is from a report written by the French envoy in Brussels shortly after the independence of Belgium in 1830. The new state was designed substantially to serve those interests. Later, other interests found their way onto the agenda – social issues of course and to a much lesser extent ecological issues. Today the main political dialogue in the Flemish Region still revolves directly or indirectly around socioeconomic questions. How can we assure the survival of our industries in the maelstrom of razor-sharp competition? How can we attract new companies? How can the Flemish preserve their level of welfare with an ageing population under the storm clouds of globalisation? The crisis that has prevailed since 2008 has given many Flemings a feeling that their children are likely to be a lot worse off than they are themselves for the first time in the last fifty years. The labour unions have been forced onto the defensive in recent years, and the complaints of businessmen often receive more attention in the media than our unemployed youth.
The Success of the N-VA
The N-VA has understood all this perfectly. The N-VA is a Flemish-nationalist party whose chief objective is the autonomy of Flanders. For years, studies have shown that only 15 to 20 percent of Flemings actually support that goal. But the N-VA has been attracting more voters than that percentage would suggest. The party has cleverly hitched its separatist narrative to the mainstream socioeconomic issues of Flanders. “Our welfare is existentially threatened by globalisation. We need to bring about urgent socioeconomic changes, but for years the French-speaking Belgians have blocked them. Why can’t the majority of Belgians [Dutch speakers outnumber French speakers] make decisions about their own future? Can a minority be allowed to stand in their way?” The party also enjoys the support of major actors in the business world, and its argumentation is eagerly echoed by the press. The N-VA became the largest single party in Flanders in 2010 and has been chalking up scores as high as 40 percent in opinion polls in recent years. The Christian democrats, social democrats and liberals oscillate around 10 to 16 percent, the far-right Vlaamse Belang around 10 percent and the Greens around 7 percent. As regards diversity and education, the party frankly opts for a conservative slant à la Theodore Dalrymple. The party is pro-European – like all Belgium’s political parties3 – and progressive in ethical respects (e.g. towards LGBT rights). To outsiders this may look like a fragmented image, but it goes down well with the Flemings. This is in no small way because the N-VA chairman, Bart De Wever, is regarded by friend and foe alike as the preeminent strategist and communicator of his generation.
Next year Belgium is holding not only European elections but also federal and regional ones. Two main questions arise. Will the next Prime Minister of Flanders be from the N-VA? That would imply the political numero uno of Flanders being a member of a party whose stated goal is the autonomy of Flanders; a novel situation that will certainly lead to major strains between the communities. After all, the Belgian federal system works only by dint of cooperation between the federal level and the regions/communities. But the N-VA becoming the most popular party in Flanders doesn’t mean it will necessarily form part of the Flemish government. The N-VA and, in particular, its chairman Bart De Wever have so often humiliated other Flemish parties in recent months that the latter will do everything in their power to corner the N-VA into opposition. So we could equally well end up with a coalition of Christian democrats, liberals and social democrats in the Flemish region. The second question is whether the N-VA could grow so popular that it becomes impossible to ignore in the formation of the federal government. It could then obstruct the formation of a federal coalition altogether and potentially trigger the disintegration of Belgium. This strikes me as purely theoretical, however. The French-speakers would never accept Brussels becoming the capital of an independent Flanders. Besides, there is no majority in favour of Flemish independence in Flanders itself. The rating agencies would moreover quickly set the warning lights flashing amber or even red, as they did during the extremely arduous and historically lengthy coalition formation process of 2010-2011. That would put severe pressure on the main economic and financial actors in Flanders, who would ask the N-VA to kindly refrain from trying to realise their childhood dream.4 So I do not think that Belgium is likely to disappear in the short or even the medium term, but if the N-VA poll well next year, it could mark the start of a new period of instability.
Green parties in Belgium
What is the standpoint of the Greens in the constitutional and community debates? Groen and Ecolo, the Flemish and French-speaking Green parties, are the only political parties from that form a group in the federal parliament that crosses the French/Flemish language divide, which shows that they have opted for a mature federalism. The Greens have had a hard time of it in Flanders. Public opinion has not only shifted to the right in recent years, but constitutional and community issues have been dominant themes in the media, and that is not Green’s core area. Environmental and climate problems have become marginal topics. Energy problems are viewed chiefly from a corporate perspective. Maintaining competitive energy prices for heavy industry receives more emphasis than issues such as the transition to a more sustainable energy policy for the future. The political and societal context is hence not favourable to Greens. Yet the party has shown a new dynamism in recent years. The local elections of October 2012 were the most successful in its history; Greens are now involved in the government of one in six Flemish municipalities, including various large cities and several Brussels boroughs.
After World War II, Belgium and Flanders had a clear project, supported by the main parties, unions, employers and media: rebuilding the country and creating a welfare state. This ended with the crises of the 1970s. A strong movement in favour of greater autonomy had arisen in Flanders, leading to a step-by-step transfer of responsibilities from the federal government to the regions and communities. The biggest party in Flanders has recently become one that has the independence of Flanders at the top of its agenda. All other Flemish parties, except the extreme-right Vlaams Belang, are now doing their best to bring about a pause in this controversy to refocus on a federal Belgium. But behind these constitutional issues, there are other major questions that Flanders will have to answer, questions on which the Flemish political class, the middle class and the media have been divided for years. What kind of Flanders do we actually want? A modernised Rhineland Model, or a Flemish neoliberalism such as the N-VA preaches? How should we deal with social diversity? Should we go for a typically Belgian democracy based on consultation and compromise, or should we steer towards a majority/minority system like the UK? Can we allow environment and energy policies to be driven by a complex interplay between the European Union, the private sector and an unpredictable geopolitical climate, or should we try to map out a policy of our own? Serious differences of opinion on questions like these exist in many countries, but in Belgium the mechanisms for arriving at a productive compromise have grown less and less effective in recent years.
The Sixth State Reform which is now in the making could offer an answer and bring about a new constitutional and intra-community equilibrium. Until that happens, Flanders will continue bobbing around aimlessly on the unpredictable waves of history and of clever populists and nationalists. The Flemish Greens know that cooperating with a State Reform makes sense, and not only for democratic and governmental reasons. Once the disputes about the Belgian federal model subside, this country will have more room for the debate on ecology and sustainability.
1. The author lectures regularly in Belgium on the political and socioeconomic scene in Flanders. He can be reached at email@example.com.
2. Rik Coolsaet, Belgie en zijn buitenlandse politiek 1830–2000, p. 255
3. The “European feeling” of Belgian politicians has had some creative interpretations. Does the federal government, in which French and Dutch speakers have equal representation, faithfully follow EU policy in socioeconomic respects? Not at all. The federal government often creatively circumvents the recommendations of the European Commission and tries to put off the necessary austerity measures; incidentally, with good socioeconomic results.
4. Which may be a further illustration of the very important impact of markets on political and constitutional development. Markets can not only split countries but can prevent them from splitting