Reports of Belgium’s death are exaggerated


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Elections will be held in 2024 across much of the world: the US, Taiwan, India, South Africa, Mexico and many other countries including . . . Belgium. In the country that hosts the EU’s headquarters and has just taken over the 27-nation bloc’s six-month rotating presidency, the elections set for June 9 promise to be among the most interesting of them all. I’m at tony.barber@ft.com.

A beer and an airline

Insofar as the Belgian political scene attracts attention abroad, it is often because some commentators think the country of fewer than 12mn people is permanently on the brink of breaking up into its Dutch-speaking and Francophone parts. Here is James Lindsay, writing for the US Council on Foreign Relations:

“When Belgians vote next June, they will be choosing members of their regional, federal and European parliaments. In doing so, they could be unintentionally deciding whether Belgium will end up on the ash heap of history.”

At times, as if invoking the playful spirit of the Belgian-born surrealist artist René Magritte, Belgians themselves appear to encourage such speculation. In 2006, the public television station RTBF broadcast a spoof report that the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders had declared independence.

However, if the late rock star Frank Zappa was correct in saying that a real country has a beer and an airline, then Belgium passes the test. It brews hundreds of different beers and it has an air company, Brussels Airlines, though admittedly that’s owned by Lufthansa of Germany.

What’s more, Belgium, which gained independence from the Netherlands in 1830, has been around a fair bit longer than Germany and Italy, which became nation-states in the second half of the 19th century. Some countries in central and eastern Europe didn’t appear in their present form until 1945 or even in the late 20th century.

Language, ideology and economics divide Belgium

Despite its staying power, the view persists that the Belgian state is unusually fragile by European standards. Flanders and the French-speaking region of Wallonia are regarded as having drifted ever more apart since a far-reaching decentralisation of Belgium along administrative, linguistic and political lines began in 1970.

This trend has been amplified by the electoral rise of Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), a far-right party dedicated in principle to splitting up Belgium and creating a separate Flemish state. (For more on Vlaams Belang and the origins of Flemish separatism, see this piece by Ben Wray.)

As Belgium approaches its June elections, Vlaams Belang leads in opinion polls both in Flanders and at federal level. Not far behind is the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a conservative nationalist but less radically separatist Flemish party.

The sense that Flanders and Wallonia belong to two different political worlds is all the stronger because the leading parties in Francophone Belgium are on the moderate or extreme left. Moreover, Flanders is a more prosperous region than Wallonia, still recovering from the decline of the heavy industries that made it a powerhouse until the late 20th century.

In other words, the gulf between the two regions is not only linguistic but ideological and economic. It also endures because, for the most part, Flemish parties campaign only in Flanders and Francophone parties only in Wallonia.

All the same, I’m not convinced that Belgium’s break-up is imminent. Let’s look at the reasons for Vlaams Belang’s popular support and at why dissolving Belgium would be, in practice, a lot more difficult than appears at first glance.

Breakthrough for Vlaams Belang

For English-speakers, one of the most lucid surveys of Belgian politics was published in August by Belga, the national news agency. Entitled “Elections 2024: The rise of the far right in Belgium”, the article says:

“Vlaams Belang was founded in 1979 under the name Vlaams Blok. The party was a radical breakaway from Volksunie, a big-tent party that advocated greater Flemish autonomy.”

Vlaams Blok made advances less because it advocated Flemish independence than because it campaigned on a strident anti-immigrant, anti-Islam platform. In 2004, the party was convicted of violating Belgium’s anti-racism law and was banned from participating in elections.

The party instantly reappeared under a new name, Vlaams Belang, but made little headway for 10 years until it acquired a new leader, Tom Van Grieken, in 2014. Then the European refugee and migrant crisis of 2015-2016 drove up popular support for the party.

In Belgium’s 2019 elections, Vlaams Belang came second in Flanders with about 20 per cent of the vote. It was a genuine breakthrough, but did not lead to a share of power either in Flanders or at federal level. Other parties, including the more moderate nationalist N-VA, preferred to form coalitions with each other, maintaining a cordon sanitaire against Vlaams Belang that has held to this day.

Flanders: part of a European trend

Ahead of Belgium’s June elections, the big question is: will the cordon sanitaire survive? Should a far-right party — one that is also demanding the country’s break-up — be offered a role in a coalition government, either in Flanders or in Belgium as a whole?

Minus the issue of separatism, the same question preoccupies mainstream conservative and other parties across much of western Europe. In the Netherlands, Belgium’s neighbour, elections in November were won by Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom party, but the reluctance of most other parties to join him in government means that the search for a new ruling coalition is still dragging on.

Tom Van Grieken, leader of the far-right Flemish independence Vlaams Belang party © Kristof Van Accom/BELGA/AFP/Getty Images

In Austria, which will also hold elections later this year, the identically named far-right Freedom party is top of the polls. There, the cordon sanitaire no longer exists: the far right has already served in several coalitions since 2000.

In Sweden, the rightwing nationalist Sweden Democrats are not in power but offer parliamentary support for a centre-right coalition.

In Germany, three eastern states — Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia — will hold elections this year. The far-right Alternative for Germany is the frontrunner in all three, with 30 per cent or more support. It would be a momentous turn in Germany’s post-1945 history if the far right were to take a leading government role in one or more of the country’s 16 states — but it is no longer inconceivable.

The Belgian exception

In Belgium, post-election developments may turn out to be less dramatic.

Vlaams Belang hopes to achieve a victory emphatic enough to justify putting a declaration of sovereignty to the Flanders legislature for a vote. Then it would negotiate separation from Wallonia — the model being the peaceful Czech-Slovak “velvet divorce” of 1992-1993.

However, to judge from present opinion polls, even the combined vote of Vlaams Belang and the N-VA will struggle to exceed 50 per cent in Flanders. So where will the majority for independence come from?

In Belgium’s 150-seat federal parliament, meanwhile, Vlaams Belang is set to win more than 20 seats — making it potentially the largest party, but by no means strong enough to dictate terms to its rivals, from both Flanders and Wallonia.

It seems to me that, just like in the Netherlands, what will actually happen in Belgium is that many months will pass after the election while various political leaders look for ways to form a multi-party coalition.

This would be entirely in keeping with Belgian practice. It took 541 days to form a government after Belgium’s 2010 elections, and between December 2018 and October 2020 the country was ruled by interim governments for even longer.

A final point is that any attempted break-up of Belgium would need to answer the question — what do you do with Brussels, the capital, which is a largely French-speaking city in the middle of Flanders?

Vlaams Belang says breezily that it would incorporate Brussels into a new Flemish state, but as a bilingual city. In reality, such a step would face immense legal and constitutional hurdles — and, as a former resident of Brussels, I have the feeling it wouldn’t go down well with large numbers of Belgians in the city, either.

What do you think? Will Belgium break up?

Click here to vote by dragging the speedometer to the left or the right to indicate your strength of feeling.

More on this topic

Belgium’s reckoning with a brutal colonial history in Congo — a 2020 report by Neil Munshi, the FT’s former West Africa bureau chief

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