Belgium is a small country located in the heart of Europe, rich in culture and history and home to an incredibly complex political system. The main aim of this article is to provide an insight into how the country is run and how its separatist party, the NVA, has been gaining more power in recent years. In order to understand the current political situation in the country and the disagreements between its two regions, the Dutch (or Flemish) speaking Flanders and the French speaking Wallonia, it is necessary to look back at its history.
Belgium has always been something of an odd collection of territories and cultures and has been disputed throughout history by a number of European countries including Spain, Austria, Netherlands, France and Germany. Interestingly, Belgium has its roots in separatism having been part of the Netherlands before declaring independence in 1830. Leopold I became the first king of Belgium in 1831 after being elected by the Belgian congress. The Netherlands, however, were not so keen on the terms of separation proposed by Leopold and decided to invade Belgium. Through Anglo-French cooperation, the Dutch were expelled three years later in 1833, but problems in the region continued until 1839 when both countries signed the Treaty of London establishing Belgium’s independence.
During World Wars I and II Belgium was invaded and occupied by Germany. After WWI, the Treaty of Versailles gave Belgium a stretch of German land near its border, adding another language and cultural group to the country. Until today this area is the German speaking region of Belgium, although politically and geographically it is considered to be a part of Wallonia.
Belgium became a country with three different language groups: Dutch, French and German. Nowadays Dutch is spoken by 60% of the Belgian population (a population of nearly 11 million), followed by French with 40% and German with less than 1%.
Political structure and language issues
It is not a secret that tensions between the Flanders and Walloon communities have increased over recent years. It was during the 1960’s that relations between the communities first began collapsing and jeopardizing the formation of governments. In 1962 a language border demarcating and dividing the Dutch and French speaking regions was established.
Early 1970’s Belgium went through extensive constitutional reform in which three partially autonomous regions were formed: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. Each of these regions has a government and a parliament in which they exercise their authority in issues regarding economy, employment, energy, transport, public works, environment and housing issues.
Besides the three regions, Belgium created three political entities to represent its ethnic groups (French, Dutch and German speakers). Each of these communities has a government and a parliament to deal with the concerns of their language group, focussing on issues such as language, culture, education and care.
Despite these reforms, problems within the communities continued throughout the 1980’s. In 1993 a federal state was established and a new set of reforms provided additional autonomy to the regions.
Only issues that affect all Belgians such as foreign affairs, defence, social security, justice and finance are dealt with at a federal level.
The federal state, the regions and the communities that make up Belgium are all essentially autonomous and all have substantial power. The figure below illustrates the Belgian federal states, the three languages communities, and the regions.
Economic shift and the increasing popularity of the NVA
The economic and industrial shift from Wallonia to Flanders plays an important role in the dissatisfaction of the Flemish. In the 1950’s, Wallonia had a prosperous mining and steel industry but lost its competitiveness on a global scale due to the lack of modernization. At the same time, industry in Flanders started to bloom. Poverty and unemployment gradually started to increase in Wallonia and many Walloons relied, and still rely, on social security provided by the Belgian federal government. Since it is mainly the Flemish industry and taxpayers who provide government funds, many in the Flemish part of Belgium are becoming increasingly frustrated at what they see as Flemish money being used to support the Walloons: “The Flemish part of the country is growing tired of this one-way sponsorship, while Wallonia does not seem to want to change the current situation: it is neither able to provide the social security its inhabitants need, with unemployment rates twice as high as the national average, nor to improve their weak economy.” (Lauwers, 2010)
This growing dissatisfaction pushed many in Flanders to vote for the pro-Flemish independence party, the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), led by Bart de Wever. In 2010, the year in which Belgium faced a political deadlock, the NVA won the elections in Flanders receiving almost 30% of the votes. This victory happened in a period where separatism was becoming a trend.
In Wallonia, the Socialist Party (PS) emerged as winners with 40% of the votes under the leadership of Elio di Rupo. The 2010 elections in Belgium were a wake-up call for the population, leading to changes in the political landscape. Several political parties reduced their budgets and many politicians resigned. It became “more obvious than ever that Belgian people live in a country with two completely different democracies, two different cultures and two different opinions.” (Lauwers, 2010)
In April 2011, Belgium had been without a central government for over a year as talks were not moving forwards. The deadlock – which lasted 541 days – ended only in December 2011, when French-speaking Elio di Rupo, leader of the Socialist Party, was elected to be prime minister.
In October 2012, the NVA became the largest political party in Flanders after receiving a large number of votes in local elections. As a result, Bart de Wever became the mayor of Antwerp, the city with the second largest port in Europe.
For the NVA, nationalism and separatism represent the solution to solve the problems Belgium is facing. The socialist party on the other hand represents social security and support in the long run, which the Flemish perceive as being Wallonia’s lack of commitment to change and progress.
The May 2014 elections in Belgium are expected to be a game changer as it might be the final step for the NVA towards achieving Flemish independence. However, although the NVA party wants to benefit from the unhappiness within the current government, because the European elections overlap with those in Belgium, there are also disadvantages for the NVA as many questions would have to be answered on a European level. How would Flanders, a Belgian sub-state, become a member of the EU? How would the future of Belgium be defined? What would happen to the international organizations based in Belgium and what would be the capital of Flanders?
If Belgium breaks up, Brussels will be a very problematic issue to deal with.
Brussels, the capital of Belgium, hosts several major political institutions such as the EU and NATO, and around 19% of Belgium’s GDP is generated in Brussels. “International institutions make up for about 13 to 14% of the city’s employment and GDP. Brussels hosts some 16,000 business congresses a year, which represents 2.5% of the city’s GDP.”
Brussels is also located in the Flemish region, despite around 85% of its inhabitants being francophone. If Belgium decides to break up, the Flemish and the Walloons would both try to claim Brussels for themselves. According to an Ipsos poll, 68% of the people in Brussels expressed their opinion that they would prefer to become independent in case Belgium splits up.
What is the opinion of the Belgian people and how has it changed over the years?
In the 1990’s an average of 84% of the Belgians considered the country to be their nation and home. In October 1991, one third of the Flemish favored separation after an internal Belgian crisis. Between 2004-2006 the number of separatists in Belgium fluctuates around 20%. In 2008 when Europe was facing the economic crisis, around 30% of the Flemish were in favor of separatism. In 2010, the year in which Belgium faced a political dead lock, one third of the Flemish favored independence. After the economic and Belgian political crisis settled down, the number of people that favored independence reduced to 20%, meaning that around 80% of the people were either in favor of the union of indifferent. Amongst the younger generation and students 90% said that they were against splitting up the country.
Throughout the years the polls show that the number of separatists has been stable for around twenty years fluctuating between 10- 20%. Most people that favor Flemish independence are located in the north of Belgium. In Wallonia and the region of Brussels these numbers are lower.
To leave or not to leave?
It is clear that Belgium is a divided country and that many, especially those in the Flanders region, are not happy with the current state of the government. However, recent polls and statistics illustrate that despite this, the vast majority of Belgians do not see Flemish independence as a solution.
But 2014 will still be an interesting year, not just for Belgians but also for the UK with the upcoming Scottish Independence referendum and Spain with the Catalonian independence vote. The rise of separatism and nationalism in Europe has been marked in recent years, especially since the advent of the economic crisis. It would appear that this year will be an important one in defining whether this rise was simply a knee-jerk reaction to the economic crisis or something altogether more serious.
*Cover image ‘Belgians, Flemish and Walloon alike, protest against their country’s lack of a federal government in 2011‘ by Clark Boyd