Home Society Bart De Wever wants to break up Belgium. But first he wants to rule it.
Bart De Wever wants to break up Belgium. But first he wants to rule it.

Bart De Wever wants to break up Belgium. But first he wants to rule it.

by host
Bart De Wever wants to break up Belgium. But first he wants to rule it.

ANTWERP, Belgium — It’s peak Belgian surrealism.

As a Flemish nationalist, Bart De Wever rose to power promising to rip his region away from the rest of Belgium. Now, having swept into first place in Sunday’s national and regional elections, he’s in pole position to become the country’s next prime minister.

On Wednesday, Belgium’s king asked the leader of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) to start exploring how to form a ruling coalition.

This is the first time a member of the N-VA has such a clear shot at the country’s top job. De Wever’s party seeks an “independent republic of Flanders,” according to first article of its bylaws. It also wants to abolish monarchy.

Flanders’ Dutch-speaking nationalists have joined governments at the federal level, but the last time they did, in 2014, they brought down the prime minister over a dispute of migration four years later.

And yet, after two decades of leading his party, De Wever seems to have decided to go light on the separatism and instead work toward reforming the state and tilting the balance of power toward the regional authorities. He’s also championing a classic conservative program of fiscal discipline and law and order.

It’s a gamble that is not without risk. De Wever has made himself vulnerable to more radical separatists in the far-right Vlaams Belang party — another big winner in Sunday’s election — advocating for a complete break-up of Belgium.

A slow dismantling of Belgium

On Sunday, De Wever pulled off a surprise win, keeping Vlaams Belang, which had been predicted for month to win by a landslide, at bay.

Vlaams Belang had campaigned on a platform that included a halt to migration and a radical plan to break up the country in the span of a few years. In order to deliver on its promises, the party’s leaders sought the support of N-VA.

De Wever didn’t play along. Ahead of the elections, he ruled out working with his far-right competitors and toned down his separatist ambitions, instead running on a platform of fiscal discipline and state reform.

His pitch:”confederalism,” which would allow regions like Flanders to assume many of the federal government’s powers but keep a minimal national state in place, with a shared agenda in areas such as foreign affairs and defense.

The biggest hurdle for De Wever is whether he can convince the Francophones to hold their noses and make him prime minister. | Laurie Dieffembacq/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

De Wever declared Sunday’s result a vote in confidence. “Flanders has more than ever chosen for more autonomy,” he said during his victory speech on Sunday.

The end of Belgium is off the table — at least for now.

Friends across the language divide

In addition to his own success, De Wever got lucky with the outcome of Sunday’s vote in the French-speaking region Belgium, where the center-right Reformist Movement (MR) beat the dominant Socialists for the first time in three decades.

Having a partner with similar views, at least on economic matters, on the other side of the language divide is a rare luxury for a Belgian politician. While Dutch-speaking Flanders is traditionally right-leaning, Francophone Wallonia tends left.

In 2019, when the N-VA and the Socialists were the big vote winners, talks between the two dragged on and ultimately failed. This time around, the Socalists have ruled out joining the federal government, leaving the way clear for De Wever and the MR President George-Louis Bouchez to explore forming a center-right cabinet.

The pair will likely be joined in the negotiations by two centrist parties, the Christian Democrat and Flemish party (CD&V) and its Francophone counterpart Les Engagés. The parties will have much to work out, especially on how much authority, and of what type, they are willing to transfer to regional governments.

How to avoid a Walloon veto

The biggest hurdle for De Wever is whether he can convince the Francophones to hold their noses and make him prime minister.

The nationalist leader and his N-VA party have a history of demonizing Wallonia — its politicians, its high deficits and its paltry economic productivity.

One of his first campaigns featured an image of a bow tie inside a warning triangle, a barely veiled reference to Walloon socialist top politician Elio Di Rupo, who is known for wearing a bow tie. Another time, he drove to Wallonia with vans full of fake money, to campaign against the financial transfers from Flanders.

Most notably, the NV-A’s ultimate goal remains the end of Belgium. The party came out of a broader movement that has been seeking Flemish autonomy since the 1950s.

Asked on Monday whether he’d support De Wever as prime minister, Maxim Prévot, the chair of Les Engagés, answered: “I have my doubts about that, to be honest.”

On Wednesday, the king appointed De Wever as informateur, a role in which he’s supposed to put aside his party concerns and gather information about possible points of agreement.

It remains to be seen how long De Wever can hold that statesman-like role.

The first moment to watch is July 11, when the Flemish-nationalist movement celebrates its annual Flemish holiday. Then, ten days later, on July 21, is Belgium’s national day, which serves as a key date to check in on progress on Belgium’s federal government.

Throughout the festivities, all eyes will be on De Wever, and if he will keep his cool — or erupt in a nationalist outburst that puts rest to his ambitions.

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