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Why Belgium may be about to break up

Why Belgium may be about to break up

by host

Sooner rather than later, Belgium may cease to exist. 

The small Western European state that hosts the headquarters of the EU and NATO has long had a dysfunctional national political life. It holds the world record for the longest time taken to form a government during coalition talks — over 500 days. 

Now the strains between Dutch-speaking Flanders, in the north, and French-speaking Wallonia in the south of the country threaten a far bigger crisis. 

Elections are due to be held in June 2024. According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, the far-right Vlaams Belang party — which wants to turn Flanders into a fully independent, breakaway state — is now the biggest political force in the country. 

Tom Van Grieken, who became president of his party when he was only 28 and who has been key to its recent success, has been firm about his plans for independence if he wins. 

“We believe Belgium is a forced marriage,” Van Grieken told POLITICO in his office near Brussels’ EU quarter. “If one of them wants a divorce, we’ll talk that out as adults … we have to come to an orderly division. If they don’t want to come to the table with us, we’ll do it unilaterally.”

Even for many of the country’s 12.6 million inhabitants, the imminent end of their country might come as a surprise.

The hard-fought battles between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south have cooled in recent years. 

Flemish citizens, once the underdog despite outnumbering their French-speaking counterparts, now have the language rights and the political competences they long asked for. 

“For many, the battle is somewhat fought,” said Karl Drabbe, a publisher with roots in the Flemish movement. Within the federal state of Belgium, the regions now have wide powers over the delivery of education, agriculture policy and transport. 

“That has not led to earth-shattering leaps forward — on the contrary,” said Drabbe. The appetite for mounting “the barricades” for “big steps in state reform” is therefore limited, he said. 

But the leaders of Vlaams Belang don’t just rely on their pro-independence policy for support. 

BELGIUM NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

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For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Rise of the right

Across the EU, the far-right has risen in recent months as the bloc battles with immigration, slow growth and high inflation. Populist and anti-establishment parties have won support in this context. 

Belgium is one of the European countries dealing with a major influx of asylum seekers, with numbers of arrivals similar to the migration crisis of 2015. 

In Flanders, migration is seen as the number one concern for voters, according to recent research. “Vlaams Belang owns the migration theme, which is very important to a lot of Flemish voters,” said Nicolas Bouteca, an associate professor at the University of Ghent. “That is the main reason for their success.”

For Bart De Wever, the president of the Flemish nationalist party N-VA, “the same trend is happening across all of Europe right now.” 

There is “a wave of tremendous unease” among citizens who feel “economically abandoned by their own elites,” he told POLITICO. “And as unfair as you may find that, the far right is capitalizing.” In the polls, his party, the N-VA, is now the second biggest in Flanders, after Vlaams Belang.

Potential voters for Vlaams Belang see migration as the most important political issue, followed by taxes and the economy. A reform of the Belgian state is significantly less relevant to them, according to the same research. 

Belgium was created in a chaotic, unplanned way — en stoemelings, in the Brussels dialect. Could the country’s demise also come about by accident as a result of voters simply wanting to tackle migration? 

Van Grieken says nobody could fail to notice his party’s support for Flemish independence. “It’s not that people don’t know. It is the first point of our program,” he said. Van Grieken acknowledged that not every one of his voters might be emotionally moved by the idea of independence. “But I do know that someone who is anti-independence will not vote for my party, or for N-VA.”

The path to divorce

Van Grieken’s strategy is to become the biggest party in Flanders in the elections next June, which would give him the prerogative to choose his coalition partner for the Flemish government. Ideally for him, that would be the N-VA. Then, the Flemish government would issue a declaration of sovereignty to force the French-speaking coalition partners to negotiate the end of Belgium as it currently exists. 

There are hurdles, even if Van Grieken wins. Within the N-VA, there is fierce disagreement whether to form a government with Vlaams Belang. Such a move would break a decade-old promise of the Belgian political establishment not to govern with the far-right. Even if N-VA took the fateful step of teaming up with the far right, the French-speaking side of Belgian politics is likely to be a no-show at the negotiating table, at least to begin with. 

Still, every one of these steps would create further political instability in Belgium, and that on its own could help promote the cause of independence.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who is currently leading a difficult seven-party coalition, came into power after the 2019 election.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has been struggling to keep the governing parties on the same page on many key issues | Jonas Roosens/Belga Mag via Getty Images

That vote was followed by a tortuous 500-day search for a coalition deal, and De Croo has been struggling to keep the governing parties on the same page on key issues ever since. 

The further decline of the parties in the center at next year’s election would make forming a national coalition government even harder. Ivan De Vadder, a veteran political reporter who wrote several books about Belgian politics, fears this would create a vicious cycle.  

“Most people look at the Flemish government, because you can talk about those moves in comprehensible chess terms,” he said. “For me, what will happen at the federal level is much more explosive, because you risk a total blockade of the political institutions … That’s much more explosive for the survival of Belgium than the idea of Flanders proclaiming independence.”

Van Grieken takes the point. “It is not because there is a Flemish-national party that Belgium is imploding. It is because Belgium is not working that there is a Flemish-national party.”

Pieter Haeck contributed reporting.

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