BRUSSELS – Scotland’s independence vote inspires Flemish nationalists with hope but, with negotiations under way on forming a new Belgian government, they also have reason to tread carefully, analysts say.
Born in 1830 as an independent state to act as a buffer between France and Germany, Belgium is an uneasy combination of two parts, with Flanders, the Flemish-speaking, more conservative north, critical of the French-speaking, left-leaning south.
Those differences have become even more pronounced in recent years, with Flemish nationalist sentiment more powerful than ever.
It latest political incarnation, Bart De Wever’s New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), won a third of the votes in Flanders in elections in May, emerging as the country’s single largest party.
As such, the N-VA, which supports independence for Flanders in the long term, is set to be the cornerstone of the new right-leaning federal government that is now being formed.
De Wever has nevertheless refused the post of prime minister, preferring to continue pulling the strings from his mayor’s post in Antwerp.
If one adds the N-VA’s 33 percent vote to the 6 percent of the Vlaams Belang far-right separatist party, “you see that anti-Belgian sentiment enjoys nearly a majority in Flanders,” where 60 percent of Belgium’s 11 million people live, according to historian Bruno De Wever, brother of the N-VA leader.
If the Scottish National Party wins Thursday’s referendum on independence from the United Kingdom or “scores a good result, that could inspire the base of the N-VA,” political scientist Dave Sinardet said.
But if that happens, the Flemish nationalist leaders must continue to be discreet, partly for tactical political reasons but also because of basic differences in what they want in the near term.
Pursuing a conservative economic agenda, the N-VA is seeking to implement a Belgian version of the free-market reforms that were introduced by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
In Scotland, the SNP is pushing for independence to distance itself from her Conservative successors in London.
Highlighting the clear difference in political orientation, the N-VA has joined forces with Britain’s Conservative Party in the European Parliament.
On the ground, too, there are significant differences. Flanders in the last few decades has obtained much greater powers than Scotland and has for years dominated the political and economic scene in Belgium.
If the two movements do have points in common — they both believe that their room for maneuver is blocked by central government officials for whom they have never voted — that is not enough to make for a shared drive for independence.
“There is little appetite for the economic uncertainties of a separatist adventure,” said the Flemish daily De Morgen, which believes a referendum on independence for Flanders would be lost.
For Flemish nationalists, a more realistic perspective that Belgium would become a confederation where Flanders would enjoy almost complete autonomy without breaking up the country.
If they prove that once in government they are efficient managers, N-VA strategists believe they could emerge strengthened from elections in 2019 and then make a big push for a confederation.
“They would have a chance of winning that,” Sinardet said.
Another scenario, completely the reverse but with the same outcome, may also be possible.
Incensed by governments dominated by the Flemish right, the more left-leaning French-speakers might “revolt,” according to Flemish journalist Guido Fonteyn.
“Bart De Wever and the N-VA will then say that no workable strategy is possible with (French-speaking) Wallonia. And then the N-VA will plead for a ‘Staat van Vlaanderen,’ ” a Flemish state with its capital in Antwerp.
That is, unless the French speakers themselves end up demanding the end of Belgium in its present form, according to Flemish political scientist Bart Maddens. “If there is a Thatcherite policy for 20 years, then we Flemish might expect that a majority of Wallons say ‘yes’ to independence,” he said.