Since the Lisbon Treaty came into force last December, the European Union (EU) has the status of a genuine state. This new state now threatens the existence of multinational states such as Belgium, the United Kingdom and Spain. Peoples such as the Flemings in Belgium, the Scots in the UK, the Catalans in Spain, would rather be provinces of the federal EU than of the federal or devolved states to which they currently belong.
That is the main lesson to be drawn from Belgium’s general elections on June 13. The Belgian elections showed an unprecedented 44% of the electorate in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of Belgium, voting for Flemish independence. The Flemings expressed their support for the two Flemish-nationalist parties. 31.7% of the Flemings voted for the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (New Flemish Alliance, N-VA) and 12.3% for Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest, VB).
The Flemings constitute a 60% majority in Belgium, a country which since its establishment in 1830 has been dominated by its French-speaking minority. Belgium is a state with two different peoples under one roof. The country has two separate sets of political parties: one set for the Dutch-speaking Flemings, the other for the French-speaking Walloons in the south of the country. The Walloons vote predominantly socialist because they favor an expansion of the welfare state; the Flemings are more conservative and favor a limited state with fewer taxes.
While the center-right N-VA won in Flanders, the Parti Socialiste (PS) led by Elio Di Rupo, a 59-year old homosexual of Italian origin, won 35.8% of the vote in Wallonia. Flanders is a country of self-employed entrepreneurs; In Wallonia most of the working population are on the government payroll or on the dole. The Flemish-Walloon quarrel is not just about language, but mostly about money. The Flemings, who pay most of Belgium’s taxes and favor tax decreases, resent that their money is being spent on welfare addicts in French-speaking Wallonia who favor tax increases on the entrepreneurial segment of the population.
It is easy for Mr. Di Rupo to promise his Walloon voters more government subsidies, as the Flemings have to pay the bulk of the bill. Belgium has two sets of political parties, but one single welfare system. Five years ago, N-VA leader Bart De Wever drove a convoy of twelve trucks loaded with 226 million euros in fake €50 banknotes from Flanders to Wallonia, to protest against the annual gravy train from Flanders to Wallonia.
Today, with the N-VA as the biggest party in Flanders and the PS having consolidated its position as the biggest party in Wallonia, Mr. De Wever and Mr. Di Rupo are trying to form a new Belgian government. It is the rule in Belgian politics that governments are made up of coalitions which include the largest party from each side of the country. The Belgian Constitution requires that half the government ministers are Flemings and the other half French-speakers. This 50-50 rule, which is called the “parity” clause, also applies to top posts in the army, the judiciary, and the administration. The parity clause, combined with the constitutional requirement that all major decisions need a parliamentary majority in both parts of the country, was introduced by Belgium’s French-speaking establishment to guarantee that the 60% Flemish majority would never be able to “impose its will on Wallonia.” The result has been that the socialist majority in Wallonia imposes its will on Flanders by vetoing every attempt to reform the Belgian welfare system and the Belgian constitutional system.
It will be a tough job for De Wever, a 39-year old historian, to get Di Rupo accept the reforms which the N-VA has promised its voters. Observers are skeptical of De Wever’s chances of success. As a token of his goodwill towards Wallonia, however, De Wever has offered the post of Prime Minister to Di Rupo, despite the fact that the latter hardly speaks Dutch, the language of the majority of the Belgians, and despite the fact that De Wever, since his N-VA is Belgium’s largest party, can claim the post of Prime Minister for himself.
Three years ago, in 2007, it took Belgium’s politicians more than six months to put together a government. The efforts resulted in a coalition led by the Flemish Christian-Democrat Yves Leterme. This coalition, which included Di Rupo’s PS, had a huge majority in Wallonia but was a minority government in Flanders. It was voted into office on Dec. 23, 2007, with the support of De Wever, who voted “yes” despite not being part of the government, because Belgium urgently needed a government during the global economic crisis.
Though the N-VA aims for the dissolution of Belgium, De Wever is not a revolutionary. Shortly before the June 13 elections, and immediately afterwards, he gave press conferences to the international media to reassure them and the financial markets that the N-VA victory would not lead to political risks or instability. Bart De Wever is a European federalist. He wants Belgium to “evaporate” into the European Union. For De Wever Belgium is the prototype of the European Union as a federal state. With the EU becoming a federal state in its own right, De Wever sees no point in Flanders and Wallonia being member states of a federal Belgium which in turn is a member state of a federal EU state. Hence, his aim is to transfer all the powers of the Belgian federal level to the EU, until no powers are left at the Belgian level and all powers have either been devolved to Flanders and Wallonia or delegated to the EU. The ultimate result would be that Belgium ceases to exist (“evaporates” in N-VA language) and that Flanders and Wallonia become direct member states of a federal EU.
De Wever’s strategy appeals strongly to nationalists in Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, the Basque provinces, and other autonomous, semi-autonomous, and autonomy-aspiring regions, who all perceive themselves as constituting provinces of a federal Europe.
De Wever’s enthusiasm for a federal Europe is the main difference between his own N-VA and the Vlaams Belang party. The VB aims for an independent and sovereign Flanders. It wants to liberate Flanders from Belgium as well as from the EU. For the VB, replacing Brussels (the capital of Belgium) by Brussels (the capital of the EU) is not an option. Its model for Flanders is Switzerland and it wants the EU to be no more than a confederation at best.
In 2004 the VB still had the electoral support of 24% of the Flemings, but its support has dwindled to almost half that figure. It seems that Flemings who oppose Belgium believe that De Wever will do a better job at liberating them by “evaporating” Belgium into Europe, than the VB which wants to undertake the Herculean task of bringing down both Belgium and the EU.
If De Wever can convince Di Rupo that supplanting Belgium by Europe is also in the interest of the Walloon Socialists, because Wallonia will be able to extract as many subsidies from the EU as it does from Flanders, Belgium’s next government centered on N-VA and PS might prove to be unexpectedly stable and to be the most outspoken international proponent of European federalization. De Wever and Di Rupo hope to succeed in forming a government by September 1.
If the tandem De Wever-Di Rupo fails, however, Belgium might be holding new elections within the year and the Flemish-nationalists might flock back to the VB.