After Separatist Gain, Is the End of Belgium Near?

Most observers deem it unlikely

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Over the weekend, Belgian elections saw the country's Flemish separatist party--the New Flemish Alliance, or NVA--gain seats, becoming the largest party in parliament and rendering the country's politics interesting even to those not following the minutiae of Continental elections. World observers are now assessing whether Belgium could split up, altering the lines on the European map.

Here are the best attempts of the blogosphere at explaining what happened over the weekend, and what's likely to happen from here. The general consensus is that while this development is significant, no one should expect a French-Flemish two-country split just yet.

  • Not Just About Language, Not Just About Class  FiveThirtyEight's Renard Sexton does his best to bust open common oversimplifications while untangling the mess of Belgian politics. It's not simply French-speakers versus Flemish-speakers, he writes: there's "an extremely important economic element. To put it simply, Flanders is one of the wealthier regions of Europe, with a largely high-value export-oriented economy ... while Wallonia, whose rich coal and iron mines once brought wealth, has suffered from rust-belt syndrome since WWII, bringing lower incomes and higher unemployment." Yet at the same time, there's a powerful political component as a parliamentary system with a complicated array of parties and platforms tries to assemble a workable government.
  • The Political Part: Why Separation Not Quite on the Table  The Economist's Charlemagne blog goes a bit deeper into the political issues.  Bart De Wever,  head of the separatists, is advocating a "confederation," i.e. a collaboration between "two separate sovereign states" regarding foreign policy and the like. "[H]e has made no secret of his belief that this is only a step to full Flemish independence, but his genius was to position himself as the most radical of the mainstream leaders, pushing the status quo as far as it can possibly go without triggering an existential crisis." In essence, he is trying to offer the Flemish what they want: less subsidization of the south. Voters have gone for it not because they necessarily want the dissolution of Belgium, but because they, in the Economist writer's words,
have realised that the status quo is broken: it took 282 days to form a permanent coalition government after the last elections, and even after that there seemed to be prime ministerial resignations and political crises every other month. Voters knew a big power struggle was due and so they elected the toughest-looking champions they knew, to defend their interests.
  • Nothing to See Here: Business as Usual in Belgium  John Palmer at The Guardian points out that "this is not the first allegedly existential crisis that has wracked Belgium in its 180-year history." The state's creation was a bit of a patched-up job to begin with. Then, too, he says, it should be remembered that "the great majority of Flemings still voted for 'pro-Belgium' parties rather than the nationalists."
  • Separatists Might Not Even Have the Premiership, Ingrid Robeyns at Crooked Timber points out, referring to the complex parliamentary process of forming a coalition (and Belgium needs, finally, to have a stable coalition, she adds). "how NVA could possibly deliver a prime minister for a country it rather wishes to see disolved rather than strengthened, is quite paradoxical. So it's quite possible that the prime minister will be Elio di Rupo, leader of the Parti Socialiste, the biggest Francophone party."
  • Sigh  "Always so much to learn from the Euro-sophisticates," comments Mark Steyn at the National Review.
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