On the evening of Sunday 13 June 2010, Bart de Wever was dressed the way he always dresses: dark grey suit, white shirt, no tie, his hair parted like a catholic schoolboy’s – an image much accentuated by his round, butterball figure – as he entered a teaming, flag-waving crowd in a conference hall somewhere in Brussels, Belgium, to the thumping of I Got A Feeling (That Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night) by the Black Eyed Peas.
It was election night and De Wever had won. His New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a conservative-nationalist party that believes Flanders should be an independent state within a federated Europe, was about to become the biggest in the country as final results were coming in. Three years earlier, the party was deemed hardly viable. “Nil volentibus arduum,” De Wever announced after climbing the podium, arms raised in the air. “Nothing is impossible, if you really want to.”
Nothing, except perhaps for forming a new government. Or they must not really want to. For after one whole year of fierce negotiations – a Guinness World Record – it seems impossible that they ever will.
De Wever is an easy target. Aside from his looks (he once admitted to having the appearance of a dead fish), his politics are less than fashionable. He’s a separatist. No romantic Braveheart fighting forces of oppression, but, in the eyes of his opponents, the selfish leader of a rich majority turning its back on the rest of the country. He is socially conservative and economically neoliberal. And, most importantly, he’s a nationalist. Flemish nationalism has always had a whiff of the nasty kind. It collaborated with the German occupation. Many a Flemish nationalist went to fight at the Eastern Front.
But contrary to what some might have you believe, De Wever is no nazi. Nor is he similar to today’s xenophobic populists like Le Pen, Wilders or Dewinter, the leader of the neo-fascist Flemish Interest, whose ancestor, Flemish Block, has been barred and convicted of racism. He is an “inclusive nationalist,” as he calls it, who believes that “every individual can become a member of our community, on the condition that they respect a number of basic rules of our democracy and community values.”
One of those values is the use of their language, a variety of Dutch, whose historical emancipation from francophone rule has been long and laborious. Still today, francophone Belgians , including federal ministers, hardly speak any Flemish. The government negotiations are being held in French.
De Wever is no Mel Gibson but he does seem to consider himself something of a freedom fighter. He taxied his party into the European Free Alliance, a political group of parties in Europe – mostly left-progressive – for the self-determination of stateless peoples such as the Republican Left of Catalonia or the Scottish National Party. Its current chairman is a member of the N-VA.
Yet independence, De Wever is ever eager to emphasize, is not his immediate objective. He believes in evolution, he says, not revolution. He is after a next, big step in the constant devolution of power that is the history of Belgium. Its structures are outdated, he says, and don’t correspond anymore to the reality of two separate democracies, each with its own specific problems, preferences, politics and public opinion. He likes to quote EU Commissioner Karel de Gucht, of the Flemish liberals, who supposedly has said that “Belgium is in fact a permanent diplomatic conference.”
The Flemish demand more autonomy, the francophones resist. It has been that way since 1830, when Belgium was created as a unitary, francophone state. Normally, they would push and pull until some sort of reform package was agreed upon that both sides could live with. Until this time.
The francophones have had enough. They used to fear a loss of power; today they fear a loss of money. They wallow in outrage at the preposterous proposals on the table. What is to them a far-reaching state reform is to the Flemish a drop in the ocean. The differences are simply too big.
It is easy to blame De Wever, the chubby nationalist. The francophones unanimously do. Some Flemish do as well. But it is also wrong. The divide is as broad as it is wide. Socialists, liberals and christian-democrats alike find themselves diametrically opposed to their political counterparts when it comes to state reform. De Wever only forces them to calibrate.
An agreement is as likely as Belgium winning the World Cup. If anything, it fosters frustration among the Flemish and reaffirms the assertion of De Wever that Belgium doesn’t work anymore. The only alternative are new elections. Those, according to a recent poll from across the language frontier, would have the same results. De Wever would even gain a few points. In that case, he’d better choose his victory speech more wisely.