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30 Nov 2017 | Estimated reading time: 7 minutes |
Independentism Flanders

Flanders in search of independence

Flanders in search of independence

The case of Catalonia is not isolated and Europe is likely to see history repeat itself.

All European countries have had their eyes fixed on Catalonia since the referendum on 1 October. Observers are attentive but passive, taking care not to intervene at any time in the troubles that shake the Spanish region, if not to show their support for the Government of Madrid.

This lack of enthusiasm for a potential separation between Spain and Catalonia is easy to understand when you look closely at each of these European countries that are themselves seeing their own independence movements. Fearing a form of contagion, Europe prefers to say no to Catalonia.

Let's take a look at some of the European regions that dream — just as Catalonia has — of more autonomy or even outright independence. In this article, we're interested in Flanders.

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As small as Belgium is, it also has separatists among its ranks. Moreover, the main Belgian separatist party is part of the ruling coalition at the moment. Of course, this has caused upset within the government…

The N-VA, Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliante, is a Flemish party calling for the independence of Flanders — one of the three Belgian regions. Its popularity is quite high, to such an extent that the party won the 2014 parliamentary elections with 20.36% of the vote. Even though their presence in the government has softened their separatist rhetoric, the N-VA does not miss an opportunity to recall their wishes of independence for Flanders.

The conflict in Catalonia has also allowed the Flemish separatist's media outlets to be very open and controversial — putting their stories on the front page.

History of the region

Unlike Scotland, Flanders has never been truly independent. Flanders has been integrated into the Burgundian Netherlands since 1384. Until the independence of Belgium in 1830, the Flemish region and the rest of the country we know today had passed between Spanish, Austrian and French rule.

When Belgium was created in 1830, the Flemish people felt set aside, especially at a linguistic level. This is how a Flemish movement was developed to claim the recognition of Dutch as a Belgian language (which it managed to obtain). For a long time, French remained the language of the bourgeoisie.

During World War I, linguistic concerns were such that the soldiers had a hard time understanding the officers from the bourgeoisie. This provoked the Frontbeweging movement on which Flemish nationalism is based in Belgium.

Belgium claiming its independence
Belgium gained independence in 1830

Independence in the region

In between the two Great Wars, a group called Verdinaso was created in 1931 and another called Vlaams National Verbond (Flemish National league) in 1933, with the aim of developing an independent Flemish state. These two movements would collaborate enormously with the Nazis during the Second World War, which culminated in the leaders from these organisations going to prison once the war was over.

A new political party was born in 1954 called the Volksunie. This Flemish organisation experienced almost immediate success, allowing it to return to Belgian political life quickly. However, this party  — that combines both separatist and federalist tendencies — eventually dismantled in 2001. Its members then joined different parties, some of whom welcomed their independence objectives, such as the Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) and the N-VA.

The party, ancestor of the NVA
The Flemish party "Volksunie" was born in 1954

Meanwhile, the region gained a greater degree of autonomy with the creation of a Flemish Council in 1980, which would eventually be called “parliament” in 2005. Gradually, this assembly was given more and more autonomy in light of the rise of the Flemish nationalist parties.

From 2004–2008, Vlaams Belang was the second biggest party in Flanders with particularly good election results. This populist right-wing party advocating Flemish nationalism, however, were too extreme and did not always meet the expectations of the Flemings who now prefer the N-VA.

In 2010, the N-VA began to make a name for itself, scaring the other Belgian parties after its success in the federal legislative elections. Its iconic leader, Bart De Wever, was elected senator. This new arrival at the top of the Flemish nationalist party led the country to an unprecedented political crisis since Belgium remained without government for 541 days because the parties failed to reach an agreement.

The separatists then found themselves in competition, but their popularity rating did not diminish too much. Thus in 2014, after once again winning at elections, they formed a government with a French speaking party and two other Flemish parties and still in office today.

Bart De Wever, the iconic president of the NVA
Victory for the Flemish Nationalist Party in the elections in 2010

Current situation in Belgium

As surprising as it is, Belgium is partly run by a political organisation that is fighting for its dismantling. Although the N-VA advocates confederation, the party ultimately aims for a pure and simple separation of Flanders from Wallonia.

According to the latest polls, dating back to September 2017, the N-VA remains the largest party in Flanders thanks to its 30.2% share of voting intentions. The presence of the party’s more moderate rhetoric did not detract from its popularity.

Contrary to what one might think, even if the Flemish nationalist party is in the lead in the polls, separatism is desired only by a minority of people in the north of the country. Moreover, the polls bode well for the future of the country since they show that independence is half as strong among the youngest.

It is important to point out that even though the Flemish nationalist party has several ministers and secretaries of state to its credit, it does not hesitate to sometimes go against governmental decision-making as was the case in this scenario. October in the context of the Catalan conflict.

Flemish nationalists have lent their support to Catalonia
Flemish nationalists showed a lot of sympathy for the Catalans

Position taken in relation to the Catalan conflict

Although the Belgian Prime Minister condemned the police violence that took place during the referendum and angered the Spanish government during one of his speeches, the head of the government of the flat country hastened to clarify his position and to affirm that he and his ministers supported Madrid.

However, he did not hesitate in Belgium to show his support for Catalan separatists, even within the government. In this conflict, members of the Flemish Nationalist Party (N-VA) saw an opportunity to put forward the cause they defend, namely the independence of Flanders.

The president of the Flemish region — a member of the separatist party — declared "to be jealous of the Catalans". Another member of the N-VA welcomed the declaration of independence made by the Catalan Parliament and "encouraged Europe and the international community to respect this decision".

Also, the Secretary of State for Asylum (also from the Flemish separatist party) invited Catalan separatists to take refuge in Belgium during an interview on TV.

Flemish cartoon envying the Catalans
The president of the N-VA envies the Catalans

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