The Flemish: the outliers of Europe’s independence movements?
In Flanders, centre-right and far-right parties dominate the politics of Flemish independence, in stark contrast to Europe’s other pro-independence movements. Ben Wray explores what’s behind the Flemish exception.
In July, 400 migrants and refugees agreed a tentative deal with the Belgian Government to bring an end to their nearly two month long hunger strike for residency status. The hunger strike nearly brought down the Belgian coalition government, with several parties threatening to resign if one of the hunger strikers died.
Less sympathetic to the plight of the hunger strikers were the two Flemish independence parties which make-up the majority of the opposition in the Belgian Parliament. Vlaams Belang (‘Flemish Interest’) said the government had given in to the “blackmail policy” of the hunger strikers.
“After their recovery, work must be done on their deportation,” Barbara Pas, Vlaams Belang group leader, demanded.
The more mainstream N-VA (‘New Flemish Alliance’) was hardly more sympathetic, calling for anyone who goes on hunger-strike in the future to be blacklisted from citizenship.
“This blackmail has to stop,” Theo Francken of the N-VA said.
It’s almost impossible to imagine similar remarks being made by any other pro-independence party in Europe, which all tend to bend in a progressive direction when it comes to the question of migrants and refugees, in direct opposition to the racism of the nation-states they seek to break away from.
In Catalonia, independence parties were key participants in one of the biggest pro-refugee demonstrations in European history in 2017, when over 160,000 marched to demand the Spanish Government accept more refugees from war-torn Syria. In Scotland, the right to vote for refugees was backed by all pro-indy parties. In Ireland, Sinn Féin is leading calls in the north and south to take in more Afghan refugees. The Basques, the Galicians and the Welsh are no less progressive.
Are the Flemish the outliers of Europe’s independence movements? And if so, why?
Linguistic repression and the emergence of Flemish nationalism
To understand modern Flemish nationalism, we have to start from the origins of the Belgian state. The Belgian revolution of 1830 led to the secession of the southern provinces of the United Kingdom of Netherlands into an independent Kingdom of Belgium, divided between Flanders in the north, where a dialect of Dutch (Flemish) is spoken, and French-speaking Wallonia in the south.
The new state was thoroughly Francophone and made French the official language for the whole country, with Dutch banned in schools and universities. The exclusively French-speaking elites were naturally perceived to favour Wallonia, which was developing industrially, with large coal deposits, while Flanders remained largely agrarian. The Flemish had participated just as vigorously in the revolution, but the new Belgian Francophone state and Wallonia’s faster development laid the foundations for a ground-swell of Flemish discontent.
There’s no doubt that during this period the Flemish were discriminated against by the Belgian state. One of Belgium’s co-founder’s, Alexandre Gendebien, said they were “one of the more inferior races on the Earth, just like the negroes”. Another co-founder, Charles Rogier, said that “it is necessary that all civil and military functions are entrusted to Walloons and Luxemburgers; this way, the Flemish, temporarily deprived of the advantages of these offices, will be constrained to learn French, and we will hence destroy bit by bit the Germanic element in Belgium.”
This linguistic repression mapped onto class antagonisms in Flanders.
“The French-speaking bourgeoisie was not a Walloon bourgeoisie, it was largely a Flemish bourgeoisie which used French as a specific social marker distinguishing them from the common people,” Erwin, a member of the pro-independence Flemish Socialist Movement (‘Vlaams-Socialistiche Beweging’), tells Bella.
“The Flemish movement should not be understood as an anti-Walloon movement,” Erwin adds. “It was and still is more of a class struggle within the Flemish people.”
It was not until 1931 that Dutch was accepted as the official language of Flanders, despite the fact it was and remains the majority language in Belgium. In Brussels, 95% of residents spoke Dutch before the Belgian revolution, but that has now shrunk to just 16%. Even today, although both languages officially are on an equal-footing, Dutch still tends to be treated as a second-class language within the Belgian capital, Erwin, a resident of the city, says.
Repression of the Dutch language motivated Flemish nationalism into life, at first mainly as a cultural movement, only taking a political character in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Flemish movement was heterogenous from the start, on the one hand characterised by Catholic Church reactionaries who feared the spread of the ideas of the French Revolution to Flanders, and on the other by the emergent Flemish working class who associated socialism with the struggle for linguistic rights.
“Flemish socialist workers did identify with Flanders and supported the Flemish movement’s demands for ‘dutchification’,” Flemish historian Bruno De Wever has written.
Flemish resistance and collaboration in the world wars
These tensions and contradictions of Flemish nationalism burst into life in the cauldron of the first and second world wars, when Belgium was twice occupied by invading German armies.
“The army, which was majority Flemish, for the first time brought the people into contact with the reality of the Belgian state,” Erwin says. “They were confronted by monolingual French speaking officers.”
A semi-clandestine Flemish nationalist movement of soldiers, ‘the Front Movement’, emerged, and faced severe repression from Belgian officers. The radical part of the Front Movement was explicitly leftist, and its demands included self-government for Flanders. As the war was coming to an end in late 1918, with an enormous loss of life in the trenches, the Front Movement was agitating for an armed uprising to seize control of Flanders by force, but it never materialised. The radicals did not have the support of the whole movement, as the pacifist section, led by Catholic conservatives, sought to delay the pursuit of Flemish national demands until after the war.
A generation of Flemish nationalists had been radicalised by the war experience, and polarised in in the inter-war years, with the Catholic conservatives moving towards the far-right and the leftists into the communist party. In the second world war, many Flemish communists died fighting Nazism, while some far-right Flemish nationalists collaborated with the Nazi occupation, although they were by no means the only collaborators, perhaps the most important being Belgium’s king, Leopold III. Post-war, the Flemish movement was tainted by its war-time associations with collaborationism, and became largely dormant until the 1960s.
The post-war era saw the tables turn between Flanders and Wallonia. Flanders developed a strong services sector and became an important international trade hub, with the port of Antwerp the second largest in Europe. It is now one of the wealthiest regions on the continent, surpassing Wallonia by some distance, which went into crisis as heavy industry declined from the 1970s onwards. A steady stream of constitutional reforms began from 1970, and by 1995 Flanders had its own parliament with significant federal powers. The centre of gravity within Belgium began to shift from south to north.
With Flanders now the dominant economic region, with 68% of the Belgian population and serious political leverage, the politics of Belgium was transformed. Taxes raised in Flanders paying for social security in Wallonia fuelled right-wing resentments. And as the European Union expanded to include Eastern Europe from 2004 onwards, immigration to wealthy Flanders grew, with Romanians and Poles the second and third largest groups of foreign residents in the region (after the Dutch). Meanwhile, the French-speaking minority in Flanders continued to grow, supported by government language facilities, generating frustration among some Flemish that the Dutch was still in decline despite being the official language of Flanders. These were some of the building blocks for the rise of right-wing Flemish nationalism.
The crisis of the Belgian state and contemporary Flemish nationalism
“There is a crisis of the legitimacy of the Belgian state, because it is increasingly unable to represent itself as the embodiment of the general interest,” Erwin argues. “It’s cultural hegemony has eroded.”
Readers will be familiar with this argument in the UK context, where political representation is increasingly divided along national lines. But Belgian politics takes this to a new level. There are Flemish parties and there are Walloon parties – Belgian parties are almost non-existent. The exception is the Workers Party of Belgium, ex-Maoists who are the only representatives of the Belgian Parliament to be in a party constituted on a pan-Belgian, bilingual basis. The rest – and there are many parties – can only claim to represent one-half of Belgium.
The result is a governing politics of coalitions (there are seven parties in the current government) with the constant possibility that government will either fall apart or will not be able to be formed at all. From 2010-11, Belgium went 589 days without a government, a record which was broken in 2020 when 592 days passed since the previous government collapsed in December 2018 before the present administration was formed, in October 2020. The Belgian state lives a crisis-prone existence, leading to obvious questions about whether it would not be better if it did not exist at all, with Flanders and Wallonia going their separate ways.
The parties which have most effectively taken advantage of the Belgian state’s crisis of legitimacy are the right-wing Flemish independence parties, N-VA and Vlaams Belang.
The N-VA was established in 2001, with its principal reason for existence being Flemish independence. It started life with a broadly small-c conservative programme on social and economic questions. The party became the leading force in a coalition government in Belgium for the first time in 2014, and has been the party with the most seats in Belgium since 2010. As N-VA became a governing party of the Belgian state it moved to the right and de-emphasised the question of Flemish independence, instead promoting the idea of a confederal solution. Since it left power in 2018, it has began to bang the independence drum again.
“Not only is the traditional Francophone bourgeoisie not interested in Flemish independence, neither is the new Flemish sub-bourgeoisie, which is where N-VA’s core support comes from,” Erwin argues.
“N-VA likes to claim it is for Flemish independence for electoral purposes, but it knows that a real break with the Belgian state is something they cannot permit.”
Vlaams Belang is a party which has its roots in a far-right sub-culture which survived after the second world war on the extreme fringes of Flemish nationalism. It began to re-establish itself as an independent political force in the late 1970s, and in the 1980s-90s its support grew through anti-immigrant populism, taking inspiration from the National Front (now called ‘National Rally’) in France. It calls for the repatriation of immigrants who “reject, deny or combat” Flemish culture and attacks the “Islamisation of Europe”.
The party made its first big electoral breakthrough in 1991, when it was still known as Vlaams Blok (‘Flemish bloc’). It was forced to change its name after it was condemned for racism by a Belgian court in 2004. Vlaams Belang achieved it’s best result in 2007, winning 12% of the vote in the Belgian elections, before entering a period of decline when N-VA was on the rise. However, the party benefited from disappointment with N-VA’s spell in office from 2014-2018, and in the most recent 2019 elections it recovered almost all of its previous strength, becoming the third largest party in the Belgian parliament. Vlaams Belang has always been in opposition and thus has been more consistent than N-VA in backing Flemish independence, but according to Erwin “the theme of racism has always been stronger in its rhetoric than the theme of independence”.
Vlaams Belang is the main political pressure point on N-VA, which has responded to the party’s challenge by following them to the right, especially on the question of immigration. Both parties also compete with one another to express anti-establishment sentiment more broadly, in an era of rising inequality and stagnating living standards. A dangerous dynamic between centre-right and far-right now dominates Flemish nationalism.
Weakness of the Flemish movement
There has been a failure to build a pro-independence left alternative to N-VA and Vlaams Belang, either in a party form or in the movement. Rather than stressing the movement’s independence from the parties, the Flemish People’s Movement (‘Vlaams Volksbeweging’), one of the main pro-indy social organisation’s in Flanders, has advocated an uncritical unity.
Vlaams Volksbeweging’s chairman Hugo Maes justifies this strategy by pointing to opinion polls, showing Vlaams Belang are set to be the largest party, and N-VA the second largest, after the next Belgian election.
“From the Flemish People’s Movement we call on all Flemish nationalists, party political or not, to join forces unconditionally,” Maes wrote in July. “Does the next election result not look attractive?”
Erwin is critical of the movement’s political deference to N-VA and Vlaams Belang.
“They are very focused on political parties and what political parties are doing, instead of trying to advance their own agenda,” he tells Bella. “There is also a tendency to want to get everyone together into one big organisation, no matter if they are centrist, conservative or far-right, which of course means as soon as you have the far-right within these organisations you repel others, so this handicaps the movement’s popular appeal and limits its horizons.”
He attributes the weakness of the movement to deep-seated changes in Flemish society.
“There’s been a weakening of the social movement in the neoliberal era which has created a certain depoliticisation of Flemish society. The weakness of the labour movement, for example, which was always in favour of greater Flemish autonomy, has weakened the capacity to organise. Plus, much of Flemish nationalist civil society has been co-opted by the N-VA, in terms of jobs and so forth.”
A December 2019 poll showed support for Flemish independence at 37%, down from 40% a decade earlier. Right-wing Flemish nationalism may have been successful in building support for its own parties, but it’s not clear that it is capable of winning a majority to independence.
Another politics of Flemish independence is possible
Contemporary Flemish nationalism should serve as a warning to independence movements across Europe: there are no guarantees that the politics of independence will take on a progressive character. Mainstream nationalist parties like the N-VA are shaped by their own political tradition, but they will also respond to the pressure they are put under by rival parties and the social movement: if that pressure comes from the far-right rather than the left, they will bend in that direction.
That does not mean the Flemish independence cause should be abandoned by the left. Flemish history shows that another pro-independence tradition – socialist and anti-fascist – has played an important role in the past, and there is no reason why it could not do so in the future. N-VA and Vlaams Belang have both proven themselves to be unreliable advocates for Flemish independence, not prepared to pursue that goal in practise and much more focused on demonising minorities. The space exists for a more principled, progressive independence politics.
Ultimately, it is the chronic crisis of the Belgian state which has driven the anti-establishment sentiment which N-VA and Vlaams Belang have capitalised on. That crisis will not be resolved by the left flinching from independence just because the current constellation of political power in Flanders favours the right-wing. Flanders can be won to another politics of Flemish independence, one that stands unconditionally against racism and fascism.
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