Conjugal relations between Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northerners and French-speaking southerners were rocky even before they went into lockdown together. Now, for the Flemish nationalists, the testy North-South bickering over how to handle the recovery from the coronavirus crisis is yet another sign that this relationship is over.
Arguments about bailouts and timetables for reopening the economy are only inflaming gripes among the richer Flemish that they are going to be paying the bills for the poorer Francophone communities over long years of rebuilding.
Even the smallest things spark talk of divorce. One unlikely recent triggerpoint for Flemish fury has been the decision to give part of a main road in central Brussels over to a bike lane. That eco-friendly scheme was a signal to Theo Francken, a senior politician in the N-VA, the biggest Flemish nationalist party, that the country is hurtling toward a break-up.
His chief objection was that the bike lane on Rue de la Loi discriminated against the 300,000 people from Flanders, who commute into Brussels each day, many of them by car. (While voters in Flanders have veered to the separatist right, voters in Brussels and French-speaking Wallonia have plumped for leftist and Green candidates.) Francken said the bike lane would only exacerbate the divide between Flanders and the city of Brussels. “Sooner or later, this will lead to a rupture,” he argued.
To deal with the epidemic, politicians had set aside their differences by opting for a short-term government led by Sophie Wilmès.
He added that the increase in teleworking because of the health crisis would only widen the schism with Brussels. “Maybe we should let that happen. Bye bye Belgium,” he tweeted.
The Flemish nationalists are out to put the debate over whether Belgium can work as a nation on top of the agenda again.
Belgium entered the coronavirus crisis amid a domestic political crisis. Since polarizing elections in May 2019, the two biggest parties on each side, the Flemish nationalists and the socialists from the South, had been unable to agree on a government. To deal with the epidemic, politicians had set aside their differences by opting for a short-term government led by Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès.
Now that Belgium has started the first phase of its exit strategy out of the lockdown, politicians are finding that the old political crisis is more virulent than ever. “There is no trust established between party leaders during this crisis, on the contrary,” said someone close to the talks.
The pandemic is sparking renewed calls for reforms to the state structure. Health care is divided between the federal and regional governments, which has led to miscommunication about topics ranging from visitors in nursing homes to who is responsible for tracking and tracing infected people.
“The division of powers in Belgium is a ratatouille,” said Peter De Roover, the N-VA’s leader in parliament. “That leads to inefficiency, such as the various ministers who are in charge of the supplies of face masks. This crisis only confirmed what we’ve been saying for years: The structure of this country is too complex.”
As Bart Maddens, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Leuven, put it: “This faultline is constantly present during this crisis … The dysfunctions in our state structure have become even more exposed.”
These complaints over the health system echo those about the country’s regionalized, hydra-headed security apparatus, whose fragmented communications were exposed by the successful attacks launched by Belgium-based jihadis in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016.
All about the money
Flanders and Wallonia were already at loggerheads over how to handle the lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic. While the South wanted to follow France’s example and close the schools as soon as possible, Flanders (whose economy is more than twice the size of Wallonia’s) was more reluctant. The same discussion re-emerged on the reopening of the schools.
Before the coronavirus hit, the N-VA was willing to temporarily shelve its demands for greater Flemish competences to find a way out of the political crisis. But that no longer seems to be the case.
“This country is very difficult with its fragmented powers,” the N-VA party chief Bart De Wever said on Belgian television, slamming the current administration in Belgium as a “crippled horse.”
“Let’s use the corona crisis to make a new Belgium. A Belgium 2.0,” he said.
His vision is for a “confederalist” Belgium, in which Flanders and Wallonia would not exactly be independent but would only give such powers as they want to the federal government. De Wever insists this model would also make sense for Wallonia but French-speaking parties see no reason to dimantle the state further.
Even in Flanders itself, De Wever doesn’t have too many allies for his confederal plans.
Other Flemish parties insist that citizens are concerned about keeping their jobs and not about holding a big debate on the future of Belgium. They point out how well the Belgian health care system has managed to cope during the crisis.
As ever, things boil down to money as the highly indebted Belgian economy is in a nosedive.
“Rebuilding the economy is the priority at this stage,” said Maddens. “But if you try to tackle the economy you immediately run into the division between Flanders and Wallonia. Proposals by the Francophone left such as taxing wealth will be opposed by Flemish right-wing parties because such a tax would be largely financed by the Flemish middle class. The N-VA can convince its supporters to temporarily put its demands for a structural reform aside. But at the same time letting Flanders pay the bill for a leftist economic recovery policy is electoral suicide.”
When asked about who is going to pay for the recovery, De Wever said that “if you were to follow the PS (the French-speaking socialist party), that would be all those who work, save and run businesses. In short: the Flemish,” he said in an interview.
“It’s about who gets the money and who picks up the check for that money,” De Roover added. “In the past weeks, the Flemish government has been pushing to restart the economy whereas the left has been more careful. That’s no coincidence. Employment in the private sector is higher in Flanders. If we start taxing the wealthy to support inactivity that would be an extra transfer from North to South.”
Enemies to the left, enemies to the right
Nevertheless, the N-VA is walking a tightrope, and there’s no immediate sense of how, despite their heightened rhetoric, the party can actually break the country’s impasse.
On the one hand, doing a deal with the French-speaking socialists is unappetizing. But another election is also a threat to De Wever as he is being challenged in his own northern strongholds by the far-right Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest).
“The most realistic option to get out of the current crisis is that N-VA and PS look each other square in the eye,” said De Roover. “But we haven’t received many signs yet that they are ready to do just that.”
The more the Flemish nationalists press forward with a center-right economic policy and a reform of the state, the less likely it is that they will be able to start talks with the French socialists, the biggest party in the south of the country.
That may prove the N-VA right that the Belgian state doesn’t work anymore, but it doesn’t give them any power to actually break the deadlock.
A new election would certainly be a gamble for the fate of the nation.
“New elections would probably lead to a situation where the N-VA and Vlaams Belang account for half of the votes in Flanders,” said Peter Vyncke, a Flemish entrepreneur whose energy company employs almost 400 people globally.
“But maybe it’s time that we sort out the Belgian model for once and for all. This crisis doesn’t change the world — it just speeds up evolutions that were bound to happen anyway. Just like we’re getting more used to teleworking and virtual meetings, we might have to acknowledge a little sooner than expected that Belgium is doomed to cease to exist.”