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Will Belgium's unhappy marriage end?

Despite the popularity of Flemish separatist parties, splitting Belgium could prove impractical.

Belgium Flemish independence
A Belgian girl takes part in a rally calling for the country's unity in Brussels on May 16, 2010. (Thierry Roge/Reuters)

LIER, Belgium — Flanders doesn't feel like a breeding ground of radical nationalism and separatism that threatens the first break up of a western European nation since the 1940s.

On a fine spring morning in this historic, riverside city, shoppers were more concerned with quenching their thirst with the tangy local ale or scooping up bunches of fresh asparagus in a street market than with the looming elections that could decide whether Belgium remains viable as a united country.

Like other Flemish cities, however, Lier has been ringed with yellow-and-black billboards showing the silhouette of a roaring lion and a message in bold black letters: “Flemings 1st” — the slogan of one of three separatist parties who together are expected to win almost 40 percent of the Flemish vote in Belgium’s national elections on June 13.

“Belgium is a disease and Flemish independence is the remedy,” declared Filip Dewinter, a leading candidate for Flemish Interest, the most radical of the three nationalist parties.

As the growing support for the nationalists appears to be making Belgium ungovernable, the expected electoral success for the separatists could have an impact well beyond the country’s borders. Independence movements from Scotland to northern Italy, and Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain could be looking to Flanders to lead the way.

Belgium is divided between 6 million Dutch speakers living mostly in the flat, northern lands of Flanders and 4 million French speakers concentrated in the southern region of Wallonia. In the middle, Brussels is officially bilingual, but Dutch speakers are estimated to compose less than 20 percent of the capital’s population.

Tensions between the two linguistic communities have long bedeviled Belgian politics, but in recent years the situation has worsened, undermining the much-vaunted spirit of compromise that has allowed Flemings and Francophones to govern the country together. Belgium was created in 1831 and ruled by a French-speaking aristocracy; since then Flemings have become the country's more dominant economic and political group.

The government that collapsed in April was the fifth to fall since the last elections less than three years ago. The reason for the government’s downfall is a seemingly intractable squabble over Flemish efforts to roll back minority rights granted to Francophones living in officially Dutch-speaking suburbs around Brussels.

“The current Belgian structures just do not work anymore,” said Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, the largest separatist party. “Everyone in Flanders has long known this. Now it’s time to turn words into action,” he said on the party’s website.

Strolling in the prosperous medieval centers of Flemish cities like Antwerp, Ghent or Bruges, with their chic boutiques and stylish cafes, it can be hard to grasp why politics in Dutch-speaking Belgium has taken such a radical turn. In Lier it was difficult to track down anyone voicing open support for the nationalists’ campaign to split with Belgium and replace the monarchy with a Flemish republic.