Will Belgium's unhappy marriage end?

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.

“It’s a totally stupid idea,” said IT consultant Stephan Pot. “I’ve nothing against our French-speaking neighbors, separating would be a big mistake.”

“Belgium is fine, most people don’t care about all this. It’s just a few who like to fight,” added student Greit De Vos.

But polls tell a different story. A recent survey released in the Belgian press showed the New Flemish Alliance was set to become the biggest party in Flanders, with 22.9 percent of the vote, a meteoric rise for a party founded just nine years ago. In the same poll, the region’s traditional powerhouse, the Christian Democratic and Flemish party of Prime Minister Yves Leterme, scored just 18.9 percent. The poll carried a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

Reasons for the swing to the separatists run deep. Many Flemings point to historical grievances dating back to the era when Belgium was dominated by a French-speaking elite, which lasted from the country’s independence from the Netherlands in 1830 until well into the 20th century.

Others complain that tax revenues from well-off Flanders are used to subsidize rust-belt cities in Wallonia, which have yet to recover from the collapse of the region’s coal and steel industries in the 1970s. Flemish nationalists complain that billions of euros are transferred every year to cover Walloon social security payments. According to EU figures, average earnings in Wallonia are about two-thirds those in Flanders, and Flemings often caricature Walloons as lazy, corrupt and unsophisticated.

The stridently anti-immigration Flemish Interest Party blames lax Belgian policies for undermining local culture by allowing tens of thousands of Muslim families from Turkey and Morocco to settle in Flanders. More complain that the spread of Francophone residents from Brussels to Dutch-speaking suburbs around the capital has similarly eroded the region’s Flemish identity. Efforts by local authorities to impose language requirements on residents have been challenged under European human rights conventions.

However, many commentators are less convinced that support for the nationalist parties reflects a genuine desire by the Flemish for a definitive break from Belgium. Instead, they see a protest against lackluster traditional politics which have been deadlocked over seemingly arcane linguistic disputes for years while failing to address voters' concerns over the economy, crime or immigration.

“A lot of it is down to charismatic politicians,” said David Van Reybrouck, a leading Flemish writer. “Whatever you think of his policies, Bart De Wever is the most charismatic figure in Belgian politics these days.”

Belgians often complain that the best mainstream leaders themselves seem disillusioned and are all too ready to swap national office for international careers. The last three prime ministers and two of the last three last foreign ministers dropped out of Belgian politics to take jobs with the European Union.

Van Reybrouck, who has written in support of maintaining a united, federal Belgium, points out some impracticalities in the idea of Flemish independence. The status of the capital city, for example, is one major obstacle to Flemish independence.

Brussels is vitally important for the Flemish economy with about 200,000 Dutch-speaking commuters flooding in every day to work. However, the overwhelming majority of Brussels’ 1 million resident population is French-speaking and hostile to any talk of incorporating the city into an independent Flanders.

“Thank goodness we have this illegitimate child to hold us together,” Van Reybrouck joked during a recent interview.

For many Flemings, even those of a nationalist persuasion, the prospect of losing Brussels is too high a price to pay for independence, meaning that Belgium is likely to limp on even if the separatists score well in the June 13 elections.