Election front-runner defies Belgian break-up taboo

THE favourite in Belgium's elections this weekend is running on perhaps the ultimate in divisive proposals: the break-up of the nation.

Despite its status as the home of the European Union, Belgium has long struggled with divisions between its six million Dutch-speakers and 4.5 million Francophones but, until recently, talk of a break-up has been limited to extremists.

Now, Bart De Wever of the centrist New Flemish Alliance is pressing for exactly that. What once seemed a preposterous fantasy of the political fringes has, in the mouth of a man seen as a possible prime minister, taken on an air of plausibility.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"We are in each other's face," Mr De Wever told 800 party faithful ahead of tomorrow's elections. "And together we are going downhill fast. Flanders and Wallonia must be masters of their own fate."

The consequences of a precedent-setting split would be felt in Spain: wealthy Catalonia has engaged in a long campaign for independence and Basque separatists still set off bombs in their quest for autonomy.

Italy's Northern League, which is in coalition with Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right party, has also advocated a split between the rich north and the impoverished south.

Across the nation, Dutch-speakers and Francophones have tired of the petty linguistic squabbles that have mired government after government in political stalemate.

Carving up Belgium has been a cherished dream for the far-right in Flanders, Belgium's economically dominant north, and a nightmare scenario for poorer French-speaking Wallonia.

Flanders has half the unemployment of, and a 25 per cent higher per capita income than, Wallonia, and Dutch-speakers have long complained that they are subsidising their Francophone neighbours.

De Wever's party is forecast to win 26 per cent of the vote, compared with 3.2 per cent in 2007.

That means his party will probably be the biggest in parliament with the right to try to put together a coalition government.

He advocates a gradual and orderly breakup of Belgium.

He said: "Belgium has become the sum of two different democracies, (growing apart) with ever increasing speed, in terms of language and culture, but also in socio-economic and political matters."