Belgian Elections: Strong Victory for NVA

by Ingrid Robeyns on June 13, 2010

First results are in, and the victory of NVA is even bigger than expected: They are the biggest party in Belgium, with about 20.8%. In the Flemish region of Belgium they have about 29% of the votes (these are partial results, the latest updates can be found by following the link, and I will post an update tomorrow).

It is difficult to describe the NVA - they are undoubtedly a nationalist party with a seperatist ideal (Flemish independence), but they need to be distinguished from the extreem-right racist Vlaams Belang (which, by the way, has lost considerably). NVA is often qualified as democratic, sometimes even ‘moderate’ – but I guess how one qualifies them depends on one’s own position on the political spectrum. In any case, the first thing Bart De Wever, the political leader, will say in interviews, is that he doesn’t dislike Francophone Belgians, but that he strongly believes that the structures of the Belgian state are rotten and need to be drastically reformed. A remarkable fact is that the ideal of NVA is a strong independent Flanders in a strong Europe – so they are not at all anti-European (in contrast to other conservative/right wing parties in Europe).

In an interview I just saw, a leading figure in NVA (Siegfried Bracke), said that he strongly believes a coalition must be formed that can lead to a win-win situation for both francophone and Flemish Belgians. In the long run that may perhaps be possible, if the drastical socio-economic reforms would lead to economic growth and a higher long-term sustainable quality of life for all Belgians; but I doubt that many will see how this win-win situation, if at all possible, will materialise in the short run.

Forming a stable coalition will prove very difficult, but Belgium desperately needs a capable government after 3 lost years. Yet how NVA could possible deliver a prime minister for a country it rather wishes to see disolved rahter than strengthened, is quite paradoxical. So it’s quite possible that the prime minister will be Elio di Rupo, leader of the Parti Socialiste, the biggest Francophone party. That would also be exceptional for Belgium, since ‘normally’ the largest party delivers the prime-minister. Yet these are probably merely details if one tries to think of all the headbreaking puzzles that will need to be solved, and disagreements that need to be overcome, to get Belgium out of the mess it’s been in for the last three years.

Update: with all votes counted, the results have changed a little. NVA has 17,4% of the votes in Belgium, followed by 13,7 for the PS (Parti Socialiste, francophone social-democrats) and 10,9 for CV&V (Flemish Christian-democrats). In Flanders the NVA has 27,8% of the votes, which is almost 10% more than the second-largest party in Flanders (CD&V, who got 17,3% of the votes in Flanders). The PS had 37,6% of the francophone votes, which is 11,4% more than the second francophone party (MR, a right-wing liberal party).



Red 06.13.10 at 7:51 pm

I noticed that Le Monde is already writing that “right-wing Flemish separatists” (NVA+Vlaams Belang, presumably) received 45% of the vote in Flanders, which demonstrates once again that they don’t understand Flemish politics. I agree with Ingrid that the NVA are hard to characterize, politically, but “ring-wing” is simply wrong, and of course they don’t form any alliance with the Vlaams Belang. Interesting times, though.


Salazar 06.13.10 at 7:55 pm

I also read Le Monde, but the same article refers to “separatists” and not “right-wing separatists.” In fact, the key sentence (my translation) reads: “Parties calling for Flemish independence in one form or another have won nearly 45% of the vote, if partial results are confirmed.”


Red 06.13.10 at 7:59 pm

Well, here’s the quote: “Au total, les divers partis de la droite nationaliste flamande enregistreraient des scores proches de 45 %” (


Salazar 06.13.10 at 8:07 pm

I understand now: I think you’re quoting from the lead article (drafted by Le Monde’s correspondent) while I was reading the smaller bit written by AFP. Still, even the lead article is careful to distinguish between NVA, the “populist right” and the “far right.”

“La NVA a ravi des voix tant à l’extrême droite qu’à la droite populiste, à son ancien allié chrétien démocrate, le CD&V et au parti libéral Open VLD, qui avait fait chuter le gouvernement d’Yves Leterme et provoqué ce scrutin anticipé.”

We can debate whether or not NVA is right-wing, right of center, or whatever else, but the correspondent seems to me to be a bit more careful than you imply.


Red 06.13.10 at 8:24 pm

All right, let’s make this more explicit. The point that I think needs to be made is that Flemish “nationalism” has long ceased to be a strictly right-wing affair. In one form or another, it can be found allover the political spectrum. Le Monde’s summary view thus misleads foreign observers trying to make sense of the vote in a European perspective; it also incorrectly suggests that NVA and Vlaams Belang could form common cause, which I think is highly unlikely.

From an international point of view, it is striking but hardly surprising that recent elections seem to indicate a “desire for change”, but not necessarily a clear turn to the right. Labor’s loss in the U.K. was inevitable. Wilders’s success in the Netherlands was less formidable than I had feared, and the left did fairly well there anyway. So do leftists in both Flanders and Wallonia.


Nicholas Whyte 06.13.10 at 8:59 pm

It is of course typical lazy journalism writing about any country’s nationalists to assume that they are right-wing. In the peculiar world of Greek Cypriot politics, to take one example, the rabid nationalists are actually the economically centrist ΔΗΚΟ, with the lefty ΑΚΕΛ more moderate and the right-wing ΔΗΣΥ more moderate still.

As for Belgium, I think Mark Eyskens makes some interesting points here: “The paradox if these elections is that a Flemish nationalist must now try to solve the Belgian problem; De Wever must weave a carpet with Elio Di Rupo and the loom is a Belgian loom” (if I get him correctly; of course the main point is that he’s making a pun on De Wever’s name).


lemuel pitkin 06.13.10 at 9:45 pm

A remarkable fact is that the ideal of NVA is a strong independent Flanders in a strong Europe – so they are not at all anti-European.

Isn’t this remarkable fact also true of almost all the other regional parties in Europe? I’m the farthest thing from an expert, but my understanding was that European integration was universally understood to strengthen the case for separatist nationalisms.


john b 06.14.10 at 2:40 am

Yes, reading this as a Brit, the idea that separatist nationalism is a right-wing, anti-European affair seems very weird. Our two biggest regional separatist parties, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, are both to the left of the mainstream unionist parties, and both strong supporters of closer EU integration.


Guido Nius 06.14.10 at 7:30 am

I think Red is a bit too optimistic: the N-VA is decidedly right-wing – as they are both culturally conservative and socio-economically liberal (outside the nationalism they would be very much Tory). Historically the N-VA is the remainder of the Volksunie which was a collection of both a left-wing and a right-wing nationalist faction. The N-VA emerged mainly because they didn’t at all want to buy a more left interpretation of nationalism.

The Flemish region is, unfortunately maybe but fortune does not change facts, right-wing even if our right-wing no longer debates euthanasia, abortion and gay marriage (all of which are part of the acquis) and wants to conserve everything but notably also the social security built up by old decades of socialist dominance.

This being said, the previous election was won on exactly the same agenda with the difference being that the agenda was carried by a ‘traditional’ party. This time around it will be easier as it is undoubtedly so that the new king of Flanders is vastly more intelligent, less conceited & less self-indulging than the previous one and because the election results are clear (less parties and less seats blocked by moronic proto-fascists)


alex 06.14.10 at 8:04 am

The idea that “nationalism” can ever be left-wing is the real absurdity here, as it is in something such as the SNP.


David 06.14.10 at 11:17 am

What’s the nationalist position on Brussels? I understand that’s the main problem with a separation. Do they avoid the issue, or do they explicitly call for Brussels to be part of an independent Flanders?


Guido Nius 06.14.10 at 12:09 pm

Let’s say it is a bit of a well kept secret. The closest they came to saying something this time was to reduce Brussels to a purely administrative entity, where citizens needed to choose being part of one of the two communities on a personal basis. I am sure more than one are won for the idea of ‘Brussels DC’ where Brussels is a separate, bilingual, entity in Europe where all the ‘personal’ stuff is, by choice, either done by the French-speaking or the Flemish regional authority.


Andrew Coates 06.14.10 at 1:28 pm

We seem some of the very few here interested in this.

The nationalist underlying position on Brussels is that it was once Flemish-speaking (a fair time ago it’s true) and therefore it should be in some sense ‘theirs’. As everyone knows Brussels is not bilingual. It is largely French-speaking. So this is a bit of a problem. The compromise is that the fictional bilingualism. Or as the French people in pubs etc says”*on* exige que nous parlions *leur* langue”.

On France-Inter this morning (with Belgian pundits) there was talk of a ‘confederation’.

There is also the point that the two socialist parties – French and Flemish – did well. The former particularly so.


Koen 06.14.10 at 2:22 pm

Perhaps a distinction between being “anti-Europe” and being “anti-EU” is in order. I know a lot of smart people who are the latter but none who are the former


Gibi 06.14.10 at 7:08 pm


Firstly, go to:

Now, look about the first video, the first picture. This is NVA and yes, we are in belgium. Search for the belgium flag on the internet and try to find it, you won’t. Are we really in belgium?

Let’s clear the situation, which is not seen correctly around the world. What do you think about those stuff that they want:
- French speaking cannot vote anymore for french parties or french politics in brussel
- Brussel becomes totally flemish (there’s 80% of french people living there)
- French people cannot speak or live in the flemish part of the belgium if they don’t speak fluently dutch (and actually it’s already the case for some part)
- French people pay taxes to pay their unemployment, plus the pension of the flemish (but not the same for flemish)
- You cannot speak french in the flemish in this part of the country (this is already the case in some part)

Now, I encourage you to read history about those two facts in belgium:
- Leuven (wallen buiten)
- Voeren

–> Watch stuff about that and how they really kicked french people, I mean with violence.

–> Look about their opinion about strangers (blacks, arabs, etc.).

I am sure you will get it: yes, it is something that has to be stopped and yes they have extremist ideas! This is not because you say “i love europe” that you really consider it! Would you really politically incorrect if you want to get something that is not? No, you would say: “This is to make something better for both french and dutch… and for Europe”. If you don’t believe me, watch a speaking of some big dictator just before they took the power: it was always about making a better country with smaller taxes, more work and … there’s always some bad people responsible for everything.

Actually, the real question is: “how french people in this country are living this fucking mess???? –> do they really feel better?”. For this, I am not sure, really. And moreover, I can afford that belgian french people are afraid about going in the north of their country, because they can get troubles.

Do you really think a french speaking and dutch speaking is equal in this country? Actually not. Most of jobs with a high influence are already reserved for flemish and even if you have a better score at an exam, be sure you won’t be selected… because you NEVER speak enough dutch. And they’re always clear, it’s only because of that. Moreover, you won’t get the same salary for the same job and never get the same opportunities.

Actually, my own opinion is that dividing a country by saying “some are taking too much benefits from us” is never something good. The only thing that could be nice for this country is only ONE government and the right to vote for who you want: dutch or french. I mean a REAL country with people working together and not a pseudo politic country with economic competition, racism and discrimination. Do you really need to speak dutch or french to communicate when both know english? Actually, no : it’s just a question of respect.

Now, please consider this:
- How can you say on one hand “I think about Europe” and on the other hand “I want to build a new country of 100km out of one which is 300km” ?
- Can you say “we’re a unity” and “let’s seperate” in the same time?
- Can you say “we want something better for both” when 45% of the population doesn’t agree and really feel bad about that?

I really hope some people in this world will get that this is one of the first big problems in the Europe: there’s no unity, just a politic one… and even you don’t vote for them to lead the Europe!!!!!


Duncan 06.14.10 at 10:02 pm

At the risk of seeing a Belgian/Flemish issue through a lens crafted on the other side of the North Sea, the difficulty in categorising nationalisms revealed in this discussion is interesting. The appropriate dichotomy is between those who believe in civic nationalism and those who believe in blood/language/culture as the only determining elements. As I understand it, the N-VA is dominated by the former position, while the VB is dominated by the latter. What this means is that the N-VA is much more in what might be termed the European mainstream of civic nationalist parties (such as the SNP, Plaid Cymru and other members of the European Free Alliance). Comments like those of Alex above show that s/he simply does not understand the basic position of either the SNP or what its politics is about. Civic nationalism can of course be left-wing. To argue otherwise is the absurdity.


john b 06.15.10 at 7:38 am

@koen – No.


Guido Nius 06.15.10 at 8:59 am

I think 15 gives a good illustration of what irritates Flemish people to the extent of voting in the way we did.

@16 – yes, but the question is whether, ultimately after the civic first steps there isn’t some kind of Blut & Boden consequence to it all – I think so, even if I don’t think that consequence is near


Andrew Coates 06.15.10 at 9:11 am

Bart de Wever (leader of the N-VA) is sometimes compared to Berlusconi, which makes him perhaps a bit different to Plaid and the SNP. He has come from virtually nothing to a position of strength by a campaign that involved him in a Flemish game show. I am not at all sure that such a political formation fits the classic civic nationalist mould – it seems more like a populist party.

On La Première (the main Francophone information radio) this morning there was extensive discussion of the N-VA’s economic policies. These include cutting the civil servive (making it ‘more efficient’) and ending the practice of giving gradual wage rises based on the length of time you stay in the job (that is the system we have in England for soem employment, such as in local government). Without going further into the detail the N-VA backs a ‘market state’ not a social one.

This, as a spokesperson for the Parti Socialiste pointed out, would/will make it hard to negotiate a coalition with them.

Going futher into the nationalist issue Gibi may be exaggerating but not completely. There are well-known cases in communes around Brussels where Francophone electoral lists are effectively excluded. There are countless examples of petty muncipal acts going back some time – such as bus timetables only available in Flemish. As a French-speaker I first discovered how this clash is not abstract but real about twenty years ago when visiting Bruge – and not realising it was Flemish speaking. There is a great deal of resentment – not actual hatred – flying around. One factor not mentioned so far here is that people from a North African background are usually francophone – a factor spreading French around Brussels which is not met with delight by some Flemish nationalists.

One could say the same from the Flemish side. The usual tale goes back to the 19th century and the Walloon bourgeoisie, and a fair number of stories about Francophone officers in the 1st World War issuing unintelligible commands to their Dutch speaking troops. The truth us that the French (or Wallons) did have cultural political and economic hegemony, and plenty of unfeeling sense of superiority with that.

It is unfortunate but Dutch and French are pretty far away from another – unlike, say, Catalan and Castillion. This makes co-existence harder as well. On France-Info yesterday I heard the absurd case of a Flemish interviewee using English to communicate to the French reporter.

Modern English vocabulary and syntax are closer to French than to Dutch.

The Flemish can be intensely irritating to English people in that they assume that we are automatically ‘more like’ them, and somehow ‘on their side’.

I can assure you that this is not my case.


Mark 06.15.10 at 10:37 am

@Gibi 06.14.10 at 7:08 pm

I am awfully sorry, but as a Flemish socialist (so someone who is the furthest from the more separatist factions in Flanders) I must intervene here. You epitomize the kind of French speaking inhabitant of Belgium that ticks of Flemish voters and causes them to vote NV-A, using arguments that you got from god knows where. Let’s go over what you claim are “stuff that they [Flemish] want”:

Quote 1: “French speaking cannot vote anymore for french parties or french politics in brussel”. This is wrong. Inhabitants of Brussels will still be able to vote for French parties. You are confusing it with their demand that the inhabitants of *neighbouring* communities Halle and Vilvoorde would only be allowed to vote on Flemish parties. (Personally, I find people should be allowed to vote for whatever party they feel like al over Belgium, but that’s my opinion. My point is that you are distorting the demands of the Flemish nationalists).

Quote 2: “Brussel becomes totally flemish (there’s 80% of french people living there)”. Wrong. Noone, not even the extreme right-wing Vlaams Belang, claims to want to “make” Brussels totally Flemish. Noone has a solution for Brussels, true, seeing that indeed +80% speaks French, but what you claim to be their solution of Brussels I have never seen anyone claim.

Quote 3: “French people cannot speak or live in the flemish part of the belgium if they don’t speak fluently dutch (and actually it’s already the case for some part)”. Fantasy. As a rule, if French people speak French in Flanders they are responded to in French. Worse is, I *know* you know this. True, there are some individuals who will refuse to respond to you, but they can not be generalized to the Flemish as a whole. Second, French speaking people can live in Flanders if they don’t speak a word of Dutch. How do I know this: Thousands upon thousands do! True, they will receive their official communication (from for example their city council) in Dutch, just as Flemish friends of mine who bought a house in Wallonia receive their official letters in French. What you are –knowingly– smuggling into the discussion is the fact that ‘social housing’ (paid for with tax money for low income families) give priority to Dutch speaking people “with a historical connection to the city” over other people, and this only in a few frontier villages next to the Walloon border. The European Union looked into it, and they agreed, because *Dutch* speaking people who wanted to buy a ‘social house’ in these specific cities were *also* turned down for these houses because they have no “historical link with that city” (meaning: none of their parents grew up there). (Personally, I find that all Belgians should be able to apply for these houses anywhere in Belgium, but your description of this measure is a distortion.)

Quote 4: “French people pay taxes to pay their unemployment, plus the pension of the flemish (but not the same for flemish)”. Are you claiming the French people’s taxes pay for their own unemployment benefits, AND for all the pensions of the Flemish? I am all for solidarity between the French and Dutch speaking part of the country, but if you start making vague claims like these (implying the broad assertion that the Walloons are paying for all the Flemish pensions, while in reality there are–indeed– slightly more people on pension in Flanders than in Wallonie) you lose all credit.

Quote 5: “You cannot speak french in the flemish in this part of the country (this is already the case in some part)”. Sure you can. And you do. And you are and will be allowed to, just as you are and will be allowed to speak English, or whatever. Most people will help you in French (or English etc…) if you should ask a question to Flemish people in Flanders. You are not and will not be able to receive *official* communication in the language of your choosing, but only in the official language of the region you live in. I apologize if you should have had a negative experience with Flemish individuals who didn’t want to talk to you, but you know all too well that your claim is a lie. (Personally, I am from the very unpopular opinion that citizens should be able to receive official letters in any of the mainstream languages of Europe, unregarding of where they live in the EU, but again this is my personal opinion.)


Guido Nius 06.15.10 at 10:59 am

So here I am, having voted socialist and actively campaigned against N-VA, & irritated beyond comfort by these second hand simplifications on behalf of a small portion of the right-wing rich French-speaking people of Brussels against a nationalism that seems not to get the benefit of the doubt that is sometimes attributed by the left on other ‘liberation’ movements.

The truth value of 19 is close to the truth value of this proposition: “Modern English vocabulary and syntax are closer to French than to Dutch.”


hans 06.15.10 at 11:43 am


Bruxellois who move from Brussels to Wallonia can no longer vote in Brussels. Flemings who move from anywhere in Flanders to anywhere in Wallonia can no longer vote in Flanders. Walloons who move to Flanders, likewise. Why should there be an exception for those Bruxellois who move to a few specific communes in Flanders?


Hektor Bim 06.15.10 at 1:15 pm

I think one of the problems here is one of expectations. A number of French-speaking inhabitants of Belgium seem to believe that speaking French is a marker of civilization or culture and that Flemish is some relic or not very important language that they shouldn’t have to speak. My feeling is that a lot of this comes from the historical fact that many of the most outspoken French speakers from Brussels have ancestors who spoke Flemish dialects but switched over to French because it was the way to get ahead economically and socially. This is no longer the case, though there are strong efforts to keep it that way in Brussels.

A number of foreign expatriates seem to also equate French with culture and sophistication and thus instinctively side with the French-speakers in Brussels, like Andrew Coates.

I think a useful comparison might be to Gaelic in Ireland, which is in the situation that many French speakers would want Flemish to be in.

French speakers in Belgium do not accept that Flemish is the majority language and do not in general want to learn or use it. Gibi wants to speak French wherever she wants in Belgium and expects everyone else to know it as well. Brussels was deliberately carved out of the rest of Flanders to maintain it as a French-speaking enclave, and the effects of the European institutions there are to maintain French dominance, as is the goal of the Brussels city government.

I don’t see a good solution, but partition is almost inevitable in the long run based on people like Gabi.


Koen 06.15.10 at 4:13 pm


I don’t quite understand the argument in that post, or rather, how it pertains to my point. The people I have in mind are all for free commercial, personal and cultural interactions among Europeans (and the rest of the world), but would hold that political integration (whether in the form of the EU or some other hypothetical political organization) will tend to be a hindrance rather than of help in this process.


Gibi 06.15.10 at 7:54 pm


Quote 1: I am sorry, but those “communes” are full of french living there, so you agree with me; even if you don’t know.
Quote 2: NVA speaks about making brusell a city (it is a independant region with its own politics now), so it would be in flanders – automatically and we won’t discuss it because it’s territory based ; flemish know it better than noone. I am sorry if you don’t assume it, but it’s true.
Quote 3: Yes, it was about social houses; but anyway it was with belgian people. Moreover, you’re wrong about french people:
- Voeren (read history please) is full of flemish
- All the east of the belgium has a lot of flemish and noone is asking them anything to have a social house or a house ; assume it please: they don’t have to speak french and they’ll get it as quick as a french speaking. I am convinced this is normal and I hope it will continue because it makes everyone happier.

Quote 4: It’s not about paying everything, of course. It’s only about each region paying taxes for themselves, but not for pension that should stay national because flanders will get trouble with it (this not implies that wallonia will pay everything, I am sure you got it the first time).
My own opinion: EVERY country in this world have richer region or older population, etc… and it changes ; this is history and economy (I am sorry for you if you don’t believe it, but flanders will be someday poorer than wallonia and then it will be the opposite ; on the other hand, young from wallonia will become old) …. and yes, when you pay taxes you prefer to give it to your familly. Anyway, you HAVE to pay for EVERYONE in your country ; this is what a country is. So, just try to live with people and to show them the example ; that’s the best thing to do because, believe me: “every one wants to be usefull and to have a nice look in the mirror”.

@Andrew Coates
Thanks for your constructive opinion. I would like to add something: in the 19th (not the 20th), the language of the wallonia was… wallon, not french and it’s not same, so actually french and flemish was equal at this point. If you don’t believe me, just talk with a 80 years old person in wallonia (not with the “bourgeoisie”), you will see they speak a lot wallon, even if they speak also french; but anyway, we’re talking about their parents and their grand parents.


Now, I guess some precisions must be made about what I said:

I would like to say I was not speaking about all flemish: I was speaking about what NVA wants and the extreme right does too. I don’t want to make any amalgam/asumptions, or to say that flemish are bad people: THIS IS NOT TRUE AND I HOPE NOONE THINKS IT!

The big problem is that many people speaks about a reality which is real now, but not a part of the future sold by the NVA. When you think about something, you always have to think about the history and then the future. Don’t think that humans change: it’s false. So, every one must be aware about the troubles from the past in order not to reproduce it.

Now, to be clear: I love cultures and I speak with many different people in the world. I am part of the people convinced that only the difference can make you richer ; I am part of the person that think that immigration is something nice for a country. I am sorry if some people don’t believe it, but it will be always better to do something WITH someone than WITHOUT him (I mean creating a conflict and putting him apart).

I would also like to say to flemish ; and please repeat it to all your friends and familly : “french people likes flemish and this is not for their money only. They want to live in peace with them, without discrimination, racism and to build a real country.”

In addition, I want to say “please, don’t listen to any kind of populism/nationalism/extremism” because those persons will manipulate you; in every cases. Actually, most of people think that when someone is mean, you see it. Actually, no, I am sorry. This person will speak about strong values and making the world a better place:
- Low taxes
- Make work
- Make a good familly
- Like every one
- AND …….. a part the population is stealing you (your culture, your money, your land or both; it doesn’t matter how many criterias you fill, it’s the principle) so that you will stigmatize them.

I encourage people to read studies about violence, manipulation and authority; I think the experience of Milgram is a good starting point. Maybe, you will got that people making bad things try to:
- Help someone (their nation, their home, their familly and their friends)
- Defend values (honour, familly, liberty, etc.)
- Follow the leader

The big problem is that I think this is happening with NVA… and if I am wrong, it would be great. Anyway, if you would see a parti in wallonia called: “national alliance of wallonia”, what would you think???? That they want to be happy with you and to make your life better? NO!

Maybe there’s a problem between flemish and wallonia, but sorry, I didn’t noticed it when I spoke with both. The only problem is from the politics, not from people, so ignore them. And if you don’t think so, say it clearly, don’t hide.

Thanks for your time.


Ingrid Robeyns 06.15.10 at 8:10 pm

Gibi: I have allowed your two comments through the moderation filter, despite that you do not respect our commenting policy: you list from two differnet nonexisting e-mail addresses and from different IP addresses (in principle the two Gibi’s on this tread could be two different people, but that seems highly unlikely to me).
You are welcome, as everbody else, to post anoymously, but we (the members of the CT group) want to have access to working e-mail addresses, see our comments policy at the top of the blog. Also, all your comments will go every time through moderation if you do this (normally only the very first comment does), which is an unnecessary (though small) inconvenience.


Karin 06.16.10 at 1:26 am

Just a few points to clarify a few points seldomly mentioned but relevant to the above discussion:
- The population of Brussels was until the first world war largely Dutch-speaking (up to 70%), that is only a century ago. The group consisted mainly of workers and small craftsmen and merchants, with no democratic representation (voting rights were tied to income and social status until 1918). This socio-linguistic situation changed rapidly because of 1) the desire for social migration into the Frenchspeaking ruling class, 2) the effective (ab)use of the newly founded public education system which was – evidently – French only, and 3) the effective (ab)use of linguistic census which was organised until 1963 (campaigns to make the “right” choice).
- The city of Brussels has been extremely important in the history of “de Zuidelijke Nederlanden” (Southern Low Countries; the major part of present day Belgium and the Northern part of France) politically and culturally, to he extend that the present city authorities are embarrased to do something serious with the incredibly rich city archives, because the historical identity of the city jumps them into the face (this link is also clear for painting, architecture.., but there the plainly linguistic connotation is absent, so that’s OK – we want tourism, don’t we?).
- Of the present population of Brussels, more than 50% does not have French as their mothertongue, but one of the 250 registered languages which are spoken in the capital right now. Often they are poor immegrants, and the reason they seek to identitfy with the French majority has very simple sociological reasons,- in fact exactly the same as those that transformed its original Flemish working class.
- Nobody with a brain in his head (there are some Flemish who do :)) would claim that Brussels is to-day a Flemish city. But is is certainly not a Walloon city either. It is not by some magical trick that it is geographically situated in the Flemish part of the country. And the Flemish are right not to give up their historical links with it. These facts should be reckoned, whatever the institutional solution that will be elaborated in the future, whether this future will be Belgian or not.
- In 1932 the Flemish proposed to introduce bilingualism in the whole country; this was refused by the French. Biligualism had to be restricted to the Flemish part of the country only. This was the reason why the French (!) demanded and obtained the “linguistic frontier” that now divides the country. Personal linguistic rights in the North and territorial linguistic rights in the South have been up to to-day a key part of the Frenchspeaking political agenda. The whole “BHV”-issue (and the breakdown of the last governement) hinges on the fact that constitutional court ruled the remaining legislation based on this discrimination of the Flemish unconstitutional. This did not bother the French political parties at all. The result is what we saw in the recent elections; it is all very very logical, whether one likes it or not.
- The Walloon socialists that won the last elections in the South of the country are much less tied to the interests of the Frenchspeaking bourgeoisie in the capital than the “libérales” of MR, so it is not only the higher level of political intelligence of the two winning party leaders (De Wever and Di Rupo) that makes one hope and expect that this time a real and good institutional “deal” might be found…


James Conran 06.16.10 at 10:53 pm

Would be interesting to hear Ingrid and others’ reaction to Yglesias’s “why not abolish Belgium?” post:


Andrew Coates 06.17.10 at 10:03 am

Hektor Bim,

Just a personal note. I learnt to conjugate in French as a child. I have spoken fluent French for around thirty years. I lived in Paris for seven years. Obviously this makes me biased. However trying to be unbiased on this issue is probably impossible.

I would prefer to concentrate on the politics of the N-VA:


ejh 06.17.10 at 10:13 am

Perhaps a distinction between being “anti-Europe” and being “anti-EU” is in order.



Guido Nius 06.17.10 at 1:35 pm

28- It’s none of his business … but if you start to pontificate you are liable to wind up calling the Flemish ‘Flemings’ and make yourself ridiculous.


Hektor Bim 06.17.10 at 4:46 pm

Andrew Coates,

You want French to win in Belgium. That’s the problem right there. That is, you want a minority language in Belgium to be the dominant language, and no amount of time pontificating about the evils of the Flemish parties will conceal that.

Why is there a French community government in Belgium at all, for example? Why isn’t there just a federal government and regional governments for Flanders and Wallonia and the East Cantons? Why is Brussels’ city government elevated to such a high level?

It’s because a dominant political class is introducing anti-democratic elements to hang onto power as it slips into minority status both numerically and economically. The French elite are putting all of their power into maintaining and strengthening whatever bastions they have to thwart the will of the majority of Belgians.

The Flemish are in essentially the same position in Belgium as French-speaking Quebecois were in Quebec in the 60s and 70s, but the French-speakers have been more successful at retaining power, due to their better initial position, their greater demographic weight, and the assistance of the European Union. Otherwise, the English-speakers in Montreal would have created their own free state of Montreal as its own mini-province and encouraged the members of the North American Union to move there, cementing English dominance.


Hektor Bim 06.17.10 at 4:50 pm

I’ll also note that I’d be curious if all these people loudly pontificating about the rights of minority French-speakers have ever spared a thought about the rights of Breton or Basque or Alsatian or Catalan or Occitan or Flemish speakers in France.

I’m pretty sure that Andrew Coates didn’t spend an iota of his seven years in Paris sticking up for the rights of Breton speakers to be educated in Breton or communicate with the national government in Breton. Which is why I’m pretty certain that a lot of this is driven by ideas of French supremacy.


James Conran 06.17.10 at 5:05 pm

@ Guido #31 – to be fair Yglesias prefaces his remarks by himself saying “It’s none of my business”. But as a fellow non-Belgian I felt he made some interesting points in favour of a Velvet Divorce for Belgium (or at least against outsiders being worried by such an outcome).


john b 06.18.10 at 6:49 am

@Koen/ejh: the point being that someone who merrily recognises the geographical existence of England, loves the English people, wants them to trade with each other and so on – but would also like to see the English state abolished and its constituent Saxon kingdoms restored – could legitimately be called anti-England. That analogises directly and fairly obviously to someone who holds the same view for Europe.


Guido Nius 06.18.10 at 8:18 am

@34- yes, sure, my tongue was loosely in my cheek – but presenting the rich/poor-divide as the valid reason for secession is a bit poor imho. It is actively promoting the “competing country”-model for global economy and that is not what will save the day. The worst reason for splitting is the difference in living standard. It’s the nationalism of egotism.


Andrew Coates 06.18.10 at 9:12 am

My partner was an Occitan speaker and we had contact with what was then called the Occitan Socialist Party. Volum vivre al Pais!

I am afraid I do not speak Breton or indeed Basque – no doubt Hektor is fluent in both tongues and spends many hours in international solidarity with the struggle of both linguistic communities.

Those referring to a ‘win’ by the French betray their own nationalist-linguistic agenda.

I have simply pointed out that Brussels is now overwhemingly French-speaking (I think it’s 10% Dutch speaking). That the N-VA is a petty-minded right-wing party which want to impose an unacceptable degree of Flemish power over the city-region.

My main argument however – of you could be bothered to read it – is against nationalism. I think it is a very relevant issue for those of us outside Belgium, particularly as there are those here we think the ‘break-up of Britain’ is a progressive project.


Duncan 06.18.10 at 10:54 am


The ‘break-up of Britain’ is clearly and obviously a progressive project, as Tom Nairn taught us a long time ago. This would of course depend on your definition of ‘progressive’, but mine includes the dismantling of the nineteenth century trappings of much earlier English imperialism. It also includes a set of political structures in which the peoples of Scotland and Wales (and Flanders and the Basque Country and others) can express their identities freely and contribute to an inclusive conception of Europe that recognises their diversity and equality. It is the British nationalists – clinging to the old certainties of a clearly failing state, which spends much of its time trying to justify its own past – who are anything but progressive. So I guess I would ask why you take the profoundly whiggish view that the current configuration of nation states is the best of all possible worlds – never to be questioned or challenged?


Guido Nius 06.18.10 at 11:53 am

Being opposed to nationalism (as is clear from the above), I think Duncan has a point. There is a sense in which breaking up existing nation states clearly is a progressive move. If, on matters as education and cultural policy, such break-up is effected, it clearly allows people to take control, instead of being governed by an external force that wills them to be more similar than they are.

I don’t think that this reasoning holds for most socio-economic aspects (&, hence, Yglesias’ total misguidedness) as in such cases the better situation for individuals is that things are governed in a larger scale as it is only that scale that will allow the people to express their power against what are essentially multinational (corporate and corporatistic concerns). This is also the reason that a party like the N-VA adopts their European stance.

In essence it is the old European discussion of subsidiarity and no doubt current nation states – on average – violate it on both ends: towards the naturally more regionalized responsibilities by being too big and towards the naturally more globalized responsibilities by being too small. The defense of current nation states therefore is largely a defense of the status quo and hence at the very center of it a conservative attitude.


Hektor Bim 06.18.10 at 2:14 pm


You’ve got me there. Good for you on the Occitan issue. The French approach to language policy is a long-running tragedy.

The fact that Brussels is now overwhelmingly French-speaking is not some fact of nature like the weather. It was deliberately engineered, and is being maintained and strengthened by the efforts of the local government. The attempts to partition Flanders and annex the city to Wallonia are also part of this. This is a struggle, a competition, and people are trying to win it. It’s pretty clear what side you are on.

It is inaccurate to describe some Flemish parties as nationalist and the Walloon parties as non-nationalist. Walloon parties push Belgian nationalism, focusing on the king and the dominance of the French language. Flemish parties focus on Flemish nationalism. These are competing nationalisms, and it’s not actually that clear which is more “progressive” at first glance.


Walt 06.18.10 at 2:56 pm

It’s pretty clear what side you are on.

That’s pretty Manichean, don’t you think, Hektor?


Hektor Bim 06.18.10 at 3:35 pm


Andrew Coates states it pretty bluntly at the end of his piece: “I can assure you that this is not my case.”

The attempt here is always to paint the Flemish parties as right-wing nationalists and selfish rich people who don’t want to share. So people never want to talk about the actual conditions in places like Brussels and instead focus on the leadership of the Flemish parties. There’s also a bizarre ahistorical tone to these discussions, where Brussels somehow magically is now 85% francophone through an act of God and the Flemish are engaging in bizarre social engineering.
But French speakers are all about social engineering when it suits them.

Andrew Coates admits in the article that he didn’t know Bruges was Flemish-speaking. Why not? Seems like a bizarre mistake to make, considering it is pretty securely in Flanders and very close to the Dutch border.


Andrew Coates 06.19.10 at 10:49 am

I refuse to believe that French language use in Brussels was engineered. Hegemony is more complex than that.

I am a pretty long-standing critic of Tom Nairn:

Comments on this entry are closed.