Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Far Right and the dissolution of Belgium

Foreign press correspondents in Brussels are telling their readers and viewers in the home country that the Flemish Far Right is clamouring for the divorce between Flanders and Wallonia. This is true in itself, but by obscuring the non-Right support for this demand and the non-Flemish Far-Right support for Belgian unity, it falsely suggests a natural and intrinsic connection between separatism and the Far Right.

Foreign press correspondents posted in Brussels to cover EU affairs, are once again showing how clueless they are about the internal politics of the federal Kingdom of Belgium. Faithfully copying the anti-Flemish hate daily Le Soir, they claim that the divorce between Flanders and Wallonia, once more on the horizon after the ignominious demise of the Prime Minister Yves Leterme's Federal Government, is a demand of the Flemish Far Right. In fact, the demand has far wider support, and conversely a part of the Belgian Far Right is the most militant supporter of Belgian unity.

The title in today's French News, "Far-right party calls for dissolution of Belgium", could easily be read as suggesting that there is something far-right about wanting the dissolution of Belgium. The party intended, the Vlaams Belang ("Flemish Interest"), has had Flemish independence as its the central plank in its platform since its foundation (as Vlaams Blok, "Flemish Bloc") in 1978. In that sense, the article's message is not exactly "news". But there is also a centrist party, the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New-Flemish Alliance), that advocates Flemish independence, for which its president Bart De Wever is the best-known and most effective pleader. Till recently there was also a leftist party, the Vlaams-Progressieven ("Flemish-Progressives", now split, with the defectors joining the Socialist Parrty and the rump uniting with the Green Party) that wanted more radical Flemish autonomy though not outright independence. There still is a sizable non-party leftist movement, centred around the monthly Meervoud, that pulls no punches in advocating full independence.

Conversely, on the Walloon side, the Far Right is the most consistent in its opposition to the dissolution of Belgium. This is true of the main party, the Belgian Front National, as well as of its splinter parties and of non-party cores of far-rightist activism. There exists a separatist Walloon movement, with a highly fluctuating appeal among the general population, rarely aiming for independence and mostly for accession to France (rattachement, hence "rattachisme"), but this tendency is centrist or leftist. The Far Right strongly clings to the union with Flandres inside the Belgian Kingdom.

To put their position in perspective, it is necessary to understand the position of the Walloon or Belgian French-speaking mainstream. Belgium came about as an accident, a compromise imposed by Britain which opposed French expansion. The Belgian revolutionaries of 1830, some of whom were actually French, never wanted to create a separate new state, but wanted accession of all the wholly or partly or prospectively French-speaking parts of the Low Countries, since 1815 united in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, to France. On the Flemish side, only some Roman Catholic hard-liners wanted to break away from the Protestant-dominated Netherlands, the vast majority was satisfied enough with the status quo. So, nobody really wanted Belgium, it was only imposed by Britain (especially when Britain could arrange the choice of a king linked to the British monarchy) as the least harmful alternative to the break-away territory's accession to France, which the revolutionaries and their French allies were plotting.

A kind of Belgian identity was fostered by the second King, the notorious Leopold II, plunderer of the Congo. He not only gave the country a vast colony as a common project that could unite all entreprising Belgians, he also allowed some concessions to the oppressed Flemish because a Flemish component helped affirm the non-French identity of Belgium and hence its self-justification as a state separate from expansive France. The royal family had a genuine attachment to Belgium because it was their source of income, the Walloons were only won over by the enduring experience of being the dominant group in the new state, a position they wouldn't have held in France. Their love for Belgium was conditional on their privileges. That is why the calls for accession to France have become more outspoken as Wallonia became less dominant as a consequence of its economic decline.

At any rate, the mainstream Walloon parties take the option of accession to France into account even if it is not on their agenda right now. At present, they oppose the dissolution of Belgium because they want to extract all the profit they can get from the more successful Flemish economy through the Belgian state for as long as they can get away with it. At the same time, they are mentally fully prepared for Belgium's break-up and their own accession to their cultural motherland, France. Note that French TV stations are more popular among the Walloons than their own (let alone Flemish stations, which have nearly no Walloon viewer at all), and that French politics is followed and discussed with at least as much involvement as Belgian politics. Economically, the Walloon political class still prefer Belgium because it allows them to dole out goodies paid for with Flemish money, a lifestyle they would have to abandon under French rule. In the case of accession to France, the likely scenario is that France, eager enough to extend it territory and importance, would foot the bill for the Walloon share of the huge Belgian state debt, but only as a one-time bride-price, and that it would next enforce fiscal discipline, something unheard of among the present generation of Walloon politicians. So, they have monetary reasons to prefer Belgium, but otherwise wouldn't mind acceding to France.

The Walloon Far Right, by contrast, clings to the union with Flanders with a vengeance. One of the more intellectual reasons is that they care about history, and Wallonia has been united with the provinces to its north for centuries, under the Holy Roman and Habsburg empires, the Spanish and Dutch kingdoms, even under French revolutionary occupation, and of course in Belgium itself. Another historical factor is WW2, when Walloon collaborators with Nazi Germany joined the Waffen-SS with Belgian nationalist symbols including the Belgian flag and anthem, fighting side by side with Flemish volunteers who used Flemish nationalist symbols. The prime Belgian collaborator was of course the King, Leopold III, who was neither Flemish nor in favour of the country's break-up; even before German occupation, he had a very authoritarian view of politics and his own role in it. The number two was Léon Degrelle, leader of the Rex movement and of the Walloon unit in the Waffen-SS, again a non-Flemish pro-Belgian rightist.

So, rightist Belgian nationalism has a considerable historical pedigree. But the more pressing reason for Walloon opposition to the break-up of Belgium is immigration. Walloon rightists expect the Germanic nations to conduct a more realistic immigration policy. While the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark are not exactly very strict against immigration, at least they have gradually adopted a more serious policy of immigration control. In Belgium, most Flemish parties favour a more restrictive immigration policy, whereas the mainstream Walloon parties all favour what amounts to an open-borders policy. Part of the reason is typically Belgian (immigrants as a demographic weapon against the Flemish majority), but part of it seems to be a wider French phenomenon. Among Walloon rightists, the impression exists that France is irredeemably lost to religious (Muslim) and racial (African) population replacement. A Flemish-majority Belgium seems to be a slightly better safeguard for Wallonia against the demographic flood of immigration.

Therefore, the French-speaking Far Right in Belgium is passionately attached to the preservation of Belgium's unity. They see a Flemish-majority Belgium as their historical homeland and as a bulwark against the tide of immigration, highly imperfect but nonetheless far preferable to France. While there is only an accidental connection between rightism and Flemish separatism, a platform shared between rightist and non-rightist Flemings, there is in the present circumstances a sound logical reasons for Walloon rightists to cling to Belgian unity and oppose separatism.

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