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New Flemish Alliance inherits stormy separatist past

The New Flemish Alliance's triumph in parliamentary elections on June 13 is the latest evidence of the rise of separatist currents in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. takes a look back at the origins of the movement.


Flemish separatists have been around since the very creation of Belgium. But having seized victory in the June 13 parliamentary vote, the New Flemish Alliance is the first party from this movement to win a federal election.

The party’s historic triumph, with 28.3% of the vote, is the latest evidence of the rise of separatist currents in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of the country. According to the latest electoral projections, the Flemish separatists hold nearly 45% of Dutch-speaking seats in the Belgian Parliament, giving them an unprecedented political weight in a nation that finds itself more divided than ever.

This new political configuration did not emerge out of thin air. The Flemish separatist, or nationalist, movement can be traced back to 1830, when Belgium attained its independence. The country was at that time dominated by the French-speaking elite, and French was imposed as the sole official language upon Dutch speakers, despite their considerable number. This initial relationship - with its imbalance of power - would irrevocably shape the different Flemish movements, laying the foundations of anti-French sentiment.

A shift toward fascism

That dynamic would also influence the Flemish position in the World Wars. If only a minority of Flemish Belgians backed Germany in World War I, Flemish nationalists supported the Nazi regime more widely from 1939 to 1945, following the lead of the Flemish National Union (VNV).

Fierce proponents of an official separation between French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders since the 1920s, the VNV became a Fascist party. This development marginalised the separatist movement for a long time, placing it at the extreme right of the Belgian political spectrum.

It wasn’t until elections in 1965 that the People’s Union (or Volksunie), the Flemish nationalist party founded after World War II, managed to make real electoral headway, with 12 representatives holding seats when votes were tallied. Ten years later, there were 21 Flemish nationalists in the Belgian Parliament. For more than 40 years, the party succeeded in uniting differing nationalist sensibilities, from left-wing to far right, and translating that unity into electoral success.

Normalisation causes split

The party moved gradually from its separatist roots toward an institutional federalism, in a process of political normalisation that did not sit well with all party members. In the 1990s, the People’s Union suffered electoral setbacks, while the coalition’s radical fringe grew louder and louder.

The party imploded in 2001, giving way to a period of Flemish political reconfiguration. On the far right were the hardline secessionists of Vlaams Blok, a party that had already withdrawn from the People’s Union in 1971. The New Flemish Alliance, meanwhile, attempted to appeal to voters through a more moderate discourse. Still, the party was known to fraternise with the far right at times; one famous photo shows the party’s current president Bart De Wever smiling alongside France’s controversial National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1996.

More recently, the party has stayed afloat by moving closer to the traditional Flemish political world, even participating in a coalition with the centre-right Christian Democrats of the CD&V Flemish party. This alliance – known as the Flemish cartel – was broken in 2008, with the party running independently in subsequent elections. In light of the results of the June 13 vote, that autonomy has proven politically advantageous.

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