There are two things that hold Belgium together, or so the joke goes — the royal family and the national debt. For decades, supporters of the Belgian state have tried to convince skeptical outsiders that the animosities between the two parts of the country, between (kind-of) French-speaking Walloons and (kind of) Dutch-speaking Flemish are less serious than portrayed in the media. The political reality of the past years tells a different story.
Belgium is a democracy. Democracies hold regular elections. Elections usually lead to functioning governments. Not so in Belgium. After the most recent election in 2019, Belgium has been “governed” by a caretaker administration, headed by an “acting prime minister” — Sophie Wilmès from the center-right francophone Mouvement réformateur. It was not until the height of the corona crisis that Wilmès managed to put together a grand coalition of the most important Walloon and Flemish parties – except for the Vlaams Belang.
The Vlaams Belang is the successor to the Vlaams Blok (VB), a Flemish “nationalist” party that traces its roots back to the ignominious history of Flemish collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. The VB’s rise in the polls started in the late 1980s, when the party adopted a strident anti-immigrant agenda, which proved to be a winner. Under the leadership of Filip Dewinter, the VB steadily advanced in the polls, particularly after it made the fight against Islam and the “Islamization of Europe” a central point of its political program. After the party was convicted of promoting racism, it dissolved only to resurface under the new name but with a similar anti-immigrant, anti-Islam program.
Dewinter was one of the first radical right-wing populist leader to recognize the potential of mobilizing against Western Europe’s growing Muslim community. Framing Islam as a “totalitarian” ideology fundamentally incompatible with Western customs and traditions, Dewinter promoted his party as committed defenders of Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage, secularism, liberal values and way of life. The party made a particular effort to express its commitment to women’s rights, the one area where Islam was seen as particularly vulnerable. The Vlaams Belang continued to mobilize against Islam, with often rather provocative posters. One depicted a young woman in bikini and hidjab, her face half covered nest to the slogan, “Freedom or Islam? Dare to express your choice!” Another poster depicted a pregnant woman, her belly exposed, next to the slogan, “Newcomers? We make them ourselves.”
Ironically, the party’s focus on Islam and migration proved disastrous for its electoral fortunes. It seemed that the Flemish were less worried about “Islamization” (VB) than about regionalist concerns – i.e., the “burden” the Walloon south imposed on the Flemish north. This was reflected in the electoral upsurge of the New Flemish Alliance (NV-A), a regionalist party, which sapped much of the VB’s support base.
In the federal election of 2014, the VB polled less than four percent of the vote. For all practical purposes, it was politically dead., a mere shadow of its former self. Yet five years later, nothing short of a political miracle happened. The VB came back with a bang, more than tripling its electoral support, both nationally and in the Flemish part of the country. The main reason – its new charismatic and dynamic leader, 31-year-old Tom van Grieken.
Young, telegenic, and dynamic, van Grieken represents a new generation of radical right-wing populist leaders, unencumbered by the ideological baggage of the past. And, of course, in Flanders the ideological baggage is quite heavy, given the party’s association with collaboration and the extreme right. Taking out a page from Marine Le Pen’s political playbook (aiming to “dediabolize” the Front national), Van Grieken went to great lengths to embellish the party’s image and render it politically salonfähig. This can be seen, for instance, in one of the best-known Vlaams Blok slogans, “The own people first.” In the Vlaams Blok slogan, the connotation of “people” was ethnically defined (“volk”). When the Vlaams Belang recently revived the slogan — “our people first” — the connotation of people was quite different, no longer “volk” but the much more neutral “mensen” — the Dutch word for human beings.
The intention behind the party’s programmatic face lift has clearly been to break through the “cordon sanitaire,” which had exiled the party to the margins of Belgian politics for as long as it has existed. The strategy proved successful — to a degree. In the aftermath of the 2019 election, van Grieken was received by King Philippe – the first time a Belgian monarch met the leader of a far-right formation since the 1930s. At about the same time, according to a representative poll, about two-thirds of the Flemish respondents agreed that the “cordon sanitaire” – an agreement between Belgium’s major parties to exclude the VB from any political negotiations – should be eliminated.
Yet when Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s interim centrist prime minister, cobbled together an ad-hoc grand coalition in the spring of 2020, she left the VB in the lurch, reaffirming the policy of the cordon sanitaire. In response, van Grieken wrote her an open and quite angry letter in which he reminded the prime minister that this was not a time for ostracism but for “national unity.” At the same time, he accused Wilmès of preferring to “continue to play political games” rather than uniting all relevant political forces in the country to defeat the virus. This was unacceptable – as was the fact that “even today,” the prime minister divided “citizens into first and second-class citizens merely because they voted for the ‘wrong party’.”
Flemish voters obviously agreed. In June 2020, polls had the party at around 28 percent. This meant that the VB was the most popular party in Belgium. Unofficial estimates are that the party’s potential support base might be as high as 40 percent. Under the circumstances, it appears more on more difficult to continue to uphold the cordon sanitaire, which has only but profited van Grieken’s political formation.
And for good reasons. Covid-19 has allowed the party to claim that the crisis confirmed what the VB had always maintained – not only with regard to open borders, but particularly with respect to the relationship between the Flemish and Walloon regions, which the VB had always characterized as detrimental to the former. The dramatic upsurge in support for the VB in the Flemish part of the country strongly suggests that the Covid-19 crisis has only but reinforced the already deep chasm that for the past few decades has separated the affluent Flemish north from the deindustrialized Wallonian south. Covid-19 has added new fuel to the smoldering communitarian conflict between the two parts of the country.
At the onset of the pandemic, one of the major points of contention was the distribution of health care resources between the two communities, deemed highly unfair by both the NV-A and the VB. This is a question that involves funds provided and distributed by the EU. It allowed both parties to find new ways to mobilize public resentment in Flanders against the federal government, against Wallonia and against “Brussels” – i.e., the EU.
Past public opinion polls suggested that the Flemish were particularly worried about the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis. In late March, four out of ten Flemish respondents indicated their apprehension with respect to the economy. Like everywhere else in Europe, the impact of the crisis proved disastrous for the economy. According to official estimation, the Belgian GDP is likely to decline by around 8 percent in 2020. Given the importance of Flanders for the Belgian economy, the impact was particularly significant in the Flemish part of the country.
Under the circumstances, there were strong incentives to find somebody that could be blamed for the country’s travails For the VB, the culprit was obvious – China. As the Covid-19 crisis escalated, VB representatives in the Belgian parliament demanded that the Chinese government be held responsible for the spread of the pandemic. More importantly, they suggested that Belgium should rethink its relationship with the Chines regime. The communist regime, a leading VB representative charged, was primarily “concerned with its reputation and its propaganda machine.” At the same time, it was largely “indifferent to the dramatic consequences of the disease”.
Ironically enough, while the VB launched its attacks on China, the Chinese government, in a telephone call with the Belgian king, expressed its willingness to supply desperately needed medical equipment to Belgium. The VB leadership was not impressed. In fact, in mid-April, van Grieken came out on Facebook with the demand that the “Chinese communist dictatorship” should pay for the damage it had caused.
Significant time has passed in the meantime. Yet things have hardly progressed in the country, at least politically. For months following the onset of the pandemic, the Belgian political establishment – sans Vlaams Belang – tried to come up with a government reflecting the will of the voters –- rather than the political bricolage presided by Sophie Wilmès. This proved once again a quasi-sisyphean task. But then, what else is new in a country that is held together by little more than by its national debt and the apparent lack of credible alternatives (such as Flanders joining the Netherlands, Wallonia joining France). In recent days, once again, prominent Belgian politicians charged with putting together a viable coalition have ended up throwing the towel. More often than not the process provoked considerable mud-slinging on the part of various Belgian parties reaffirming the impression that Belgian politics was little more than a “circus” — with the establishment parties serving as clowns.
The big winner of the ensuing political Tohu wa-bohu in Belgium has been the Vlaams Belang, which has continued to advance in the polls. And this despite serious internal conflicts, pitting various factions – most importantly the entourage of the party’s former eminence grise, Filip Dewinter from Antwerp – against each other, In mid-September, Sophie Wilmès was supposed to ask for a vote of confidence in the Belgian parliament to pave the way for a new government. Yet at the time, Belgium’s major parties were not even close to an agreement on cooperation. At the same time, van Grieken made it known that he and his party favored new elections – elections from which the VB was likely to emerge as the uncontested winner.
By now, some 16 months after the most recent national election, Belgium finally has a government composed of a range of political parties from both communities. Once again, the Vlaams Belang has been excluded. In the meantime, there has been an upsurge in Covid-19 infections threatening to once again exacerbate the fundamental conflict between the two communities. Reality is that there is a deep rift between the affluent Flemish north and the impoverished Wallonian south, two communities which globalization has affected in diametrically opposite ways – one as a winner, the other as a loser, hammered by deindustrialization. In the process, the francophone Walloons have lost their once privileged position and with it, their former sense of cultural superiority — one of the sources of Flemish resentment.
Now the tables have turned. The surge in support for the Vlaams Belang reflects to a significant part a sense that this is “pay-back time” – informed by deep-seated animosities which apparently are difficult, if not outright impossible, to overcome. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that the rift between the two major communities that constitute the Belgian federation will heal any time soon. Covid-19 has only but exacerbated existing tensions, to the benefit of the Vlaams Belang which is likely to come out even more strengthened from the pandemic.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See his profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).