The principal Flemish nationalist party, the NVA, has renounced its stated objective of independence for Flanders, which is news of some importance. The NVA has now embraced the idea of “confederalism,” leaving the most xenophobic, authoritarian extremists to monopolize the cause of separatism. But it will still fight for a maximum share of power for the region, and not just for superficial changes in the — already largely — federalized structure of the kingdom of Belgium.
The party’s new position is clear-cut, constituting as it does the keystone of the NVA’s program for the elections in May — which, in Belgium, will be regional, federal and European, at the same time. The party justifies its strategic shift in terms of the impossibility, repeatedly confirmed in recent history, of getting a majority of citizens to vote for the proposition of an independent state. As one of the movement’s founders puts it: “Here in Belgium there is just not a majority favorable to independence.” And he reinforces his argument with another fact, overwhelmingly clear in a society that is strongly influenced by the European Union: the prospect of an independent Flanders being excluded from the Union for an indefinite period.
These reasonings on the part of mainstream Flemish nationalism have arisen in response to two distinct phenomena, both deeply rooted.
One — which this region shares deeply with Scotland and Catalonia — is the commitment to the European Union. This is no mere sentimental affectation; it is a fact that the European perspective exerts a particular attraction in the most economically dynamic regions of the continent (such as Belgium), in spite of the fact that the bloc is not going through the most stellar moment in its history. The other is that the progressive development of decentralization in Belgium itself and the flexibility of its federalism combine to turn the Belgian state (while imperfect, like so many others) into an inclusive political space with room for disparate national sentiments, though these may at times express themselves in odd, surprising or even dysfunctional ways.
The Flemish nationalist movement has seen an evolution in the direction of moderation, analogous to that of the Lombard League in Italy (which in 1996 proclaimed independence for northern Italy as its objective, earning only ridicule) and of the Parti Québécois in Canada since the 2012 elections, when it declined to hold a third referendum on independence after the two defeats it suffered in 1980 and 1995. This latest development coincides with an exemplary improvement in the already praiseworthy strategy of the British government in connection with Scotland, which has so far been guided by respect for the desires of the Scottish people, placing all the emphasis on the negative impact that secession would have for them; while now, in a carrot-and-stick sequence, David Cameron complements his tactic of issuing dire warnings with a seductive appeal couched in terms of the damage secession would cause to the whole British nation. Because sometimes the malaise fomented by separatism is aggravated by the sheer lack of recognition of the contribution made by the region that proposes to secede.