Amid the statuary, marble and lavish wood panelling inside Antwerp’s Renaissance-era town hall, a slow revolution is being plotted. Strolling in the autumn sunshine outside, Martin Roef seems an unlikely radical, but the retired lawyer harbours few doubts about the machinations of the politicians inside.
“The problem’s down south. It’s the French-speakers. They eat from the north, they eat from us and they want it to stay that way. We should split up and make Flanders a separate country. We’d be better living together but separately. Perhaps De Wever will make a difference.”
He is referring to the rising star of Belgian politics, who has just conquered the town hall in a victory that merits the term historic. Bart de Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance, is a separatist and nationalist bent on redrawing the map of the European Union. Like Alex Salmond in Edinburgh or Artur Mas in Barcelona, De Wever is far from a fringe extremist. He is a mainstream conservative who wants to break Belgium apart and whose support is soaring."The end goal is clear for De Wever. He wants Flanders as an independent state in a democratic Europe," said Lieven de Winter, a professor of politics and expert on European regionalism at Belgium’s Louvain University.
Catalonia goes to the polls this weekend in a fateful early election tipped to produce a mandate for an independence referendum. Scotland has its vote on separate statehood in two years. Around the same time in 2014, De Wever looks likely to be fighting national and regional elections in Belgium from a position of strength, seeking support for the gradual break-up of the country between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south.
“He will certainly be calling for a form of confederalism, meaning two separate states that do a couple of things together,” said De Winter.
“He has a new vision for politics, for the city, and for the country,” said Robert van de Voorde, a post office worker. “He’s very radical. He’s saying we Flemish have had enough. I don’t want a break-up, but it’s very possible. A lot of Flemish think it would be better.”
Antwerp v Brussels, Edinburgh v London, Barcelona v Madrid – in this tussle of regionalism against national capitals, Europe is both cause and effect.
All of these mainstream separatists are committed Europeans, insisting that if their independence campaigns are successful they should seamlessly assume membership of the EU. Not so fast, respond the current national leaders and policy-makers in the EU capital. Three years of currency, debt, and financial crisis have set Europe’s wealthy countries against the poor, the fiscally rigorous against the reckless, and triggered a certain renationalisation and fragmentation. Separatism, always present, has been boosted. “It is about money,” said De Winter.
Flanders is much wealthier and more productive than Wallonia. De Wever stokes grievance against the poorer region by referring to the federal centre as “the taxation government of French-speakers” and railing against welfare spongers. With Catalonia just about the richest part of crisis-hit Spain, the independence drive there is also fuelled by economic self-interest or selfishness, depending on your point of view.
Parallel frictions over how to slice up the national cake are similarly present in Germany, where the wealthy federal states of the south, Bavaria and Baden-Würtemberg, are fed up with subsidising the needier parts of the country. In Italy the same arguments over why Milan should pay for Naples have kept the neo-separatist Northern League in business for years.
Back in the 90s when Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia splintered, relative wealth was again a key factor, with the Prague leadership calculating the Czechs would be much better off without their poorer Slovak cousins, while Slovene and Croatian secessionism were party fired by exasperation at seeing their revenues swallowed up by Belgrade.
But if De Wever, Salmond and Mas all emphasise that their putative new countries must be granted seats at the EU’s top tables, it is not that straightforward. With the exception of Algerian independence from France in 1962 – an example not relevant to the current dilemmas – no European Union member state has ever broken apart, thrusting the EU into uncharted and uncertain territory over how to respond.
It is inconceivable the EU could ignore the democratically expressed will of the Catalan people if they vote freely for independence, argues Mas. But national leaders of the EU would need to agree to admit new members. Would a Spanish prime minister or (Greek) Cypriot president welcome a country called Scotland into the EU?A handful of EU countries refuse to recognise the Kosovo secession from Serbia in the Balkans. They include Spain, Cyprus and Slovakia for reasons of domestic politics – fear of the impact of legalising potential secessions or partitions at home.