Will Belgium’s unhappy marriage finally end in divorce?

For two centuries, Belgium has been split between francophone Walloons in the south and Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north, said Konrad Yakabuski in The Globe and Mail (Toronto). Aside from their shared Catholic faith, the two sides “agree to disagree on almost everything”. In 2010-11, it took them a record 541 days to form a coalition government, which even then “lurched from crisis to crisis”. So you’d have thought it impossible for the country to become any more divided. Wrong. The large gains by Flemish far-rightists in regional elections (held alongside the European ones last month) have precipitated a crisis unprecedented by even Belgian standards.

Riding a tide of anti-immigration feeling, the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party has been gaining support since the 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels that killed 32 civilians. Its call for the deportation of immigrants who fail to adapt to “Flemish and European culture” gets little support in multicultural, French-speaking Brussels, where the main francophone parties are pro-immigration and pro-EU. Yet Vlaams Belang managed to triple its vote. The nationalist but less extreme New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the party with the most seats, also did well, raising the spectre of a Flemish populist-separatist coalition taking power. French-speaking and left-leaning elites in Brussels fear the worst. Vlaams Belang has so far been excluded from ruling coalitions, but after these gains that will be hard to justify, said François Bailly in L’Echo (Brussels). Hence the awful sight of its 32-year-old leader, Tom Van Grieken, being received by King Philippe, whose job it is to sound out party chiefs over forming a government. (The last time the king welcomed a far-rightist was in 1936, when King Leopold III met Léon Degrelle, who later collaborated with the Nazis.) He had to, of course: to have gone on snubbing Van Grieken would have signalled that the votes of 800,000 Flemish voters didn’t count. Even so, opening the door to a government bent on breaking up the country is a chilling development.

What’s striking about this election – as in others around Europe – is that the left-right divide has also become more entrenched, said Wouter Verschelden on Politico (Brussels). While Flanders turned decisively to the Right, Walloons voted in significant numbers for socialists, Greens and communists, sharpening political differences at a national level. That will make it yet harder for them to come together and form a government. It could get worse, said NRC Handelsblad (Amsterdam). Walloons fear that the Flemish nationalist call for “confederalism” is a closet demand to split the country and be rid of their fellow citizens once and for all. That would hit them hard. Wallonia is far poorer than prosperous Flanders. Having “lived apart together” for years, the two sides may just have taken the first step towards actual divorce.