Published October 13, 2012
ANTWERP, Belgium – Historic world port and fashionista capital, Antwerp has always lived on the crest of the wave. Now, a separatist party heading into municipal elections Sunday wants to use the city as a base for breaking away from Belgium — putting it at the forefront of a European breakaway trend just as the EU celebrates winning the Nobel Peace Prize for fostering continental unity.
Moves toward separatism have been getting a bigger these past months as the economic crisis pushes people faster toward stark choices on nationhood and their future. It is no different in Spain’s Catalonia, another wealthy region grousing that it has to pay for others in its crisis-hit country.
Scotland, too, is looking at the option of going its own way, making the United Kingdom a little less united.
Two days after the European Union won the Peace Prize for bridging ties between former enemies, Belgium holds municipal elections in which separatists hope to pick up city halls across Dutch-speaking northern Flanders. Bart De Wever, the leader of a Flemish separatist party, is running for mayor of wealthy Antwerp and has been perennially at odds with ailing French-speaking Wallonia.
If elected, De Wever plans to use city hall as a platform for the 2014 national election and an even more ambitious program of separatism.
By that time, he says, he will be counting on a “democratic revolt” at the polls.
De Wever’s NV-A party already surged in the 2010 national elections, and was the main reason why Belgium had the longest period without a government on record — at 541 days. Coalition-building was paralyzed as the separatists sought concessions to give Flanders as much autonomy as possible.
It didn’t work out and De Wever ended up in opposition facing French-speaking socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, a staunch defender of the Belgian nation-state. But De Wever is the frontrunner in Sunday’s Antwerp vote, and his party is likely to surge across Flanders, polls have shown.
For De Wever, the municipal elections are not primarily about parking spots or ring-roads. They are about the fate of the 6 million Flemings in the kingdom of 11 million, and he chides Di Rupo for imposing too many taxes, sapping too much money from Flanders.
“Little by little, the Flemings don’t take that anymore and they are worried about their wealth,” De Wever said.
The city is still dripping with exterior signs of wealth, though. The Antwerp fashion designers have turned the historic center into a magnet of conspicuous consumption, its gothic and baroque landmarks are examples of sumptuous renovation, its MAS museum an icon of contemporary design, and its famous port is still thriving.
Separatism is also rife in Spain — a country at the center of Europe’s crisis with a youth unemployment rate of more than 50 percent.
While De Wever was making reasoned arguments in a political debate last Sunday, the 98,000-capacity Camp Nou of FC Barcelona was already a scene of seething Catalan foment for the famed encounter against Real Madrid.
Real Madrid is still identified with the unified Spanish state and was met with a mosaic of color cards forming the red-and-yellow stripes of Catalonia’s “la senyera” flag. At one stage during the match, incessant collective shouts of “Independence!” cascaded down the stands as fans waved the pro-independence “estelada” flag.
Last month, 1.5 million Catalans took to the streets in Barcelona to call for a separate state in the biggest march since the 1970s. Catalonia’s regional government voted on Sept. 27 to hold a referendum on Catalonia’s self-determination at a date still yet to be set. The Spanish government says this would be unconstitutional.
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy said on Tuesday that those seeking independence for Spain are making “a mistake of colossal proportions.”
But Rajoy, like many of his fellow European leaders, is in a bind: National governments have had both to cede power to the supranational EU and to regions demanding greater autonomy and local accountability.
“People are anxious because the European Union seems far away,” said Prof. Hendrik Vos, head of Ghent University’s Center for EU Studies. “That is why there is this yearning to keep things close.”
And local control has become ever more important for rich pockets of Europe.
“Those regions say how hard they had to work for their wealth,” Vos said, “and they don’t want to throw it away or share with the rest of the EU.”