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Nationalist gains raise stakes across Belgium, Europe

15 October 2012, 19:29 CET
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(BRUSSELS) - A Flemish nationalist breakthrough is a rude wake-up call for Belgium's government and reflects spreading independence demands across Europe stoked by unpopular EU austerity policies, analysts said Monday.

New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) leader Bart De Wever, having chalked up a victory for mayor in Antwerp, now goes into local coalition horse-trading with one eye on the 2014 federal polls which he wants to result in a looser "confederation" with mainly French-speaking Wallonia in Belgium's south.

De Wever's success is not an isolated case in Europe and comes just as the leaders of Scotland and Britain signed a historic deal Monday to hold a referendum on Scottish independence by 2014.

A 'Yes' vote could lead to the unprecedented break-up of the United Kingdom after some 300 years as a single political entity.

And in Spain's Catalonia region, nationalists are preparing snap elections on November 25 which their leader wants to provide a mandate to hold a similar vote on independence.

The Belgian federal government of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo "does nothing but levy tax and is not supported by a majority in Flanders," De Wever said after Sunday's victory in Antwerp, the country's economic heart where he capitalised on resentment at what is seen as the spendthrift ways of the Socialist-ruled south.

From fringe status only six years ago, the right-wing N-VA "wave" will lead to "either break-up or confederation," according to Pascal Delwit, a political scientist at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB).

"Flanders wants more free-market economic policy ... for instance restricting unemployment benefits or ending automatic salary indexing (to inflation)," said Pierre Vercauteren of the University of Mons, tipping a 2014 "moment of truth."

"The Flemish case is clearly situated in a Belgian context," said Amandine Crespy of the ULB's Institute of European Studies, but there are similarities across Europe.

"These are very significant developments -- either taken individually and especially taken together -- that are likely to become even more important over coming months," Sony Kapoor, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, told AFP.

"The idea of secession as a solution will probably deepen and spread," said Kapoor, whose Re-Define consultancy numbers eurozone governments and European Union institutions among its clients.

"Very importantly, this will also make the solution to the (debt) crisis much harder to find."

He noted that how Catalans vote in November could prove a watershed, with potentially unpredictable knock-on effects elsewhere.

"If Catalonia refuses to share risks and resources with the rest of Spain, there is a legitimate question to be asked about Germany and why it should share," he said, referring to reluctance in Europe's biggest economy to pay the rescue bill of its southern, struggling eurozone partners.

From Antwerp to Aberdeen, Europe's energy capital, Kapoor sees the leaders of EU member states "getting pushed into a corner by this.

"The pursuit of excessive austerity and not dealing with the Greek (debt bailout) situation properly means European leaders have fomented fundamental unrest," he said.

"The first to go are always to be found where there are historical faultlines," Kapoor concluded.


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