by Dr Nicolas Bouteca and Ward Peeters
Flemish nationalist parties
The introduction of universal suffrage for men in 1918 was the beginning of Flemish nationalist party politics in Belgium. Since then and with the exception of the decade after World War II there were always Flemish nationalist MPs in parliament. Three of the many Flemish nationalist parties managed to enter the federal government and helped steer the country in the direction of devolution: Volksunie (People’s Union; in government 1977-1979 and 1988-1991), Spirit (2003-2007) and N-VA (New Flemish Alliance; 2014-2018).
Only Volksunie managed to set some steps in the direction of greater Flemish autonomy during its time in the Martens VIII government (1988-1991). Spirit was less interested in devolution and too small to have significant impact. As it only existed for a few years we will leave the party out of this analysis. N-VA is far more important but chose to park its main policy goal in order to give the country a socio-economic spin to the right.
All three could be considered non-secessionist nationalist parties, but only the latter was successful in becoming more than a one-issue party. This shows that it is difficult for Flemish nationalist parties to outgrow their programmatic core of striving for more autonomy.
Volksunie between left and right
The Volksunie was founded in 1954 and had federalism as its core programmatic aim. The party was quite successful as its primary goal was realised in a series of incremental steps. Belgium was formally a unitary state prior to the reforms that were introduced in the 1970s. By 1993, a reform that introduced directly elected regional parliaments completed the country’s institutional evolution into a full-fledged federation. The six state reforms that took place in the intervening period resulted in what some call ‘a Copernican revolution’: Belgium’s substate units taken together today have a larger budget than does the federal level. It is important to note that these reforms were rarely the result of direct government participation by Volksunie, but rather a consequence of the electoral pressure it exerted on the country’s largest party: the Christian-democratic CVP (now CD&V).
Once Belgium became a federation, Volksunie realised its main goal and lost a part of its raison d’être. The party tried to anticipate this challenge, broadening its programme by adding socio-economic and post-materialist dimensions. Yet, it never quite managed to expand its appeal beyond the constitutional question onto other political dimensions. Continuing internal divisions between the left and the right factions on economic and cultural matters undermined Volksunie’s cohesion. Next to different views on a state reform pursued by party leadership, the internal quarrels between left and right wings of were one of the reasons for its split into Volksunie and Flemish Bloc (now Flemish interest) at the end of the 1970s, with the same issues leading to the ultimate dissolution of the Volksunie in 2001. From then on, the party was succeeded by the more social-liberal Spirit and the more rightwing N-VA.
Successful broadening by N-VA
Just like the Volksunie, N-VA seeks to turn Belgium into what they call a confederal state. After Belgium’s formal federalisation, Volksunie turned to confederalism, which they understood as entailing the devolution of even more powers to the sub-state entities within a federal framework (see manifesto of VU-ID of 1999). N-VA took the idea of confederalism a step further in 2014, with a plan for a confederal parliament which would be made up of members of the Walloon and Flemish regional parliaments, and the transfer of the kompetenz-kompeten  to Wallonia and Flanders (see N-VA’s 2014 manifesto).
Flemish independence remains in the party statutes, but according to leading N-VA politicians such as Geert Bourgeois, this must be considered a sort of utopian dream from the past. In order to achieve their confederal plans, N-VA is willing to negotiate with the Francophone parties on the federal level. This contrasts with Vlaams Belang’s continuing advocacy of Flemish independence via a unilateral declaration of sovereignty in the Flemish parliament. As true conservatives, N-VA reject this revolutionary path because, according to them, it could lead to a Catalan scenario (e.g. interview with leading N-VA politician Theo Francken).
N-VA can no longer be considered a secessionist party. For strategic reasons, Flemish independence has been replaced by the less revolutionary confederalism. This should appeal to voters who are not particularly interested in the institutional architecture of the state they live in. In the elections of 25 May 2014, only 6% of Flemish voters cited the linguistic issue as a motivation for their voting behaviour. Even among N-VA supporters, state reform was anything but a decisive voting motive. It is one of the top three most important themes for barely one in ten voters.
That is why N-VA decided to broaden its programmatic scope with clear views on socio-economic and migration issues. Along the lines of Miroslaw Hroch’s seminal work on nationalism, N-VA realised that their nationalism could only be successful if they no longer considered the nation as a goal, but as a means to address issues – including lower taxes and a stricter immigration policy – that are of concern to broader segments of the electorate. Party leader Bart De Wever called it the ‘Flemish ground stream’. This conservative course was a huge success and N-VA became the largest party of the country in the elections of 2010, 2014, and 2019.
Despite the party’s electoral success, N-VA has not brought Belgium closer to confederalism. In 2010 they negotiated on a sixth state reform but were ultimately displaced by eight other parties who reached an alternative agreement on institutional change. Likewise, after their biggest electoral success in 2014, N-VA did not manage to advance on their roadmap to confederalism. The Flemish nationalists entered the federal government but their coalition partners, especially the liberals of MR who were the only Francophone party in the government, forced N-VA to ‘freeze’ their plans for state reform. N-VA accepted this compromise because they sought to turn Belgium to the right on socio-economic issues, a turn they expected would result in Francophone parties themselves advocating for more autonomy as they are in favour of a more leftist course on socio-economic matters. This strategy did not really work probably because the Francophone parties saw through it and N-VA’s stint in the federal government was too short.
Flemish nationalist parties have rarely been able to directly participate in state reforms that advanced Flemish autonomy. Volksunie helped to turn Belgium into a federal state by participating in the third state reform in 1988 and both Volksunie and N-VA were able to put pressure on the governing parties during other rounds of state reforms. But it was mainly the traditional parties that put the Flemish nationalist dream of more regional autonomy into law.
Once the federalisation process was completed, Volksunie lost a part of its raison d’être. The party tried to anticipate this situation by broadening its programme, but its internal quarrels led to the split into the more social-liberal Spirit and the more rightwing N-VA in 2001. The latter managed to become the largest party of Flanders and Belgium but has to-date not brought their confederal ideal closer to reality.
Realising that most voters do not prioritise the constitutional architecture of the state, N-VA decided to broaden its programmatic scope with clear views on socio-economic and migration issues. This turn helped it become the new leading party of Flanders. Its new role and new programmatic scope also led to different expectations and more competition. Since they entered the federal government in 2014, N-VA can be considered an office-seeking party instead of an outsider party that can focus on structural institutional reforms. However, taking up government responsibility led to an electoral disaster after the party decided to leave the government in December 2018 because of a conflict on migration policy. The original owner of this issue, the radical right Vlaams Belang, took full advantage by reclaiming the issue and recovering a lot of voters who had left the party for N-VA at an earlier stage.
Both Volksunie and N-VA’s experience points to the conclusion that it is not easy for Flemish nationalist parties to broaden their scope beyond ‘striving for more autonomy’. Volksunie tried but failed and split into different parties. N-VA did manage to broaden its scope, but after an electoral disaster, the only issue they ‘own’ unambiguously is that of greater autonomy for Flanders and more concretely turning Belgium into a confederal state. This and the opposition against a faltering federal government is the reason why confederalism is likely to be N-VA's main campaign issue again in 2024.
Dr Nicolas Bouteca is an associate professor at the Department of Political Sciences of Ghent University.
Ward Peeters is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science of Ghent University.
Both are members of the Research Group Gaspar, which conducts research on political parties, participation, representation and federalism.
 The kompetenz-kompetenz is a jurisdictional principle on the division of powers. In a federal state the division of powers is decided on the federal level, but in a confederal state it are the constitutive states that can assign competences to the confederation by means of a treaty.