The recent landslide win scored by the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) in Belgium's municipal elections must have had a sobbering effect on those who celebrated the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to the EU. On October 14, the nationalist NVA bagged over 30% of the vote and its leader Bart De Wever moved into the spotlight as the new mayor of Antwerp. France's Le Soir described the nationalist victory as a pivotal point in the history of the city while, as expected, De Wever immediately used the platform gained to call for converting Belgium into a confederation. At the moment, the positions of the Flemish separatists seem to be stronger than ever. The convincing result posted by the NVA is a huge improvement over the group's show in the previous poll, and the advent of De Wever marks the end of a whole era – a total of nine decades – when socialists used to run Antwerp.
Actually, the demonstration of 38% support which propelled De Wever to the post of the head of Europe's second-largest port city is not the main part of the picture. It may be more important that separatism in the Dutch-speaking Flanders is profoundly different from the separatist aspirations surfacing in Germany, France, or Spain. Considering that in Belgium 6 million out of the total of 11 million people live in Flanders, the epicenter of separatism in the country is found in the the region which is home to the biggest part of the population. Consequently, the Flemish separatism is not a minority pursuit as in Quebec, the Basque Country, or in Catalonia, but a stance adopted by the majority.
The economic centrality of Flanders to Belgium is another circumstance not to be overlooked. According to a timely comment by Radio France 24, De Wever fully takes into account while talking tough to Wallonia that is it a region with an ailing economy where the traditional leading sectors – coal mining and metallurgy – are in a state of chronic decline.
The structure of the Belgian statehood is supposed to sustain a set of checks and balances so as to accommodate synchronously the interests of Flanders, Wallonia, and the heavily bureaucratic Brussels, but occasionally a gap opens between theory and reality. De Wever hoped to become the premier when, in 2010, the nationalist New Flemish Alliance outran competitors with 17.4% in the nationwide elections, but the rival camp led by socialists chose instead to keep the country for 18 months with no cabinet confirmed and later – to put together a semi-coherent coalition with the current premier Elio Di Rupo.
No doubt, the arrangement only helped the Flemish separatists to gain popularity. Next national elections are due in 2014 and, if the present-day trends hold, by the time Belgium may see its unity seriously called into question.
It is likely that much of the informal debate at the upcoming October 18-19 EU summit will revolve around Belgium's current situation and fairly dire prospects. From a wider perspective, what is at stake is the EU identity in the changing world: Europe faces the dilemma of either functioning as a mechanism with a shared agenda and strong cohesion or evolving into a club with internal groupings, factions, and rifts.
At the moment, the world economy provides a grim background for the EU summit. While the negotiations with Greece over bailout terms stay in the arm-twisting phase, the European finance chiefs have to somehow handle the problem of Spain. S&P already shaved a couple of points off the Madrid's long-term rating, the junk level being only a notch below. Even worse for the Eurozone, the negative S&P forecasts stress the risks to which the Spanish budget is exposed as the crisis deepens. A 1.8% contraction likely awaits the 2012 Spanish GDP at the bottom line, meaning that the rating slide will continue.
The financial embarrassment suffered by the EU clearly tells on the chance of the candidates for Eurointegration. The report released by the European Commission on October 10 was carefully worded to avoid leaving the hopefuls with an impression that the EU is tired of handing out entry tickets. European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Štefan Füle addressed the European Parliament with a clear message that the financial problems are no reason to assume that the expansion of the alliance is over, but it did not evade watchers that the European Commission made no specific pledges concerning the matter, at least for the year ahead.
The above will surely echo with heightened Euroskepticism in South East Europe and Turkey. A shadow will be cast over Europe's image accordingly.
Whereas the problems confronting the EU in Greece are traceable to the country's former governments, the settings are more complicated in Spain. Experts worldwide charge that the Spanish government causes risks to multiply by not calling for immediate help. According to the Credit Agricole analysis, the policy not only harms the Spanish credit rating but also drags down the market as a whole.
The reasons why Spain's Mariano Rajoy is wary of a bailout are essentially political. Allegations will imminently follow within Spain that the government pushes the country into a crippling program like the one imposed on Greece. The relations with Catalonia, where nobody even bothers to disguise the plan of seizing the opportunities opened up by the crisis to advance the independence cause, are the Spanish government's another headache that affects the overall policy. The potential reaction in the Basque Country also has to be born in mind.
So far, the yields on Spanish bonds have been steadily climbing towards the 7% mark set as critical by the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Once the yields pass it, the situation in Spain will be read as pre-default. The diagnosis, however, applies to the EU as a whole.