Vlaanderen aan de Vlamingen? Flemish nationalism and attitudes towards expanding autonomy in the light of political party programmes, 1971-2010

Heli Fyhr

Research output: Book/ReportDoctoral thesisMonograph


Over the past several decades Europe has seen the rise of nationalism. This evolution has been especially visible in Catalonia and Scotland, but also Belgium has witnessed significant erosion of the traditional nation-state. Over the years, Flemish-speaking Flanders has demanded more rights, competences, and autonomy. As a consequence, Belgium turned from a unitary state to a federal state in 1993. Since then, the popularity of political parties that support the independence of Flanders has further increased. This study deals with Flemish nationalism and positions of the main Flemish political parties towards extending autonomy from 1970s to 2010. I concentrate on the expansion of autonomy and the development of federalism in Belgium over these decades. My main focus is on Flanders, but I also look at the future of the whole Belgium.

The primary goal of this study is to identify what kind of attitudes the main Flemish political parties had towards extending the autonomy of Flanders in their political party programmes from the 1970s to 2010. Accordingly, I look at the issues, which are closely linked to Flemish nationalism, such as Dutch language, culture and identity. Finally, I discuss how much political party programmes put attention on regional policies in the European fora. Moreover, I will ask do they see Flanders as an independent player or together with Belgium when acting in the European or international arena?

In terms of time, this study focuses on three significant periods in Belgium’s political history: 1970, 1993 and 2010. The first turning point, the state reform of 1970, defined cultural communities to accommodate the demands of Flemish people for cultural autonomy. Afterwards, Belgium took the path towards federation. The second turning point, the Constitution of May 1993, is a milestone in the political history of Belgium because it formally characterised Belgium as a federal state. Finally, the last turning point is the premature federal elections of 2010. This period was chosen because the winner, the N-VA, clearly declared that its goal was to achieve the independence for Flanders.

I tackle the research questions by using qualitative approach. I will analyse my primary source material, the political party programmes of the main Flemish political parties, from the years 1971/1972, 1991, 1995 and 2010. By using conceptual content analysis as my main method, I concentrate in my analysing process on certain concepts related to the context of my study, such as federalism, nationalism and identity. In addition to party programmes, representing traditional Catholic, Socialist and Liberal pillars as well as more and more popular regional and Flemish nationalist political parties, I present Parliament discussions enlightening the political situation in 1969, 1988 and 2013. Moreover, I utilise theoretical and historical research literature, such as Daniel Elazar’s theory of federal political systems and Benedict Anderson’s theory of nationalism and ‘imagined communities’.

The main findings of this study reveal that there definitely are clear differences between Flemish political party programmes’ attitudes towards extending autonomy. Socialist parties emphasised a united Belgium more than other parties, even though also Socialist parties have supported decentralisation and federalism. The regionalist and Flemish nationalist parties were even in favour of the independence of Flanders while the Christian Democratic and Liberal parties aligned in the middle, supporting confederal model in 2010, but resisting strongly the independence of Flanders.

Nationalist matters, like emphasising Dutch language and culture, went somewhat hand in hand with the attitudes towards extending autonomy, more precisely whether party saw Flanders’ future as an independent country or as a part of Belgium. Of these four parties, the regionalist and Flemish nationalist parties underscored the most the Dutch language and culture. These parties also manifested the strongest Flemish identity. Socialist parties did not set much focus on nationalist matters, like Dutch language and culture, except for a while in 1990s, and presented the weakest Flemish identity. Christian Democratic and Liberal parties positioned themselves in the middle with a significant Flemish identity, but also with a relevant Belgian identity. Overall, the discussions and debates analysed supported all the findings found in the political party programmes.

A similar development can also be seen in parties’ EU policies. By the 1990s, regionalisation received increasingly attention in the party programmes, and Flanders was seen as an independent actor in the EU arena. In addition to the regionalist party, also the traditional parties focused on regionalist matters in the 1990s. By 2010, the attention on regionalist matters was decreasing, except in the party programme of the Flemish nationalist party, N-VA. It even suggested that Flanders should pursue membership in the EU.

The demand of Flemish people led to the first state reform in 1970. Afterwards, Belgium headed for federation – in a Belgian way. The Belgian federation is unique and extremely complex, with almost no similarities to classic federations displaying also some characteristics of confederalism. One might think that becoming a federation finally would be the end of all institutional changes, but Belgium continues to undergo change. Belgium has been in the middle of political crises more than once during recent decades. However, the solution ‘compromis à la Belge’ has been found every time. New state reforms have been made since 1993, the last one in 2011, and I envisage that new ones are yet to come. It seems that Belgium has tried to find a balance ever since it declared independence, and federalism has been just one step towards this equilibrium. For the most part, however, all this has happened step by step, without greater turbulence. Federalism has enabled Belgium to move towards more extending autonomy, confederalism, in a peaceful way. Nevertheless, the political parties that aspire to the independence of Flanders are very popular, which definitely poses challenges to a united Belgium. The country, where consociationalism has been an important tool in the policy-making, may face some serious times if the support of Flemish nationalist parties continues to grow. More or less, the real question is whether Flemish people are ready for another compromis à la Belge, or is it time to have Flanders for themselves – Vlaanderen aan de vlamingen?
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationTampere
PublisherTampere University
ISBN (Electronic)978-952-03-1859-8
ISBN (Print)978-952-03-1858-1
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)

Publication series

NameTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
ISSN (Print)2489-9860
ISSN (Electronic)2490-0028


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