Mon, Oct 14, 2013 - Page 18 News List

Belgian joy over World Cup berth irks separatists

Reuters, BRUSSELS

Belgium is “in” and, suddenly, so may be Belgitude.

French and Dutch-speaking Belgians have come together to celebrate their national soccer team, whose 2-1 win over Croatia on Friday secured the Red Devils a place at next year’s FIFA World Cup, their first major international tournament in 12 years.

The team’s success, combined with the crowning of a new king, Philippe, and the naming of the first Belgian since 1977 to win a Nobel prize has prompted talk of a renewed national identity, dubbed Belgitude.

It has also left some glum faces among those seeking a separate Flemish state and their party, the N-VA.

Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo and members of his coalition government have been keen to ride the Red Devils wave, some tweeting photos of themselves waving the team’s plane off from the tarmac at Brussels airport, for example.

“The morale in the country is rising and I really hope that it will lead to Belgian unity because we are more powerful together,” Brussels resident Pascal Grison said at the weekend market on Flagey Square the morning after the win.

The N-VA, the largest party in the federal parliament, has found it hard to share the national joy.

“Those flag colors on the cheeks? I don’t care for the Belgian flag, it leaves me cold,” Jan Peumans, president of the Flemish regional parliament, said in an interview in P-Magazine.

Peumans said he only learned of Belgium’s 2-0 win over Scotland last month in the newspapers and added he felt sorry for the losers, who are in the middle of their own identity debate and will hold a referendum on separating from the UK next year.

Belgium has long been split between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, with different education systems and regional policies. The unemployment rate in Wallonia is about twice the level in northern Flanders, where many voters feel they are subsiding the left-wing policies of the south.

Antwerp Mayor Bart de Wever, another N-VA leader, told Belgian television he supported the national team because it contained Flemish players, but declined to utter the phrase “I support Belgium” when pressed to do so.

De Wever, like all N-VA politicians, must maintain a delicate balancing act between the minority of Flemish voters who support the party because they genuinely want independence and those who like its contrarian, center-right views.

“Many who vote N-VA don’t share its separatist agenda at all. In Flanders, only a minority of voters want an independent Flanders. It’s bizarre, but you can vote N-VA and be a Red Devils fan,” Ghent politics professor Carl Devos said.

Fons Jena, a 24-year-old in the Flemish town of Overijse, said he was concerned about the effect of the soccer success on federal and regional elections due next May.

“I fear that it will have a negative effect for the N-VA in the election,” Jena said. “All of this, including the new king a few months back, is all falling into place for the current government.”

An opinion poll released on Friday showed that support for the N-VA in Flanders had dropped beneath 30 percent for the first time since the 2010 election, although it remains comfortably the region’s largest party.

Dave Sinardet, a political scientist at Brussels’ Free University, said although the World Cup was unlikely to be a big factor for the N-VA next year, the national mood was bound to be a concern for the separatist movement.

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