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Belgium's failure to form a government explained

Today Belgium equals Iraq's record for failure to form a government, 249 days from the election and still going strong.

For once I agree with the Economist, the trouble is in Flanders. This should have been a relatively easy government to form, needing only 76 seats out of the 150 member parliament. The Green-Left were the strongest parties, with 53 seats in total. The Liberal parties were the next strongest, with 31 seats in total. The centre-right parties performed very badly, at historically low levels, with a total of 31 seats. So a Green-Left-Liberal alliance would give 84 seats, enough to form government. All the parties are socially progressive, although there are divisions on economic policy (from the free marketeers in the Liberal parties, to the unionists in the socialist parties) but nothing greater than the conflict between many left-wing parties in other countries. Indeed, the Socialists, Greens and Liberals have worked together successfully before, in the "Purple-Green" coalition under Guy Verhofstadt, from 1999 to 2003.

The problem is with two Flemish Nationalists parties, NVA (New Flemish Alliance) and Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest). Vlaams Belang won 12 seats, and everyone is use to ignoring them, because there policies are extremist right-wing and xenophobic. NVA is more difficult. It is a centre-right wing party, not especially extremist, but are strict Flemish nationalists, ultimately wanting Flemish sucession. The NVA claims they won the election with 27 seats, making them the biggest single party (but still smaller than either the Socialists or the Liberals, which run seperate parties in the Flemish and French-speaking areas).

Unfortunately, this means there are three ways that government can for:

1) "Purple-Green" coalition, with 84 seats. Proven and without major ideological splits. The only problem is that the Flemish parties in the Purple-Green coalition are reluctant to exclude NVA from parliament. Firstly, because it would look bad excluding the largest single party, and secondly because they share some sympathy with the NVA on partial divergence and they are worried about losing further votes to the NVA at the next election.

2) "National Unity" coalition, with 124 seats. Add together the centre-right, Liberals, Socialists and NVA, leaving out only the Green parties, the independent Jean-Marie Dedecker (maybe, they could be included) and Vlaams Belang. This is what everyone has been striving for, but it is almost impossible - there are polar opposite views on nearly every topic - social issues, language issues and economic issues. This has been done several times in Belgium before (minus NVA), with four different governments under Yves Leterme and Herman Van Rompuy from 2008 to 2010, but tends to fall apart often because of the divsions. And really, what is the point of elections where every party goes into government together?

3) A nationalist right-wing coalition, with 84 seats. Add together all the parties that are right-wing on economics - the centre-right parties, the Liberals and the NVA and you get to 84 seats. Possibly 85, if you include Jean-Marie Dedecker. The parties are relatively close on economic conservatism, with only social issues causing friction, between the progressive Liberals and the conservative centre-right. However this is a classic government formation in Europe, and was the most common government in Belgium before 1999. Except, this all happened without NVA. With NVA, the French-speaking centre-right and Liberal parties are not attracted to the coalition, because NVA is demanding a lot of concessions (essentially, they want everything they went to the election with, without a sign of compromise on any topic). Without NVA, there are not the numbers to form a government (only 57 seats).

So the problem is that with three ways to form government, every party is trying to work out which option will give them the most. The Liberals, for example, would get the most on the social policy front in option #1 and the most on the economic front in option #3. And if you split the Liberals into the French and Flemish-speaking Liberal parties, they would prefer options #1 and #3, respectively, on language issues. The Flemish socialists would prefer option #1 on social and economic policies, but option #2 would give them more progress on language issues and protect their vote at the next election.

Personally, I would prefer option #1. It is a proven effective and long-lasting government, and has good social and economic balance. Not much would change on the language divisions, but that is hardly urgent and the most sensible solution (enlarging Brussels, in my opinion) is rarely discussed. Unfortunately, I think we will end up with option #3. The centre-right parties, despite a terrible result, are use to working with the Liberals and share a lot of common ground with the NVA. If the NVA can just back down half an inch on the language division, the French-speaking right-wing will sign up. Belgium will be the worse for being run by free marketeers that want to split the country, but I wouldn't be surprised if this result is announced within a few weeks.

Reader Comments (39)

The problem with your suggested sollutions is that you base it on the need for a 'simple' majority. This is not an issue since there will have to be a government with the power the change the constitution, needing an 2/3 majority.
Furthermore, the 'enlargement of Brussels' is impossible since the only direction it wants to enlarge in, is towards Flemish speaking ground, wanting defacto to turn it into french speaking country...this, ofcourse, is a impossible.

February 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBart

True, it is not simple in political terms, but it is the simplest as in it is the least complex way to deal with the issue. Enlarging the Brussels area would make the bilingual facilities and voting constitutional, making it a positive change. The alternative is to take rights away from the large French-speaking population in the outer suburbs, which would be a negative change.

I agree that some Flemings may see a Brussels enlargement as turning Flemish speaking territory into French speaking territory, but it is just acknowledging the reality that Brussels is larger than it was when the language census was carried out in the early 1900s. No Flemish speaker would lose rights by a Brussels enlargement, since Brussels is legally bilingual, so no harm is being done. I think that if the Flemish nationalists want to gain extra power to Flanders, it is only reasonable for them to give up land that Flemings have already moved out of. Give and take.

February 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

Your text is based on more then a few mistakes, or wrong interpretations (probably caused by the biased source you were informed upon):
- there are no 'rights' to take away, since when those rights for the frenchspeaking (at that time minority) population was accorded to them, they were accorded in a timeframe when they would be diminished to nill
- the language census was carried out after the second world war, upon the refusal of the french speaking part to form an entirely billangual country (from the coast to the ardens)
- you say giving up land is 'reasonable' : but what in 10 - 20 years time... are we supposed to give up more land if french speaking ppl choose to go and live in more flemish communities and refuse to learn dutch ? Are we then not in acutal fact chosing to revert back to a entirely french country in se ? And is this not after all the actual desire of the french speaking part of the country (La Belgique sera Latine ou elle ne sera pas ?)

February 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBart

I admire your willingness to make sense of the Belgian political conundrum, but I'm afraid your analysis is quite devoid of any profound insight. You fail to grasp some key points. The problem is not that there are too many coalition options to choose from and that the parties can't make up their minds. It's rather the opposite: the coalition choices are severely limited. One crucial point you seem unaware of is that Belgium needs a federal government with a 2/3 majority, i.e. 100 out of 150 seats in parliament, in order to solve the issue of the unconstitutional electoral district Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV), as ordered by the Constitutional Court in 2002. In fact, the last federal elections were strictly speaking unconstitutional because parliament had failed to resolve this issue before the elections. Regardless of their ideological differences all political parties, both Flemish and Walloon, agree that the BHV-issue needs to be solved. If you take this into account, and the desire of both Flemish and Walloon parties to have a normal (50% + 1) majority in both language groups, then it is immediately clear that the coalition choices are very limited. A government of national unity, including liberal, centre right, socialist and green parties from both language groups (but excluding nationalist N-VA and Vlaams Belang), is a mathematical possibility, but entirely impossible due to a plethora of ideological and strategic differences. All other possible coalitions need the N-VA to secure a 2/3 majority and there lies the biggest problem. N-VA is a party striving for an independent Flanders and they need to form a government with parties whose ideas of institutional reform are much less radical.

February 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRenaat

@Bart. I don't think it helps to ever start a discussion in bad faith. I am not writing based on biased sources, I have in fact tried to read everyone's opinion, from "The United States of Europe" by Guy Verhofstadt to the odious "A Throne in Brussels" by Paul Belien. You shouldn't assume that just because someone disagrees with you they are uninformed.

It is also not healthy to start a discussion with vitriol. Both French speakers and Flemish speakers have made extraordinary efforts to learn the language of the other group. Flanders is the region with the highest number of French-as-a-second-language speakers in the world, and Brussels/Walloon is the region with the highest number of Dutch-as-a-second-language speakers in the world. This is really remarkable. Likewise, in Brussels there is an enormous demand for French speakers to send their children to Flemish language schools. These two facts simply do not support your statements on French speakers refusing to learn Dutch.

Yes, going back to an entirely bilingual country would be one solution to the problem, although I think this would be politically less tasteful to many Flemish voters than enlarging the Brussels region. The reality is that Brussels is larger than the current borders, and that the area around Brussels is bilingual and has been bilingual for centuries. Why not acknowledge that fact legally and expand the bilingual Brussels area? The current deadline was based on old demographics and a old politics and something needs to change.

February 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

@Renaat. Clearly the BHV issue is going to be very difficult to solve, and a 2/3 majority is not going to happen with the current make-up. But if the issue is just put on the back-shelf (which ultimately it will be, I don't think many people expect BHV to be solved by the next government) then a government can form with more ease, in several different ways. The other issue you raise is the (I think) trickier one - the issues of preferences, such as having 50%+ within each language group. The key weakness of the Green-Purple coalition would be that the Flemish parties would be a minority within Flanders, and they of course have to worry about the effect that image would have on their next election - the last thing they want is to give NVA a platform to campaign on.

The problem with NVA is that there is little benefit to them in compromising. If they hold out and get everything they want, they win. If they hold out and stop government forming, they make Belgium look ungovernable and again they win.

February 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

Wow, sorry Adrian, but I have to disagree with you on this issue.

First of all, grouping parties according to political "families" makes absolutely no sense in Belgium. The political program of the flemish or the walloon parties are much closer to each other than to that of their "sister-parties" in the other half of the country. The Liberal family includes the FDF (part of MR) which is a single issue party focussed on protecting/enlarging the rights of French speakers in the Rand. On the other hand you have Open VLD president Alexander de Croo, who CAUSED the fall of the past government because BHV wasn't getting split up, they could not be more diametrically opposed. Same goes for the Socialist and certainly Christian Democratic parties. (CD&V and CDH hate each other). Besides it's because of these wildly different ideological viewpoints that these (formarly unitary) parties split up in the first place. Which "political family" is the biggest is therefor meaningless.

You conveniently group green and socialist as "left-green" but for some reason don't include the liberals in centre right? Open VLD and MR are centre right parties. I've never heard anyone on either side of the language barrier claim anything else. I'm really astonished by that claim.

So you have
Left: green/socialist= 52 seats (not sure where you get that 53th from)
Centre-right= Liberal/Christian-dem/NVA/LDD/PP= 86 seats
Far right: VB = 12 seats

(BTW. If you look at the number of people who voted rather than division of seats the balance tilts even more in the advantage of centre-right. Compare NVA's 1,135,617 votes for 27 seats with PS's 894,543 votes for 26 seats for example)

Of course the Left/right devide isn't strict, I would consider CD.H to be a more "left" party than SP.A for example. CD&V has the support of the biggest labour union in the country, so there is definitely a left wing in that party etc.

But really this whole discussion is a side issue, because I'm sure that any of those parties (except VB) can work out a socio-economic program with each other that they can agree upon. It would be hard but not impossible. What has been the problem over the past year have not been the socio-economic issues, but the "communautaire" (language-community) issues. And on those issues you see, with the exeption of the green parties Flemish and Walloon parties completely opposed (even in the socialist parties).

If you also consider the fact that, even though not required by the constitution it is an unwritten rule that the federal government has to have a majority in both halves of the country, you have to look at both halves seperately as well. In Wallonia you can still get a left wing majority but in Flanders you get:

Left: 18 seats
Centre Right: 58 seats
Far right: 12 seats

Even if you would take a "Purple" or even your preferred "Purple + green" coalition you will still not have a majority on flemish side. (and none of the parties in question want this coalition either as you rightfully noted)

I think your comment that NV-A has not made any concessions and the PS has, is very much an opinion, and an opinion that I think most Belgians would disagree with. It's a perfectly valid opinion of course and I respect it, but don't present it as a fact. Personally I feel that both PS and NVA have already made some major concessions but because their respective starting points are so far away from each other even these concessions haven't come even close to overlapping.

February 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

Also, by far the most common coalition between WWII and 1999 was the centre-left combination of christian-democrats & socialists. Which is the most useful reference timeframe if you ak me, if you go back even further than that you have to take into account that parties were very different from their current counterparts.

February 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

"If the NVA can just back down half an inch on the language division, the French-speaking right-wing will sign up."

The french speaking right are the LAST to sign up for this. CDH and FDF take a much tougher position on language issues than PS or Ecolo do. So, don't worry ;-)
Also describing CD&V as "Free-Marketeers?" I nearly choked in my coke when I read that. Did you not see Leterme argue (almost fight) with Angela Merkel last week when she even suggested that MAYBE belgium should reconsider it's automatic indexation of all wages? Why do farmers turn to CD&V when they need extra state support or protection when things go bad? Open VLD is a free market party, CD&V and NVA are not.

February 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

Cedric, I don't think we are actually disagreeing here, I am just separating economics, social policy and language issues up.

You say that CD&V and CDH hate each other and have wildly different ideological viewpoints, but that is really looking at it only through the issue of the language lens. On economic and social policy, CD&V and CDH are not that far away from each other - as well as having a common ancestor, both parties are the Belgium representatives to the European People's Party. Likewise, the SPa and PS are the Belgium representatives to the Party of European Socialists, and OpenVLD and MR are the Belgium representatives to the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party. Put aside the language issues (yes, those are huge, but we can deal with them as a discrete issue) and it does make sense to cluster parties with their sister parties over the language border. Afterall, this is what the parties do themselves in the European Union, where language is not an issue. By your logic, CD.H should be within the Party of European Socialists, left of the SPa, but that is not who they associated with at the European level.

As for the Liberal parties, I didn't simply lump them in with the centre-right for good reason. Liberal parties are clearly on the right-wing of politics in terms of economics, and on the left-wing of politics in terms of social policy. Liberal parties across Europe do tend to cluster with the centre-right, but also have proven quite capable of governing with the centre-left. The category for most of the parties really depends on which angle you are looking from, economic, social or language-issues.

February 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

But of course everything is further complicated by the types of deals that get made, where one party may join a coalition of parties that it has little in common with simply because it gets given particular posts or policy concessions.

The point of my post is that the current impasse is not simply a language issue and is not a sign that Belgium can't function as a party, it is simply the complicated electoral calculus of the past election, made more complicated by the large number of seats blocked up by VB and NVA. I certainly don't equate these two politically, NVA is no where near the VB extremism, but they do make negotiations much more complex. I would say that they have not been helpful in negotiations - it is the NVA that walked away from the first round of negotiations when they were almost complete in October, saying that everything had to start from scratch, not PS. There is a very good reason for that, of course, since NVA has the best negotiating position and the least incentive to get a government together. Clearly that is my opinion, but I think I have framed it as my opinion and have given the rationale for my opinion.

February 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

I don't see any difference in non-language "social policy" between Open VLD and say NVA. The traditional political coalition in the 20th century always included the Christian Democrats and was either called Centre-left (ChristianDem & Socialist) or Centre-right (ChristianDem & Liberal). You can also see that votes transfer very easily between Groen and SP.A on the one hand and between NVA/CD&V/VLD on the other hand. I think you split these two up to be able to make the claim that the left are somehow the winners of the past elections.

I think that looking at their ACTUAL program and actual actions rather than however they want to name themselves or what european paliament group they belong to, you will find that the program of CDH is much closer to that of PS than that of CD&V even ignoring language issues.

Political negotiations are never "almost over", since every subject is interconnected there is only an agreement when there's an agreement about every subject. NVA was never the only party to "shoot down" a project, in fact there was never any concrete project to shoot down, they constantly asked for projects to be put on paper but not a single compromise text was ever made by a French speaking politician or party (even though this has often been asked) Bart de Wever (NVA) and Johan Vande Lanotte (SP.A) were the only politicians who ever created concrete proposals.

Also, I think it's very normal that they defend their political program, just like the PS does, personally I don't want to see Belgium break up, but I think it's a perfectly valid political position to take. Between NVA and PS I think it's ironically actually the PS who has done less to achieve a solution, especially since they are the party that wants to have the post of PM, normally that's the party that takes charge of the government formation talks. They are (rightly or not) too afraid to take major losses next election to take any position concrete position. I would much prefer it if they made a document that said (even if I won't agree with the content) "look, this is how we would like to run the next government." The SP.A has done that, even the NV-A has done that (and it was shot down within the day) the PS hasn't and I think it's a cowardly position to take for a party that wants to lead the next government. Also, if you haven't even started discussing either BHV, the state deficit, or the financing-law then you are not "almost done".

I think what drives me, and most people in Flanders to vote centre-right is a profound worry about the huge state deficit, the structural measures on how to reduce it, and how to make sure that this deficit won't lead to even higher taxes. Much more than any language issue. Is that a "conservative" position? Does it show a lack of solidarity? I think it shows a responsibility and a solidarity with future generations. Spending tax money on paying interests on loans from the 80's is a huge burden and a waste of money that could be used in education, research, health etc. Things that will help us in the long run. What's "progressive" about refusing institutional change, about burdening future generations with an enormous debt, about keeping a system in place that has led to 30% unemployment in Wallonia, a place with the highest unemployment in europe even though it shares all the geographical features and advantages of it's neighbors (not just Flanders but the surrounding areas of France, Germany and Luxembourg). When the PS arrives at the negotiation table with the demand of 500 million euros extra for Brussels every year, which Flanders was willing to do, but refuses to even say what it will be used for, how can the Flemish not be skeptic. Is it a system to improve Brussels education (which I would support) or is it to keep supporting the current policies of their mayors in Brussels municipalities with their INSANE youth unemployment that is over 65%!! The solution to this problem is MUCH more investments in education (they complain that flemish people are "taking away" jobs of the brussels youth, but without even a high school degree, how are you going to compete with people with university degrees? This has nothing to do with internal belgian struggles, I don't think that Toyota's HQ in Brussels for example cares about who's Flemish and who's Walloon) instead of just unemployment benefits that are unlimited in time (unique in the world) with barely any requirement (or even incentive) to improve your education.

So basically, I feel like they waste money trying to patch up the current situation, whilst not making fundamental investments and changes needed to actually improve the underlying causes. This is why I believe so many people voted CD&V in 2007, hoping that they could negotiate a stricter budgetary and economic policy; and why when that didn't happen, they massively switched to NV-A in 2010. Not because of Flemish independence or language issues.

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

...and is also the reason why no Flemish party wants to govern without NVA, the reasoning being: if we can't get the PS to agree to state reform or to a stricter budgetary policy, then at least the public will see that the NVA isn't able to do it either.

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

...I don't want to demonize the PS here, I'm sure that most of them are nice people who honestly believe that what they do is best for the country, or at least for their voters. I was just expressing a frustration I have about political parties and people that I consider to be too nonchalantic in the way they handle the budget. As a civil servant now I also get pretty angry at work when I see tax payers money being wasted. And of course health care and unemployment benefits are a good thing and absolutely crucial in our society; but I think the Belgian socialists parties are nonchalant in their spending, don't work on the root causes and are in denial about the need for any changes. A 65% youth unemployment is a disgrace for any city and the solution is not a combination of doing nothing, having unlimited unemployment benefits who will all be PS voters, and most of all a lack of investments in education.

I also got pretty sidetracked from the original discussion :-)

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

I don't think the "left" won the election, I think the election results show that the winners were social progressives (Socialists, Greens, Liberals) and economic conservatives (Liberals, NVA, Christian Democrats). So the left won in terms of social policy and the right won in terms of economic policy, which is part of what makes coalition building difficult. And no matter what you say, I simply can't consider the Liberal party to be right of the Christian Democrats on social issues - the Liberals were even openly saying to the press a few months ago that government subsidisation to the Churches should be cut, something the Christian Democrats would protest.

Look at same-sex marriage - the law was passed in 2002 after being sponsored by the Greens, Liberals and Socialists (both French and Flemish parties for each), in the first government that did not include the Christian Democrats for decades. So even if we ignore the EU clustering (which I don't think we should) we can look at the actions - the French and Flemish parties all worked together, across language lines and along social progressive (left) lines to legalise same-sex marriage.

February 19, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

As for your position against the Socialists, yes that is the generally articulated opposition - "we can't afford to support these poor people, and anyway the support just makes them dependent on more support". I don't buy it. It is always a matter of spending priories, and when it comes down to it I think the highest priority should be in supporting those who need it the most - which is the Socialist position. The Christian Democrats may use the excuse that they need to cut the debt when they are squeezing social services, but there are plenty of other options available. Off the top of my head here are 10 ways that the debt could be reduced according to socialist principles:

1. Cut spending by not directly subsidising the Churches
2. Cut spending by not partially subsiding homeopathy under health insurance - it is a scam
3. Cut spending by reducing farm subsidies
4. Cut spending by giving a fixed pension, rather than one dependent on salary at retirement
5. Cut spending by cutting the bloated list of royal family members getting huge payoffs
6. Cut spending by cutting the subsidisation of first-class train travel
7. Cut spending on the military
8. Increase revenue by having higher tax rates for the richest - where does the highest tax bracket kick in? Something like 40,000 a year right? Why not an extra tax bracket for those who earn over a million a year?
9. Increase revenue by making royal family members pay taxation on their business ventures
10. Increase revenue by cutting the enormous loopholes in business taxes, where nearly everything is tax deductible, down to clothing allowances for CEOs

Socialists are not idealists who don't understand the concept of a balanced budget, they just have different priorities - such as supporting the unemployed or job creation programs rather than the royal family and the church. I like that, this is one of the reasons why I came to Belgium, because I have seen what happens when unemployment is capped - people end up homeless. Money spent on education is an investment that pays off in skilled workers, that is good socialist policy.

Look at the case of Brussels, with the worst poverty rate in Belgium. Why? Because of the stupid regional boundaries, where Federal funding is squeezed (and you can't deny that many Flemish voters dislike money going to Brussels, while simultaneously fighting tooth and nail for it to remain Flemish) and the local tax base is anemic - the highest paid are all EU and NATO employees, who don't pay Belgian taxes, or are commuting in from the wealthy towns in Flemish and Walloon Brabant. I'm not trying to demonise the Christian Democrats, they have done a lot of good things for Belgium, such as building the railway system and for the safety net, but they have been in government continually from 1958, with the exception of the Verhofstadt administration, so they need to take responsibility for the bloated debt and the poverty in Brussels. When was the last administration with a Socialist Prime Minister? Wasn't it the early 70s for a year, and before that the 40-50s? Kind of makes it unfair to blame the Socialists for a debt racked up entirely under Christian Democrat Prime Ministers.

February 19, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

Also side-tracked, but it is a good discussion :)

February 19, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

Except that comment kind of falls appart when you consider that the same-sex marriage vote was opposed by the MR (French liberals) and supported by CD&V (Flemish Christian Democrats) who offered the necessary votes to reach a majority in spite of MR's opposition.

In general I would agree though that Liberals tend to be slightly more to the left of CD&V on social issues, but CDH certainly isn't, and I don't think you'll find many differences between VLD and NVA on social issues either.

Socially progressive: PS, SPA, Green, Ecolo
Socially quite progressive; MR, Open VLD, NVA, centre and left wing CD&V, CDH
Socially conservative: The "old" catholic conservative right wing within CD&V and obviously VB and FN

Also, there really wasn't any big controversy about any social position during the last elections, the elections were fought over language and economic issues, and that's how the parties profiled themselves.

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

I agree with all 10 of your propositions on how to cut spending, and maybe I wasn't clear, I'm not suggesting that people want to be on unemployment benifits, obviously (almost) nobody wants that. I'm saying that we should invest in schooling to take away the causes of the unemployment. And the problem with the sky-high youth unemployment in Brussels is a lack of training, with many high school drop outs and very little higher education.

Belgium in general, and especially Brussels is a services oriented market, there is very little industrial production. If you are an EU institution or an international company setting up headquarters in Brussels, you will be looking for people with a degree, with a good knowledge of foreign languages etc. Without MASSIVE investments in Brussels education the vast majority of local youth doesn't stand a chance.

When we look at Brussels and Wallonia we see much less investments in education. I think education, including university education should be completely free, and unemployment benefits should come with a clause that forces people to enroll in higher education if they can't find a job and wish to receive unemployment benifits. It would be cheaper in the long run since these people would actually stand a chance to get a job at a certain point. But I never see any program like that from the PS, they focus on symptoms (unemployment) and not on causes.

I don't blame Socialism for the deficit in the 80's, I'm just saying that we shouldn't repeat that same mistake again now. A deficit now means much less money for ANY kind of social policy in the future.

With the PS in particular, not with socialism in general I DO notice a lack of care about the budget, refusing to write down any plan on how to reduce the deficit. One Belgian PS minister in charge of the budget even said "the state deficit arrived on it's own, it will disappear on its own as well" (= we don't need to do anything) clearly that's not the way to go.

I completely support your 10 proposals, but I don't see why we can't do both, saving in one area doesn't mean you shouldn't try to save in another.

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

On second thought, I don't COMPLETELY agree with your 10 spending proposals. :-)

I would solve #5 and #9 by simply abolishing the royal family. I like the guy but it's a medieval system

About #4: I am in favour of putting "floors" and "ceilings" on the pensions, but I think there should still be some correlation between how much money you have put in the system (not just to support your own pension but to help others as well) and how much you get out. Besides in your system you would have a rise in the pension for lawyers, doctors, LAnd Surveyers, notaries, owners of small and large businesses etc and other "independent" jobs (who pay less in social security and therefor also receive a much smaller pension) and a CUT in pensions for blue collar workers and other "employed" people. Not sure that is what you want.

And also I would add that for the tax increases for the rich, I'm completely in favour, but this would be better regulated EU-wide to avoid people just moving 5km across the border to avoid taxes. (Why do you think the French owners of the Auchan and Carrefour supermarkets have houses in Kortrijk? I don't think it's because of the weather)

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

"I don't think you'll find many differences between VLD and NVA on social issues either"

Really? I would count immigration as a social issue, and VLD is much more liberal on immigration and Belgian citizenship than NVA.

I agree that Brussels and Wallonia need a massive investment in education, and that requires money - which they don't have. Flanders has the money and I would really like that to support education where it is needed. Luckily we both agree that abolishing the Royal Family would save money that could be better spent on education :)

I really dislike the idea of pandering to the super-rich on the idea that they can just pack up and move. I guess it is more true for Europe, with such small countries, than for Australia, America or the UK, where I think it is largely a bluff. You could still get around it, though, such as by having an emigration tax or other methods. Probably better to tinker around the edges than to wait for EU-wide income tax synchronisation (yeah right!).

February 19, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

Let's save some money by making unemployment benefits limited in time to...let's say 3 of maximum 5 years ?

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBart

Brussels and Wallonia have EXACTLY the same budget for education as Flanders has, at some point you have to ask yourself WHY don't they have any money and try to even CONSIDER the fact that too much of it is spend treating symptoms, not causes, and that maybe they should start reforming their own internal kitchen and education system before running to Flanders for extra money for every single problem. Your policies should be linked to your budget, if you just expect flanders to pay up the difference between income and expenses as it has done for decades then there is no incentive whatsoever to change these policies that are fundamentally not working.

-Why is unemployment in Wallonia and Brussels sky high? Of course you could say, they were hit hard by the end of the coal mining and industrial production, but so was Flanders (especially Limburg), so was the Ruhr area in Germany, so was Northern France, all neighbours of Wallonia, all these regions bounced back but Wallonia is still at the bottom of every european league. Why? It's not geographical location, which it shares with its neighbors; it's not tax income, which is collected at the federal level and evenly distributed (+ Wallonia has received tons of EU regional funding in the past decades); so... what's left? What's left is the way Wallonia has been governed, and I'm sorry but it was governed by PS. If you know other causes for their insanely high unemployment I'd like to hear it.

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

The entire EU internal markets is based on the "four freedoms" of goods, services, capital and people.

Rich people generally care about their money a lot, they have a lot of time, and they generally have had high education. If you start taxing them way higher than a neighboring EU country they have the means to move to another country, they difinitely will do it, and they already do if you see the population of French CEO's in Kortrijk or Brussels, and Dutch millionairs in Kapellen (Antwerp) .

Also even though this is far from the case right now, I don't agree, as an ideal, to the idea that all people should earn the same, regardless of work, innovation, original ideas etc. Where any large profit is immediately taxed away and redistributed. I'm NOT saying that we're anywhere near that situation right now, but I also don't support it as an ideal.

February 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCedric

Let’s think about the implications of a three year cap on unemployment. The principle of the justice system is that it is better to let ten guilty men walk free, rather than let one innocent go to jail. You would reverse this for welfare – preferring ten in true need go without in order to punish one who is gaming the system.

A cap on unemployment only makes sense in an economic situation where there is a labour shortage and full unemployment. In this hypothetical economy, you could justify a cap on the basis that each and every person could get a job if they wanted to. This is not the case in Belgium’s economy, there are many more unemployed people than there are jobs, and the vast majority of unemployed people want jobs but are unable to find them. Unemployment benefits are not generous, they are poverty-line amounts. By capping unemployment you would only be punishing the unlucky or unskilled who get left at the bottom of the pile. And what exactly do you think is going to happen to these people who get cut off? Do you want 5-10% of the Belgian population to become homeless beggars on the streets? That is hardly positive move. What about their children? Are you happy to punish them too?

Or let’s take the right-wing approach and say screw the unemployed, they deserve it. Instead, let’s look at the effect this would have on the economy. Unemployment benefits have the highest level of local expenditure of any government spending program – people spend the vast majority of the money within the local neighbourhood. This tickle of funding is what runs the local economy, and what enables the local entrepreneurs to run a business – those cheap kebab shops, corner stores, hairdressers and so forth would all go out of business if their customers stopped getting unemployment benefits. Under current Belgian law you can’t evict a family with children, even if they don’t pay their rent, so now you would also have a lot of landlords being forced to maintain properties that they get no rent from. A whole lot of people with jobs would suffer. This is not hypothetical, the US government did the same thing and watched inner city African-American neighbourhood decay from poor but functional economies to ghettos with no official economy.

Neighbourhood economies function like national economies. As every decent economist will tell you, government spending should be counter-cyclical – run a deficient during the bust and a surplus during the boom. The same goes for neighbourhoods – the counter-cyclical unemployment spending by governments does not only benefit the recipients, but also stimulates the local economy. It is not only bad ethics to punish the needy, but also bad politics.

February 21, 2011 | Registered CommenterAdrian Liston

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