|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||21/12/95, Volume 1, Number 14|
On Saint-Nicolas' day, when deserving and well-behaved children were rubbing their eyes and unwrapping their presents near the chimney, Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene gathered together the four party leaders of his ruling coalition over breakfast.
They left with a commitment: modernisation of social security will take place in 1996 under the auspices of a working group chaired by the deputy prime minister.
All the political parties are hastily finely tuning their positions because the battle will raise fundamental issues and require harrowing choices, as in neighbouring France.
In a rather unusual forum for a country which has grown accustomed to the divorce of its like-minded parties, both the French-speaking and Dutch-speaking Socialist parties participated in a joint congress on social security just before Christmas.
Another battle lurks however behind these grand manoeuvres: the battle for the division of social security along 'linguistic' lines. On 6 December, a coalition of Flemish organisations known as the Overlegcentrum voor Vlaamse Verenigingen kick-started the Action Committee for a Flemish Social Security, which will strive to force on the government a revision of the solidarity system between Flanders and Wallonia in the key area of social security transfers. This currently represents 30&percent; of redistributed income.
Chaired by a former Volksunie (Flemish Nationalist) MP and endorsed by members of the Yzer Pilgrimage, the committee is clearly several steps ahead of the Flanders' establishment. Mainstream political parties are not officially pushing for a split, even though they do not exclude degrees of regionalisation in the reform of the social security system.
“Many Flemish politicians”, notes the Dutch-speaking quality daily newspaper De Standaard, “do not want to split the whole social security system, but only the health sector and family allowances.”
As the current French 'winter of discontent' illustrates, the issue of social security reform is one of the most complex and explosive that any European country has had to confront.
In Belgium, however, it has a particularly serious undertone. Even though the sponsors of the Action Committee for a Flemish Social Security insist that they do not want to jettison all solidarity with Wallonia and mention a negotiated system of solidarity on the German Länder model, many observers contend that any division of the current national system would cut the last meaningful link between the two communities and open a Pandora's box that might lead, finally, to the 'divorce of the Belgians'.
The issue has already produced a mountain of comparative and controversial studies. Most confirm Wallonia consumes more social security per head than Flanders, but many understand that this is less a question of misuse and excesses than the result of social, economic and demographic factors. The Walloon population is generally poorer and inherits a history of very expensive industrial diseases.
As in most political struggles however, figures are often less important than perceptions and less powerful than stereotypes. The prevailing perception in many Flemish circles is that Wallonia wastes too much on social security and that Flanders is the one that foots the bill, thereby endangering her own social safety net.
Even though some researchers have suggested that in a few decades from now, social security transfers might go the other way, from Wallonia to Flanders and that a divorce might boomerang against Flanders, it is unquestionable that any significant pruning of social security allowances would be a disaster in Wallonia's most depressed areas.
In some cities such as Charleroi, doctors and paediatricians have already observed that some long-term unemployed do not have enough money to pay for a medical examination or medicine. Many refrain from calling the doctor on Sundays when the rates are higher, or defer their decision to consult a doctor for two or three days. This often makes the eventual treatment more expensive.
This bleak picture seems to be taken from the most poignant pages of George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, which reported on workers' conditions in the industrial heartlands of England in the late Thirties.
But the extent of poverty in Wallonia has just been confirmed in a survey carried out on behalf of the Walloon Social Affairs Ministry by the University of Liège. It shows that one quarter of Walloons muddle through with less than the median income, estimated at 30,000 BF per month.
The hypotheses of a drastic reduction in, or the disappearance of, the social safety net are mind-boggling: 40&percent; of Walloons would plunge below the poverty threshold if social security did not exist and more than 70&percent; of older people would fall into destitution.
Understandably, these figures put the current debate on social security into a more dramatic perspective in Wallonia. “The region's social policy”, confessed the Walloon Minister for Social Affairs Willy Taminiaux, “can only be a complement to federal (national) social security policy.”
|Subject Categories||Employment and Social Affairs, Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Belgium|