|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||15/02/96, Volume 2, Number 07|
LIKE most of their European neighbours, Belgians have been preoccupied with social and economic issues.
The news is dominated by the epidemic of Sabena strikes, the return of the teachers to the streets to protest, new threats of plant closures in Wallonia and rising unemployment figures in Flanders.
But although these 'bread-and-butter' issues are certainly the primary concern of most citizens, they cannot mask other crucial questions which continue to haunt the country's collective mood, damaging its political institutions.
On 5 February, eight people linked to the French-speaking Parti Socialiste (PS) appeared before the Cour de Cassation, the highest court in the country, in what promises to be one of the major cases of the decade.
The defendants are accused of forgery, breach of trust, fraud, embezzlement and corruption of civil servants. The 'affaire' started in 1989 with the detention of Camille Javeau, the director of Inusop/Uniop, the polling institute of the Free University of Brussels.
Initially accused of misappropriating funds for his own personal benefit (six million Belgian francs for the decoration of his apartment and private travel), he counter-attacked by claiming that the institute was being used as a backdoor route for channelling funds into the war chests of major politicians, mostly in the PS.
The accusation mentions allegations of fictitious studies on “the ergonomic analysis of a post office window” and “the design of techniques for raising decorative tropical fish” as well as elaborate systems of invoice padding ('surfacturation').
Some of these surveys were allegedly ordered and paid for by public institutions, with the funds used to pay members of former Vice-Premier and Defence Minister Guy Coëme's cabinet.
Barely a few months after the Agusta scandal (involving alleged kickbacks in the purchase of Italian helicopters) and Willy Claes' resignation from his position as NATO secretary-general, the Inusop/Uniop case is a reminder of the free-wheeling Eighties, when money made its strongest impact ever in the political world.
This case is exceptional because of the personality of its major defendant, Coëme.
Already indicted in the Agusta scandal, the Waremme mayor is on trial again. Other prominent politicians, such as Molenbeek Mayor Philippe Moureaux and Claes, have been cleared of any wrong doing. However, Coëme insists: “I am the scapegoat of a political world that is afraid of its own future and hides behind me.”
Most of Coëme's die-hard supporters who gathered on the eve of the trial in the small town of Waremme expressed the feeling that the mayor had been framed and was being forced to pay for the sins of others.
Indeed, the case implicates a whole political system of influence-peddling and dubious party funding in which very few political parties could swear they were never involved.
The trial this time targets directly a powerful network anchored at the crossroads of socialist politics, free-masonry and business, but it could go further and destabilise a 'give-and-take' system based on political patronage, public money and 'buddy' politics.
The case is also exceptional because of its constitutional implications.
Since 1865, when Baron Chazal appeared before the Cour de Cassation after involvement in a duel, no minister has ever been summoned before such high jurisdiction.
In fact, many lawyers believe that the case may set a major precedent. The defendants' only appeal will be before the European Commission of Human Rights. But the case's significance goes beyond legalistic discussions and, whatever the formal outcome, most political observers acknowledge that the stakes are extremely high.
As the renowned professor of constitutional law, Francis Delpérée, has spelt out: if the verdict is too mild, it will convince most citizens that “wolves do not eat wolves”. If it is too harsh, it will be seen as the reaction of a judicial system catering to populist impulses.
In recent years, Belgian politicians have drawn upon the lessons of a system gone wild. They have sharply decreased the level of electoral campaigning expenditure and severely restricted the scope for political party contributions.
However, there still remains a lot to be done. Although public tenders are better controlled, relations between the private and the public sectors still take place under clandestine circumstances where shady deals, feather-bedding and favouritism can prosper.
“Plethoric cabinets,” writes Le Soir, “constitute a state within a state that systematically short-circuits the administration.” The prerogatives of the autorités de contrôle are already limited and threatened with further restrictions. Whistle-blowers in the civil service are also unprotected and face administrative death if they reveal - as they are obliged to - irregularities in the exercise of their functions.
Private businesses can claim too easily that they are victims of corruption whereas, according to Le Soir, some are actively involved in the system and use “employment blackmail” in order to receive more subsidies and permits.
Most politicians cross their fingers, hoping perhaps that the 'clean hands' operation will bypass them and that the extreme right will not convince still more voters to “throw the rascals out”.
|Subject Categories||Justice and Home Affairs, Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Belgium|