|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||07/12/95, Volume 1, Number 12|
THE gap could not have been wider between the political Establishment and the grass roots, between official statistics and private perceptions.
Although the European Commission commends Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene for his policy of budgetary restrictions and hints that Belgium might finally achieve the monetary union criteria, Belgian business circles have the blues and the country is hit by an unprecedented wave of strikes in sectors vitally linked to state funding.
The 48-hour railway strike was normal, in the sense that it was dutifully announced and peaceful. In short, the disorganisation of commuters' life was well-organised.
But this well-behaved union initiative, which respected the classical steps of Belgium's social ballet, might be the exception in the future.
There was undoubtedly a whiff of tension as students chose to disturb the road traffic during the railway strike. Something more radical was bound to happen, and it did, during the students' demonstration on 28 November in Liège.
“On n'avait plus vu ça depuis 20 ans” (we had not seen anything like that for 20 years), blared the daily La Dernière Heure (right-wing liberal) in a front-page story on the violent clashes between an “overzealous” gendarmerie and confused student demonstrators.
While student leaders and Liège mayor, former firebrand Socialist Jean-Maurice Dehousse, argued over mutual responsibilities, most observers concurred that this bout of fever was the symptom of a deeper anger and warned it may just be the start of more trouble.
The lightning strike decreed on 29 November by Sabena unions could ring the same alarm bells.
Grounding all Sabena planes and stranding passengers in the marble corridors of the new Zaventum terminal, it gave observers an idea of Belgium's social thermometer and of the country's seemingly intractable economic problems.
Once the proud flag carrier of a small but prosperous country, now Sabena seems to embody all aspects of 'le mal belge'.
Forced to marry the well-managed carrier of another small country, Swissair, it does not seem to be able to deliver on its promises to become fit and healthy.
Overburdened by a huge public debt (the worst in the EU representing 132&percent; of national income) and socially corroded by long-term and apparently un-uprootable unemployment, especially in Wallonia's most depressed provinces, Belgium is obviously sick and is paying the bill for long decades of lax economic management, political patronage and linguistic feather-bedding in the public sector.
The whole establishment has been struck by the crisis.
The two ruling parties, the Social Christians and Socialists, as well as the major opposition party, the Liberals, the three major unions and quite a few big companies, all know that they must share the blame for this mess.
The policy of pouring state subsidies into terminally-ill industries, combined with the irrational allocation of resources and infrastructure in order to satisfy linguistic or regionalist sensitivities, have emptied the state coffers and made the government powerless and rudderless.
For free-market ideologues (Belgium has very few of them), the present Belgian predicament is confirmation of their most often repeated and least-heeded equations: “Too much taxation kills taxation, too much social protection kills social policy.”
They might have added that a country as open as Belgium and as dependent on exports was more vulnerable than others and should have been less complacent.
But if Belgium cannot rewrite her recent economic history, can she at least clear her desk and start anew?
Some die-hard optimists would observe at this stage that Belgium is not unlike some of her most unfortunate European partners and that stronger austerity measures might solve the most pressing issues in the end.
But unlike some of her European partners, Belgium has a sword of Damocles hanging over her future.
In some circles, where the 'velvet divorce' of Czechoslovakia is seen as a model, the temptation exists to suggest a miraculous cure - confederalism or even separatism - that would cut off the most gangrened part of the country, Wallonia, and allow her healthier part, Flanders, to recover and prosper.
The current debate on the reform of the social security system is at the heart of this issue and it has an essential difference from the current debates in France or the Netherlands. If the social security system is split up between the two communities, as some strong Flemish lobbies have been requesting, the slide towards separation would be given a decisive push.
Rather unexpectedly, the Dutch and French-speaking Socialist parties have broken the 'ethnic alignment' and announced that they will elaborate a common position on the reform of the social security system, thereby building bridges between the two communities.
But in a country where, as Le Soir observed, the two Social Christian parties, the PSC and the powerful CVP, have not even been able to celebrate their 50th anniversary and partake in the sacrament together, everything is possible.
|Subject Categories||Economic and Financial Affairs, Employment and Social Affairs|
|Countries / Regions||Belgium|