|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||19/10/95, Volume 1, Number 05|
THE latest episode in the Agusta scandal has brought to the fore the existence of two “Belgiums”, unknowingly facing each other along a rather unusual fault line.
Despite being a small country - too small for the most ambitious of its citizens - Belgium has always had international class. In 'old money' circles, people remember with nostalgia the glorious days when Belgian engineers built street cars in Buenos Aires, power plants in Russia and dug copper-mines in their king's private empire in the Congo.
In the political sphere, an international appointment was often the crowning glory of a national career: Paul-Henry Spaak at NATO, Michel Hansenne at the International Labour Organisation, Karel Van Miert at the European Commission, Melchior Wathelet at the European Court of Justice,
Lamfalussy at the European Monetary Institute and Anne-Marie Lizin who recently fought hard to head Unicef. Many
Belgian politicians have tried to find abroad what a strait-jacketed national political life could no longer offer them.
Endless communal conflict has only exacerbated that feeling. In the 1970s, many young students left the country in search of adventures and grandeur in the third world or campaigned for international causes. Others, less rebellious, joined the ranks of multinational corporations, but their choice could also be seen as a way of escaping from Belgium's petty political fights.
To the 'best and the brightest' of this generation, a feeling of parochialism and irrelevance made the international horizon all the more compelling. They became part of “the cosmopolitan upper middle class”, described in Christopher Lasch's recent best seller The Revolt of the Elites as the information-age professionals who have more in common with their counterparts in New York or Hong Kong than with their fellow citizens not yet plugged into the network of global communications.
The Agusta scandal has left what might be called Belgium's foreign policy establishment with a feeling of despair. If NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes eventually has to resign, they know that the country's reputation will suffer a further blow.
They even wonder whether in deciding future international appointments, other states may think twice before choosing a Belgian politician.
A majority of the population, however, could not care less about these cosmopolitan concerns. Convinced that they have no share in Belgium's international role, or unaware of it, their interpretation of the Agusta scandal runs along more conventional lines: anti-political.
Grumbling that “politicians are all the same”, protesting that they are being asked by the government to tighten their belts “while ministers and deputies are pocketing bribes and commissions”, they seem ready to “throw the rascals out”.
Belgium's political culture, however, has room for a rather good dose of cynicism. Although many voters regularly attack “political corruption” and
“partycracy” they continue to vote for the very politicians they know to be the most controversial. The Agusta scandal has not had much impact: in the most recent election, the majority of its protagonists were not 'punished' at the ballot box.
As an irate politician reminded me: “If you think these guys are bad, you should see their constituents.”
In order to flourish, corruption needs a 'culture of corruption'. Belgians will swear that they are no more unethical than their neighbours and many dispassionate observers would concur that most Belgian politicians are indeed decent people.
But as William Graider wrote about the US: “Money scandals reflect not just simple bribery, but much larger and more systemic disorders in governance. The federal government has become a vast arena for bargaining and deal-making. This in turn has fostered a permissive culture that tolerates loose legal standards and extra-curricular actions far beyond the view of citizens or formal accountability.”
As in other Western democracies, through the years the Belgian system has created a hodge-podge of possibilities for favours, nepotism and eventually corruption. The coexistence of strong party-linked networks including schools, hospitals, unions and mutual aid societies, as well as the necessity of compromise between Flanders and Wallonia have helped the country steer away from open and potentially disastrous communal conflicts.
However, they have also built a 'political economy' where artificial decisions have been taken, leading to feather-bedding in public services and wasteful investments in public works.
It is no coincidence that for a long time one of the most popular programmes on RTBF has been “Les travaux inutiles”, an investigation into unfinished metro stations, useless bridges and highways leading nowhere.
Too many Belgians, often unconsciously or reluctantly, became involved in the system, asking favours to get 'une place' (a job) for their children in a ministry or just phoning the local councillor to cancel a parking ticket. Who was most responsible, the politician or the citizen? Power can corrupt, but powerlessness can corrupt as well.
In an editorial written on the case of French Prime Minister Alain Juppé, Albert du Roy of L'Evénement du Jeudi has some reflections that might apply to Belgium, his country of origin: “What is at stake here is the collective morality and honesty of the French system. France has never correctly paid its public or political officials. Therefore they have had to muddle through. Among the many recent 'affaires', the overwhelming majority comes from necessity and not from dishonesty. Now, because of the economic crisis, this increasingly obvious and arrogant system has become unbearable to the citizens.
Magistrates have taken notice, not politicians.”
|Subject Categories||Justice and Home Affairs, Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Belgium|