Policy Performance


Economic Policies

With high debt levels and difficulties in reducing spending sustainably, Belgium falls into the middle ranks internationally in terms of economic policies (rank 21). Its score in this area has fallen by 0.1 point since 2014.

With the country’s economy depending strongly on exports, erosions in export performance have raised concerns. Productivity growth has not kept up with inflation. However, inequality remains well below the EU average.

Seeking to address high debt levels, the government has limited wage growth, tightened unemployment and health care benefits, and lowered taxes. Driven in part by extraordinary expenses related to the refugee crisis and the 2016 terrorist attack, the government deficit in fact increased in 2016.

The government’s heavy-handed reform style has provoked strikes and political unrest. Unemployment rates have been creeping upward. The tax base puts excessive pressure on labor income, while entrepreneurship is not well developed.

Social Policies

Despite some sustainability concerns, Belgium falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 17) in the area of social policies. Its score in this area has declined 0.2 points since 2014.

Educational outcomes are good on average, though inclusiveness and labor-market integration remain concerns. Higher education is chronically underfunded. Social spending has been has been tightened substantially since the financial crisis, with the influx of migrants producing calls to reduce poverty assistance further.

Refugees have been met with energetic initial policies, but poor follow-up. The country lacks the capacity to integrate first- or even second-generation immigrants smoothly into the education system or labor force. Pension reforms are slowly increasing pension-eligibility ages, but experts say the changes are insufficient.

Cost-cutting has threatened sustainability in the generally good-quality public health system. Many health care functions have been devolved to the regions. Child care is essentially free after the age of three.

Environmental Policies

Inefficient and fragmented strategies place Belgium in the lower-middle ranks internationally (rank 25) in terms of environmental policy. Its score on this measure is unchanged relative to 2014.

Environmental policy is split between regional and national governments, and is not well coordinated. Poor public-transportation management and the country’s role as a European traffic crossroads has left vehicular traffic at a high level, exacerbating carbon emissions.

A push to boost solar power translated into massive increases in electricity costs that persist today. New offshore wind farm projects may help reduce CO2 emissions in the future. The country has not played a significant role in developing international environmental regimes.



Quality of Democracy

With its complex federal and linguistic environment, Belgium receives middling scores overall (rank 19) for its quality of democracy. Its score on this measure is unchanged since 2014.

Voting is compulsory, and all citizens are automatically registered. Minority-language voters sometimes have trouble obtaining voting documents in their native language. Political parties are for the most part publicly funded. No referendum mechanism exists.

The media are largely independent, though some organizations have links to political parties. While civil rights and political liberties are generally well protected, watchdog groups warn that security and detention laws passed after the 2016 terrorist attacks violate fundamental rights. Discrimination against ethnic minorities is a problem, but the country has been a leader on-sex marriage rights.

Courts are independent but underfunded, resulting in long delays. Legal certainty is undermined by overlap in federal and regional powers. High-profile corruption cases have sparked reform efforts that seem to have made a successful impact.



Executive Capacity

With several significant governance weaknesses, Belgium scores relatively poorly (rank 30) in terms of executive capacity. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.1 point since 2014.

The prime minister’s office contains a policy-steering unit that evaluates and coordinates the most important proposals. Despite broad coalition governments, ministers must approve policies collegially. Ministers tend to adhere to government policy, but the current coalition’s composition has made it more difficult to coordinate with the powerful regions.

The lack of a formal regulatory impact assessment mechanism sometimes produces biased and costly public-investment decisions. Policymaking typically involves consultation with outside stakeholders, although the current coalition has partially broken with this tradition. Self-monitoring and institutional reform are weak spots.

The current government has successfully pushed through numerous reforms, but often without achieving the desired effects. A considerable amount of responsibility has been devolved to the regions, but funding has not in all cases followed suit.

Executive Accountability

With strong legislative-oversight powers, Belgium receives a good overall score (rank 6) in the area of executive accountability. Its score in this area has improved by 0.1 point relative to 2014.

Parliament is powerful, with parties and individual members having access to significant resources. Parliamentary polarization has increased in recent elections, but this may improve accountability. The audit and ombuds offices are independent and influential, and regions also maintain ombuds offices.

Controversial government policies have increased the attention paid by Belgian citizens to politics. Broadcast media produce increasingly superficial news, with coverage fragmented by linguistic region.

Political parties offer a modicum of internal democracy. Trade unions and employers’ organizations are sophisticated and work closely with the government, with research expertise even outside their core fields. The largest noneconomic interest groups also influence policy, with some tied to individual political parties.
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