How effectively does Belgium’s government develop strategic policy solutions and foster dialogue in the process?
The Management Index assesses a country’s capacity for reform. Three categories examine the ability to plan and implement policies. Accountability assesses the extent to which non-executive actors are included in the political process.
Each minister (as well as each secretary of state, i.e., junior minister) works closely with his or her own team of collaborators (cabinet ministériel or cellule stratégique). The meetings take place often and the team designs policies in line with both with the minister’s objectives and the government agreement. (Belgium’s coalition governments set a government agreement prior to the formation of a government. It details a range of action points for the entire legislature.) The minister and his or her advisory team are then responsible for drafting projects which are then submitted to the government during weekly meetings. The most important issues are first discussed in special inter-cabinet meetings (réunions intercabinets) and arbitrated by a small group of leading politicians comprised of the prime minister and a deputy prime minister from each coalition party.
Regarding long-term planning, one must note that the knowledge accumulated by the minister’s collaborators is essentially lost at the end of a legislature, since the team is attached directly to a given minister. Public administration is run by civil servants who serve longer tenures than do ministerial collaborators, but these groups do not generally participate in the minister’s strategic decisions. Very long-term planning (beyond a legislature’s term) is therefore made difficult by the organizational structure of the government. The main rationale for relying on the minister’s team instead of civil servants is that the former are close allies to the minister and are more flexible in terms of working hours, such as in addressing emergency situations.
The consultation of non-governmental academic experts depends on the subject matter; in most policy areas, their actual influence on government decisions is relatively limited. In most matters, some academic experts are included in the minister’s team of collaborators. The advantage of this process is that such individuals become full-time government experts who then can bring their extensive experience to improve government decisions. The flip side is that, since these experts become fully tied to the minister and his or her party, they lose their political independence in the process. There is also a risk that experts are selected precisely because they share the minister’s views. The government and/or parliament consults with full-time academic experts who hold independent views, but not systematically and not necessarily with the goal of generating a genuine scientific debate. Established political parties also support study centers, with which some academic experts are involved, but such groups have little direct influence on day-to-day policies.
What is systematic in government decision-making is the summoning of “social partners,” such as representatives of trade unions or employers’ organizations, or representatives of firms or organizations directly affected by a proposed law or potential strategic decision. This means that the actual influence of academic experts is relatively limited.
With the global economic crisis, the Chamber of Deputies organized a meeting to assess the impact of the economic crisis on companies. It summoned three external experts (one academic and two bankers with strong knowledge of the economy) and one expert from the Federal Planning Bureau, a state agency. Ten other people outside the political sphere took part in the meeting. They were also present representatives of various social partners (employers and unions), the consumers’ association and a major Belgian firm.
Parliamentary investigation commissions instead consult external experts (not necessarily academics) more systematically. In the case of the Fortis bankruptcy, for example, the Chamber of Deputies relied on four experts (of which three were academics) to help members of parliament lead the investigation. Fifty people outside the government (of which two were full-time academics, one an OECD expert, and four were National Bank experts, not to mention some university professors) were summoned by the commission.
http://www.lachambre.be/kvvcr/pdf_sections/publications/annualreport/Rapport%20annuel%202008-2009.pdf, p65 and pp102-104
The Prime Minister’s Office contains a “strategic cell” which helps the prime minister evaluate and steer policy. Typically, this oversight is shared with other deputy-prime ministers (one per party in the coalition) in regularly held meetings. Each of the advisors and experts in the cell specializes in one specific field. They assess the most important issues, as the relatively small size of the team limits its ability to deal with all issues at hand. Therefore, in many cases the team still has to rely on the technical expertise of the various ministerial cabinets, and considers more the political coherence of proposals in connection with the detailed governmental agreement.
The Prime Minister’s Office may return policy proposals to the ministry which formulated the proposal. However, if this happens, it is for political and not legal reasons. A proposal is returned if it contains items that contradict the government agreement or the explicit policy position of one of the coalition partners. Policies are not returned for technical reasons. The process of returning a proposal can be seen as a policy-balancing instrument, particularly when prior balancing attempts, such as through interdepartmental coordination, have failed.
In contrast to the Prime Minister , the core group of party leaders within government can return all items on policy grounds. It also prepares cabinet meetings and in this sense serves the functions inquired about under “Cabinet Committees.”
Each potential project envisaged by the government is submitted to the Council of Ministers, composed of a secretariat, who scrutinizes each proposal before it is debated and prepares the ministers’ council agenda, and the 14 line ministers plus the prime minister who debate each proposal. Line ministers and the prime minister are thus necessarily informed of each proposal. As is normal in a coalition government, debates ensure that any project approved by the council will eventually be defended collegially by all government members, and the prime minister is the centerpiece of this process. Law projects can also be introduced directly by members of parliament, in which case the Council can be bypassed. But this is much less frequent in practice. All the important bills stem from the government and less than 10% of bills (most of which are not important, at least in budgetary terms) are the result of parliamentary initiatives.
Government ministers meet every week. Their meeting is called the Council of Ministers (conseil des ministres or ministerraad), which is one of the central components of the government. Each minister is responsible for drafting his or her proposal, and then submitting it to the Council. The Council’s secretariat then checks whether the proposal can be debated: Is it complete, technically sound, does it conflict with other decisions made in the past? Prior to this, some decisions are also discussed in specific inter-cabinet meetings (i.e., across some ministerial cabinets).
Proposals are debated by ministers only if they pass this first filter, which allows the ministers to directly focus on the issue’s strategic aspects. However, the most important strategic considerations are mainly political. Each potential project envisaged by the government is submitted beforehand to the Council of Ministers, which meets weekly. The Council is composed of a secretariat, who scrutinizes each proposal before it is debated and prepares the ministers’ council agenda, and the 14 line ministers plus the prime minister who debate each proposal.
Each project is debated and decisions are based on political consensus, not on majority voting. Either directly or through the council’s secretariat or the group of party leaders whithin government, the prime minister can block any item presented and either return it for redrafting, or turn it down completely.
While ministries are barely involved in preparing cabinet meetings, each minister has a team of close collaborators and advisors (cabinet ministériel or cellule stratégique) who prepare the projects, which are first submitted to the minister, and then to the Council of Ministers. For a range of decisions, responsibilities are shared among several ministers. In that case, the ministers’ teams must coordinate their actions (intercabinet meetings) before being able to submit a proposal that will receive the approval of each minister. Only at that stage, can the proposal be submitted to the Council.
Public administration in Belgium has less influence on policy steering than in most other developed countries. When appointed, each minister hires a team of fully devoted close collaborators who then shape strategic decisions together with their minister and draft projects submitted to the government. Ministry civil servants are much less involved in this process than the ministers’ direct advisors. The civil servants’ responsibility materializes in later stages, for example, in the technical evaluation of some proposals submitted to the government, in the implementation of decisions made by the government or for ex post monitoring tasks.
Belgian governments are always coalition governments and, normally, mechanisms such as the Council of Ministers enforce effective coordination within the government coalition. Political parties are also strong and well organized. Party presidents (some of whom also happen to be deputy prime ministers) are dominant figures who guide policymaking and enforce strong coordination within each party, such as at different government levels (regional and national). At both levels, a government must first be formed, during the process of which the party negotiates the government agreement. This agreement is very detailed and operates as an ex ante contract that limits possible deviations once the governing coalition is in office. Decisions are made collegially, and all government officials must defend the decisions made by the Council. Thus, as long as government decisions remain within the boundaries set by the government agreement, coalition committees and the weekly meetings of the Council effectively coordinate policy proposals.
There is however a noticeable exception for the period under review. Belgium suffered through a major political crisis from 2008 to 2009, just before the peak of the global financial crisis. Tensions among members of government were high and the government’s coordination mechanisms essentially collapsed. Prime Minister Yves Leterme had to step down after being accused of illegally trying to influence judicial action in the bankruptcy of Fortis. He was replaced briefly by Herman Van Rompuy, European Union president, who managed to revive political cohesion within the majority. Yves Leterme, once cleared of the original accusations, reclaimed the prime minister post when Herman Van Rompuy left. Yet Leterme had to delegate certain issues seen as politically sensitive to other informal mechanisms outside his responsibility, to avoid a potential repeat of the political crisis.
Before making a decision, the government will typically query stakeholders and attempt to prevent unexpected policy outcomes. But there are no formal regulatory impact assessments as part of this process, and unexpected policy outcomes are not exceptional. Two examples help to illustrate this fact. There is the case of tax reforms introduced in 2002 that were meant to attract foreign direct investment and promote the creation of jobs by lowering corporate tax rates. There was no proper assessment of the potential costs of these reforms, nor any fact-based assessment of their potential impact on job creation. As the government deficit has increased, the reforms are perceived by many as too costly for the number of jobs they have created.
Another case relates to a reform introduced by the French Community in Belgium (Communauté Française de Belgique), responsible for education in the French-speaking part of Belgium. A complex mechanism was put in place to address discriminatory school selection practices that, in some schools, work against children who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The mechanism centralized secondary school registration and relied on a mechanism of random selection, perceived as fair by the government. The mechanism was so inefficient however that it did not select any school for scores of children, whereas other children got selected in several schools. This outcome was predictable and many academics and other interested parties (mainly parents’ organizations) had actually warned the government of these risks. Yet, the community government turned a blind eye on these warnings and only admitted the failure of its actions in the summer of 2009, when classes were about to start and the system had left hundreds of children without a school to attend. The government then relied on additional measures to resolve the situation after the fact.
Belgium has a long tradition of consensual policymaking, whereby the government consults most stakeholders (in particular employers’ associations and trade unions for socioeconomic issues, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for environmental policies and so on) to facilitate the acceptance of its policies. For core socioeconomic matters (wage regulation as just one example), there are routine rounds of negotiation between trade unions and employers’ organizations which, if successful and if results fit within budgetary limits, are simply confirmed by the government.
There are two separate sets of issues to consider. First, if a decision was collegially made by the government, for instance if a law proposal was submitted to parliament which then approves the proposal, communication will typically be coordinated. Second, there are other issues that fall under the umbrella of a given minister. In this case, each minister may develop a different communication strategy and it is not rare to see open disagreement among coalition partners. Another difficulty is that even federal ministers will occasionally communicate in different ways on the two sides of the country’s linguistic border, depending on whether they are addressing their constituency or the ”other side.”
Disagreements among government officials were particularly acute during the global economic crisis, during bankruptcy proceedings surrounding Fortis and during high-level negotiations with electricity and gas producers. Like a school director in a courtyard, it happens that the prime minister has to call for a stop of such public debates (often arguments). The government’s communication troubles came to a head during Belgium’s major political crisis (2008-2009). Tensions among members of government were high and the government’s communication policy fell apart. Prime Minister Yves Leterme had to step down after being accused of illegally trying to influence judicial action in the bankruptcy of Fortis. He was replaced by Herman Van Rompuy who managed to improve political cohesion within the majority. Yves Leterme, since cleared of the accusations, returned to his post when Herman Van Rompuy became European Council president in January 2010.
The government’s main goals (as articulated on the prime minister’s website) include radical measures to address environmental challenges, improve the country’s rate of employment and foster business creation, improve social cohesion, adapt social policies in light of longer life expectancies, improve security and improve the efficiency of the state administration.
However, since the creation of the government, Belgium has suffered through a serious political crisis exacerbated by linguistic tensions at a time when the world was hit by a paralyzing economic crisis. This clearly prevented the government to from pursuing its stated goals. Regional elections as well in 2009 created another crisis at the national level as interparty tensions grew (coalition parties were competing in tight races at the regional level). The result of such a political morass meant that pension reforms were not enacted and little was achieved regarding administration improvements. Some environmental plans were seen through but that was only because such plans were the result of previous decisions. Several mayors complained of insufficient resources to address security concerns (prison space and crime prevention methods are also insufficient), but some reforms were introduced to be enacted in years to come. On the economic front, employment rates fell, poverty worsened, and business sentiment indicators were negative. Of course, all these failures cannot be entirely attributed to misguided government action. ,Some policies were implemented in the regions but they were not done through the initiatives of the federal government. All in all, the combination of an internal political crisis and an external economic crisis prevented the government from pursuing its main goals.
While the prime minister is in charge of managing the government, he does not have the power to exclude ministers from government. The main architects of government positions are indeed the coalition party presidents, who negotiate at the government formation stage which portfolios they control and then nominate people in their party to run that portfolio. The main incentive of any given minister is thus to push his own party’s views rather than the government’s potential views. This creates consistent tension before the government reaches a decision on salient issues. This being said, because ministers have to comply with their party president’s views (otherwise they could lose their position in the next legislature), they largely stick to the governmental agreement. But this compliance mechanism does not rest on the prime minister or on other formal (organizational) rules.
The performance of Prime Minister Yves Leterme to keep ministers in check has been poor, with some exceptions. The situation is however exceptional. In general the prime minister is much better able to keep the ministers in line.
The line minister is the head of the ministerial administration. The ministry itself is presided by the Administrator General (AD), who works beneath the minister. In principle, the appointment of the AD is based on merit determined by a competitive exam. In practice, it is mostly political. The ministry of finance, for instance, was administered by Jean-Pierre Arnoldi from 1998 to 2010. The management of the ministry was regularly criticized by the Christian Democratic & Flemish party (CD&V), to which Prime Minister Yves Leterme belongs. Thus, the prime minister did not have the capacity to directly influence this appointment. When Arnoldi retired, a competitive exam was organized and Hans D’Hondt, the former head of the Prime Minister’s Office, was the only applicant with an “A,” a passing grade. All other competitors scored a “C” or lower. With this result now the CD&V has more control over ministry management. Given that these appointments are valid until the individual’s retirement and that the AD is under the orders of the minister, there is little capacity to effectively monitor the minister by his own ministerial administration.
Leterme had only limited power to monitor line ministers through his party. Only five out of 15 ministers belonged to his party (including the ministers of foreign affairs, justice, defense, and public function and public enterprise). These ministers fell well in line with Leterme’s goals most of the time while the majority of ministers remained broadly independent.
Belgium has relatively few agencies that are funded and controlled by the government, but are also formally independent of the government. Agencies of this type include Child Focus, the Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism, some official job placement agencies, social aid agencies (CPAS/OCMW), and so on. The monitoring of these agencies happens through several channels, three of which are the most important. First, a government delegate will generally sit on the board of these agencies. Second, each year, the agency will have to submit a report to the government or to the ministry responsible for its activities. This monitoring is extremely closely watched and effective. Third, most established parties obtain seats in the executive boards or councils of these agencies, and thereby also exercise some level of control. On the other hand, it is also true that some of the agencies that depend on regional governments (such as job placement agencies) have been criticized for their lack of efficiency. There is therefore a gap between legal monitoring (which effectively ensures that the agencies work in accordance with government policies) and bureaucratic efficiency.
The responsibilities of Belgium’s central government have been reduced over the past few decades and delegated to the country’s regions or sub-regions. These include the three regions (Flanders, Brussels, and Wallonia), the main two linguistic communities (Dutch and French, as well as the smaller German-speaking community) and the communes (which can be smaller than a city). Due to a political stalemate between the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking parts of the country, the region of Brussels has voluntarily been substantially underfunded. The communities were made responsible for education, but did not receive sufficient funding to ensure its healthy development. The Dutch-speaking community and the Flemish region were merged to address this issue, but the French-speaking community could not be combined, since it operates in Brussels (which is bilingual), in Wallonia (generally French-speaking) and in some parts of the Brussels periphery, which is officially Dutch-speaking. Another example is with police reform. In principle meant to increase efficiency, reforms delegated more responsibilities to the communes, but many were also left largely underfunded (possibly an attempt at reducing the government deficit). In general there are problems of underfunding delegated tasks.
The structure of the Belgian state is such that the national government has no formal authority over the regions and communities (there is no hierarchy between the federal and the regional/community levels). In some issues, the regions and communities are actually more powerful than the national government.
Formally the national government has no authority over regional governments, but it can impose some criteria. Local governments cannot, for instance, deviate from the national constitution. Also, local governments have to abide by budgetary constraints set by the central government. Finally, responsibilities for several policy levers are shared by different government levels, in which case the central government has partial authority over regional governments’ course of action. Altogether, the central government does not have the tools to enforce or control more detailed standards in terms of performance figures, as just one example. The government can only try to maintain influence through more general (legal or budgetary) levers.
Belgium is one of the founding states of the European Union, in which it plays a proactive role, and an active member of many international agreements. In some instances, Belgium has played a leading role in some international agreements (e.g. on banning the production of land mines). Overall however this enthusiasm toward international and supranational developments has to be mitigated, as Belgium is regularly criticized for not fully complying with the rules it previously agreed upon at the European Union, United Nations, or NATO level. For instance, critiques concern Belgium’s lack of respect for the Geneva Convention and its non-ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities or the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This can partly be explained, again, by the country’s complex institutional structure (which complicates effective implementation, even if there is a coherent political will), and the fact that, due to decentralization, all entities have their own international relations regarding their (sometimes overlapping) competences.
Belgium hosts various supranational institutions, including the European Commission. The country has always displayed support for joint reform initiatives in most policy fields. This can be illustrated by the large number of Belgian politicians involved in the highest levels of these organizations (the most recent examples are Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council; Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament; and Isabelle Durant, vice-president of the European Parliament). Moreover, Belgium’s size makes it heavily dependent on international coordination. It therefore supports international reform efforts, for instance, on tax systems and carbon dioxide regulations. However, when considering implementation, Belgium does not always fulfill its commitments.
The Belgian federal structure prevents the formal monitoring of institutional arrangements, and in particular prevents the head of government from imposing reforms to meet Belgium’s international commitments. The prime minister has no authority over federate entities (called regions and communities).
The actual implementation of new arrangements comes from highly complex and broad-reaching institutional (or constitutional) reforms that involve multiple political issues. Package deals are key (such as quid pro quo arrangements), and the domino effect means that people are rarely willing to engage in one specific reform toward a more efficient system in fear of opening the reform floodgates on other issues.
However, a domino effect is less problematic when only one entity is involved in a particular reform effort, and monitoring across regions does exist. The good practices of a region (or of other countries) can thus inspire others (the efficiency of institutional arrangement between regional governments is easily comparable). Thus there is, in terms of monitoring the quality of institutional arrangements, a limited level of “organizational learning” across regions and communities, but it is never made routine through rules or procedures, and never steered by the federal level.
Most reforms are the consequence of bargaining between power levels, and an attempt to meet contrasting or asymmetrical demands (e.g., the Flemish would like to obtain a given prerogative, which Francophones oppose; while Francophones have another request, which the Flemish oppose) through a global negotiation at the end of which both sides will obtain some of their demands (but not all, because the deal is always a compromise). Therefore most reforms do not improve efficiency.
For instance, the limitations of the Brussels capital region (which is restricted to 19 communes, i.e., only about one-fourth of the actual Brussels agglomeration in terms of area, and one-half in terms of population) creates a number of overlapping issues with the other two regions (Flanders and Wallonia). Hence, the decentralization of responsibilities such as road building, public transportation, tourism management, airport noise or water pollution, has made many policy aspects extremely hard to manage. However, as the general process has trended toward major decentralizations, some have had positive effects and can be seen as an improvement in strategic capacity, but only on the level of regions and communities. As on example, as regions assumed more responsibility over environmental policies, each territory has improved their policy performance in terms of sewage water treatment.
According to data from the European Social Survey 2008, a Belgian citizen’s political knowledge is rated as average. When asked whether “politics is too complicated to understand,” 40% of respondents said “regularly” or “frequently,” as compared to 21.2% in Denmark or 30.1% in Germany. Belgium is on par with the United Kingdom (39.2%), Spain (39.5%), Romania (41.7%) and Portugal (42%). There is thus a high level of political alienation in the country, which is at least partly due to the high level of development of the party organizations (“particracy”) and the consociational and neo-corporatist logic of the system (whereby “politics is managed by the elites” behind closed doors).
On the other hand, one must emphasize that the complex (and evolving) institutional structure makes it actually very difficult to understand the role of each government institution. Again according to the European Social Survey 2008, Belgians spend slightly more time reading political news in newspapers than the average European.
Regular parliamentary committees can access virtually all documents in possession of the government. Committees created to address a specific issue receive all powers to question witnesses and access documents. They are actually endowed with the same powers as an examining magistrate. However, for some topics concerning domestic and foreign security (which may contain sensitive material about intelligence services or antiterrorism plans), access might be restricted. There are two special regular committees for these more sensitive matters: the “P” committee (related to police forces) and the “R” committee (related to intelligence services).
Ministers are regularly summoned in parliamentary committees. The rights of committees do not appear to be restricted. This is reinforced by the fact that most MPs (majority and opposition alike) have very few chances to see their own bill proposals pass in parliament. Therefore they concentrate much of their activities on spoken “question hours” and written questions (which must be answered by the minister in charge), which attract some media attention and thus improve their media visibility.
However, when the attention of the media is not high for a topic, it is frequent to see an important minister replaced by a (less important) state secretary to answer questions.
Experts are regularly invited and questioned in parliamentary committees. The rights of committees do not appear to be restricted. This possibility is often used, for instance, when addressing the so-called ethical laws or institutional reform. There are some de facto restrictions as to the names and range of experts invited, as the decision in principle to query expert advice must be validated by an absolute majority of committee members. This gives a de facto veto power to the majority parties.
The number of parliamentary committees in the Chamber of Deputies is slightly larger than the number of ministries. Several committees are created to keep track of exactly the same area as that of a given ministry (e.g., defense, justice, finance or external affairs). Other committees can be more specific than the ministry (e.g., the committees of globalization and accounting), or instead meant to be broader when several dimensions are involved (e.g., committee of public health, environment and society’s renewal). The committees are thus largely able to monitor ministries, but the head of a given ministry is only accountable to its minister.
The Audit Office (cour des comptes or rekenhof) is a collateral institution of the federal parliament. The members of the Audit Office are therefore elected by the members of parliament, and can count on high expertise, a qualified staff and a sufficient level of resources. The comments of the Audit Office are public and presented at parliament along with the accounts of the state. The federal audit office garnered extensive media coverage in 2010 for its harsh remarks to the finance ministry.
The independent federal ombuds office was established in 1995. The goal of the office is to have direct contact with citizens and inform them of the administrative process if need be and collect complaints against the administration. Parliament elects members of the ombuds office, but after their election, ombudsmen are totally independent and autonomous from government. The office reports every year to parliament and the report is made public (6,429 complaints and information demands were addressed in 2009). However, the ombudsman’s role is only informative and deals with facilitation or advocacy; he or she has no coercive power.
Some difficulties occur when a complaint touches upon an issue which concerns both federal and federate authorities (regions and communities). The federate authorities have their own ombudsmen, so some overlaps occur.
Television news programs provide a relatively reasonable level of information, with greater insight on content and lower personalization than in Italy or France, for example. Almost all television channels dedicate large amounts of time on weekends to political debates, typically on Sundays around noon, which are widely watched. There is no national or federal broadcasting company; media has been fully federalized. Programs dedicated to “infotainment” are more represented on Dutch-speaking rather than on French-speaking channels, but there are relatively few of such programs overall. Similarly, radio programs offer reasonable coverage, partially due to the large number of state-owned (but politically plural) radio stations.
Overall, media from each linguistic community focus mostly on their own community, with little attention paid to (and little in-depth analysis on) the events, personalities and perceptions in the other linguistic community. This has however improved somewhat in 2009 and 2010, with deliberate attempts (mostly from the two public companies, VRT and RTBF) to provide broadcasts examining the views of the “other side” of the country.
Six parties received more than 10 percent of votes in the national elections of 2007 (four Flemish-oriented parties and two French-speaking parties). Four of these parties (ranked first, second, fourth and fifth in terms of results) became part of the coalition government (with the addition of a smaller French-speaking party). In many areas, proposals are plausible, coherent and often consensual (maybe for the reasons described above), and party programs are detailed and extensive (among the longest and most detailed in Europe).
However, this has to be clarified for several reasons. First, the electoral programs with regard to fiscal federalism of parties are too often unrelated to the attributions of the level they are competing for, and the same program is often recycled for successive elections. Second, proposals relating to institutional reforms, which create regular tensions between the French-speaking and the Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium, are highly unrealistic, and this for a very simple reason: parties are only competing for the votes in a single language community (there are no national parties, and there is no federal or national constituency either). Third, one of these six parties is the extreme-right Flemish party Vlaams Belang and is de facto excluded from every coalition. This allows them to present a program totally disconnected from reality.
Belgium is characterized by a high level of trade union membership, and by a strong tradition of social consensus. For instance, most of the proposals on wage regulation and employee protection are the result of routine negotiations between employers’ associations and trade unions. Proposals are validated by the government and translated into law. This continuous mechanism of cooperation forces these actors to present realistic and well-argued demands (i.e., budgeted, framed in legal terms), even if some bargaining (and bluffing) may occur. Both trade unions and employers’ organizations have their own well-developed study services with high technical (legal, budgetary and so on) expertise. Notice that, in contrast to political parties, employers’ associations and trade unions have structures on a national level.
However, there are some parts of Belgian social regulations that seem hardly open to debate due to some conservatism and the need to protect this social cooperation.
A large fraction of non-economic interest associations receive at least some public financial support. Among those receiving such support, many have close ties with political parties and governmental actors. This state of affairs can be attributed to the fact that Belgium is largely built on “pillars.” This means that social groups, associations and (to some extent) publicly funded schools often have long-standing ties to a political group. It implies that there is a strong incentive for those non-economic interest associations to propose policies, and to be reasonably documented, as there is a high probability to see those proposals debated in parliament. Such links to pillars are less strong in recently established fields in which interest associations have developed, such as consumer rights, ecology and so on.
Interestingly, religious communities are largely funded by the state and there is cooperation between religious and public authorities. One of the major evolutions in this domain is the attempt to organize and structure the very diverse Muslim communities in Belgium as an integrated group.
An example of fruitful cooperation and continuous dialogue with non-economic associations is the so-called ethical laws (e.g., gay marriage and adoption, or euthanasia) that were voted for in Belgium in recent years with a relatively large consensus.
Obviously, a negative aspect of this structure is the dependence on public funding, and therefore the possible lack of independence, which is sometimes criticized by more radical cadres and activists in some associations.
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
Prof. Nils C. Bandelow Technical University of Braunschweig
Prof. Micael Castanheira Ecares, Brussels
Prof. Benoit Rihoux Université catholique de Louvain