Policy Performance


Economic Policies

As it makes further attempts to address high debt levels, Belgium falls into the middle ranks internationally in terms of economic policies (rank 20). Its score in this area has increased by 0.2 points since 2014.

While the economy has largely recovered from post-crisis adjustments, recent shocks including terrorist attacks have acted as a brake on growth. Seeking to address high debt levels, the government has limited wage growth, tightened unemployment and health care benefits, and lowered taxes. While the deficit increased in 2016, overall debt levels may have peaked in 2014.

Unemployment rates are not high by euro-zone comparison, but employment rates have stagnated due to a number of labor-market weaknesses and distortions. Labor income is strongly taxed, while capital income is often untaxed or inefficiently taxed. Promising corporate-tax reforms are underway.

Public infrastructure and higher education are underfunded. The government’s heavy-handed reform style has provoked strikes and political unrest, doing little to help the investment climate.

Social Policies

With some sustainability concerns, Belgium receives middling scores (rank 20) in the area of social policies. Its score in this area has declined 0.1 points since 2014.

While educational outcomes are good on average, declining performance in the French-speaking regions is a concern. Social spending has been tightened substantially since the financial crisis, with the influx of migrants producing calls to reduce poverty assistance further.

Support for a halt to immigration is rising, with the government pursuing increasingly controversial policies to encourage repatriation. Polices for integrating first- and even second-generation immigrants into the education system and labor force have not been sufficient or effective. The government is seeking to increase the pension-eligibility age and discourage early retirement.

Cost-cutting has threatened sustainability in the generally good-quality public health system. Many health care functions have been devolved to the regions. Restructured child subsidies, along with income-tax benefits for parents, will rationalize the family-support system.

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 has improved by 0.1 point relative to 2014.

Environmental quality overall is slightly below the OECD average. A government effort to develop a climate policy has been delayed through much of this decade, with the next version of the plan now focusing on the 2021-2030 period.

Environmental policy is split between regional and national governments, and is not well coordinated, although regional plans have produced bright spots. Incoherent transportation policies and the country’s role as a European traffic crossroads have left vehicular traffic at a high level, exacerbating carbon emissions.

Increasing attention is being paid to biodiversity, but the dense urbanization particularly in the north offers little room for short-term improvement. The country has not played a significant role in developing international environmental regimes.



Quality of Democracy

With its complex federal and linguistic environment, Belgium falls into the lower-middle ranks (rank 20) with regard to its quality of democracy. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.1 point 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. While no referendum mechanism exists, regional public-consultation practices are gaining in influence.

The media are largely independent of government or party influence. While civil rights and political liberties are generally well protected, new anti-terrorist and anti-immigrant measures have created serious civil-rights concerns. Discrimination against ethnic minorities is a problem, but the country has been a leader on-sex marriage rights.

Courts have struck down or modified several controversial government anti-terror and migrant policies, highlighting their independence. However, chronic underfunding means cases often face long delays. A recent high-profile series of borderline office-abuse scandals resulted in the dismissal or resignation of numerous regional-level politicians.



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 0.2 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, while recent power shifts have facilitated coordination with the powerful regions.

The lack of a formal regulatory impact assessment mechanism sometimes produces biased and costly public-investment decisions. While consultation with outside stakeholders is common, the current coalition has actively sought to reduce union influence. Formal monitoring does take place, but is often inefficient, with questionable outsourcing practices producing a decline in public trust.

The current government has successfully pushed through numerous reforms, but often without achieving the desired effects. Several key areas, including immigration, anti-terror and tax policies, have produced publicly expressed discord within the government.

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 0.3 points 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.

A series of national and international scandals have increased the attention paid by Belgian citizens to politics, while inducing newspapers and other media to deepen their political coverage. However, economic difficulties are more generally pushing media to focus on sensational, low-quality information.

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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