Policy Performance


Economic Policies

Hampered by indebtedness and structural weaknesses, Belgium falls into the middle ranks internationally in terms of economic policies (rank 22). Its score in this area has increased by 0.2 points since 2014.

Efforts to reduce public debt levels that remain above 100% of GDP have led to cuts in public investments, health care and pension spending, and sluggish education and environmental improvements. However, growth has been sluggish, productivity has not improved, and labor-market mismatches are widening.

Unemployment rates are not high by euro-zone comparison, but employment rates have stagnated at a relatively low level. Labor income is strongly taxed, while capital income is often untaxed or inefficiently taxed. Promising corporate-tax reforms are underway, but loopholes and exemptions have perpetuated distortions and undermined incentives for entrepreneurs.

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 19) in the area of social policies. Its score in this area has declined 0.1 points since 2014.

Education performance is weakening, particularly in the areas of inclusiveness, youth integration into the labor market and higher-education participation rates. Educational-system inefficiencies translate into high costs. Social spending has been tightened substantially since the financial crisis, with the influx of migrants producing calls to reduce poverty assistance further.

The government has pursued controversial policies to encourage migrant repatriation. Polices for integrating first- and even second-generation immigrants into the education system and labor market have not been sufficient or effective. Pension reforms have not been fully implemented, and consensus on this issue remains elusive.

The health care system is efficient, offering broad and inclusive access. However, cost-containment measures have reduced wages, driving doctors out of the public system. Child care is widely available, and restructured child subsidies, along with income-tax benefits for parents, are rationalizing the family-support system.

Environmental Policies

Inefficient and fragmented strategies place Belgium in the lower-middle ranks internationally (rank 24) in terms of environmental policy. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.2 points 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. Air pollution in urban areas is a serious problem.

Regional environmental policies offer hope of improvements, but hamper national-level coordination.
The country’s role as a European traffic crossroads has 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 middle ranks (rank 18) 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, but major print-press groups are experiencing severe financial difficulties. 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 falls into the lower-middle ranks (rank 26) 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. Coordination between the federal and powerful regional governments has been difficult.

Regulatory impact assessments are generally little more than formalities, but some regulators are taking them increasingly seriously. Ex post evaluation often actively seeks to justify policies. While consultation with outside stakeholders is common, the current coalition has actively sought to reduce union influence. The neo-corporatist model sometimes results in regulation biased by the social partners.

The current government has successfully pushed through numerous reforms, but often without achieving the desired effects. Longstanding promises to phase out nuclear power remain unfulfilled. Several key areas, including immigration, anti-terror and tax policies, have produced publicly expressed discord within the government.

Executive Accountability

With strong structural legislative-oversight powers, Belgium receives a good overall score (rank 9) in the area of executive accountability. Its score in this area has declined by 0.1 point relative to 2014.

Parliament is powerful, with parties and individual members having access to significant resources. In some key issues such as nuclear safety and electricity, committees have not exercised oversight effectively. The audit and ombuds offices are independent and influential, and regions also maintain ombuds offices. A newly created data-protection authority is also designed to be independent.

A series of national and international scandals has 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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