Belgium

   

Social Policies

#20
Key Findings
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.

Education

#20

To what extent does education policy deliver high-quality, equitable and efficient education and training?

10
 9

Education policy fully achieves the criteria.
 8
 7
 6


Education policy largely achieves the criteria.
 5
 4
 3


Education policy partially achieves the criteria.
 2
 1

Education policy does not achieve the criteria at all.
Education Policy
6
The OECD deems Belgium’s performance to be “top” level with regard to youth skills, but to be only “average” with regard to other indicators (including inclusiveness, youth integration into the labor market, and the promotion of skills in workplaces). Recent-era improvements in the Belgian education system were mainly achieved before 2010, and the country’s education system has largely stagnated since that time. Given that education is almost exclusively publicly financed in Belgium, the economic-crisis-driven pressure to balance budgets has been an important factor in this lack of progress. In addition, the country’s organization of education, in which a public network coexists with a “free,” publicly funded (Catholic) network at all education levels from kindergarten to higher education, generates excessive structural costs. This undermines cost-effectiveness and overall efficiency (as well as reform potential) within the two independent education systems (Flemish- and French-speaking, since education policy is now fully devolved to the linguistic communities). The education system also has evident difficulty in producing social mobility; according to the OECD, “the likelihood of a student participating in tertiary education varies greatly depending on the level of education attained by his or her parents.”

The general affordability of education helps render access to education largely equitable. University fees remain very low (€835 per year in French-speaking universities, €890 in Flemish universities) as compared to the Anglo-Saxon countries. De facto discriminatory factors include the very minimal or nonexistent study grants for poorer students, and the increasingly overcrowded classrooms. Although the universities perform quite well today, their increasingly tight budget constraints risk reducing the quality of education in the medium term, particularly within the French-speaking areas. OECD assessments of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results indeed highlight the dramatic drop in education performance in that part of the country. According to the WEF’s Competitiveness report, employers have already begun experiencing a shortage of applicants with appropriate skills.

As reported by Vanden Bosch (2014), the European Commission has also pointed to the “lack of coherence between education and employment policies, given the specific needs of the migrant population.” Within the French-speaking universities, the regional government is imposing increasing administrative control on education procedures, which diverts human resources away from teaching and research. Consequently, the situation is worsening. Chronic underfunding of higher education and its negative impact on productivity has also been pointed out by Dumont and Kegels (2016, see section on Research and Innovation).

Citations:
http://www.oecd.org/pisa/
https://www.ugent.be/current-students/en/administration/tuition/tuitionbalinkprepa20172018.htm
Schwab, Klaus and Sala-i-Marti, Xavier (2017). The Global Competitiveness Report 2017–2018. World Economic Forum editor.

Vanden Bosch (2014). “The European Semester in Belgium: A state of play,” Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations, European Policy Brief No 32

Social Inclusion

#16

To what extent does social policy prevent exclusion and decoupling from society?

10
 9

Policies very effectively enable societal inclusion and ensure equal opportunities.
 8
 7
 6


For the most part, policies enable societal inclusion effectively and ensure equal opportunities.
 5
 4
 3


For the most part, policies fail to prevent societal exclusion effectively and ensure equal opportunities.
 2
 1

Policies exacerbate unequal opportunities and exclusion from society.
Social Inclusion Policy
6
According to the OECD, Belgian workers benefit from advantageous working conditions in terms of wages, but at the price of a long-term unemployment rate that is almost twice as high as the OECD average. Social policy was extremely generous and broad until the onset of the financial crisis, but the last two governments have tightened social spending substantially. As a consequence, the number of beneficiaries of unemployment benefits has dropped substantially, much more so than unemployment itself.

More significantly, the refugee crisis (a result of massive inflows of migrants, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and various sub-Saharan African countries) has produced calls for Belgium to tighten its immigration and social-security policies. However, critics of this direction fear a reduction in the generosity of its poverty assistance beyond what would be desirable for the general population.

Citations:
OECD Economic Surveys: http://www.oecd.org/eco/surveys/Belgium-2017-OECD-economic-survey-overview.pdf

OECD better life initiative 2016: http://www.oecd.org/belgium/Better-Life-Initiative-country-note-Belgium.pdf

Health

#22

To what extent do health care policies provide high-quality, inclusive and cost-efficient health care?

10
 9

Health care policy achieves the criteria fully.
 8
 7
 6


Health care policy achieves the criteria largely.
 5
 4
 3


Health care policy achieves the criteria partly.
 2
 1

Health care policy does not achieve the criteria at all.
Health Policy
7
In Belgium, public (or publicly funded) hospitals own and maintain good equipment, and university hospitals offer advanced treatments, given the institutions’ participation in medical research. Coverage is broad and inclusive. Access to health care is quite affordable, thanks to generous subsidies. Belgium fares quite well in terms of the efficiency of its health care system. It ranks close to Sweden, which is often considered to be a benchmark of efficiency with regard to affordable access to health care.

A problem is that costs have been contained by reducing wages and hospital costs in ways that do not seem viable in the long run, particularly given the aging population. Too few graduating doctors are allowed to practice, and the short supply of doctors in the country may compel an increasing number to leave the public system and the constraints imposed by state subsidies, and move to fully private practices. As a result, inclusiveness is under threat in the medium term and already a challenge in some rural areas.

Another issue is that Belgium does not emphasize prevention sufficiently, and spends more than similar countries on subsidized drugs. This has generated a structural increase in health policy costs and hampers long-run sustainability within the health care system.

Recently, entire areas of state competences regarding health care have been devolved to the regions (Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels) with the aim of increasing local accountability. However, this risks a loss of coordination and increased costs (e.g., excess spending on medical equipment) in a country where regions are so small that patients may easily move between regions, and the resulting competition may lead to excess spending. There is also a risk of losing management competence, as the pool of ministers and experts is considerably smaller in the regions than in the country as a whole.

Families

#10

To what extent do family support policies enable women to combine parenting with participation in the labor market?

10
 9

Family support policies effectively enable women to combine parenting with employment.
 8
 7
 6


Family support policies provide some support for women who want to combine parenting and employment.
 5
 4
 3


Family support policies provide only few opportunities for women who want to combine parenting and employment.
 2
 1

Family support policies force most women to opt for either parenting or employment.
Family Policy
8
Although child care for children below the age of three is rationed in Belgium, the country is a good performer in this area overall. Essentially free public schooling is available for children after the age of three, and free or very cheap child care is available from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. on working days.

Until recently, subsidies per child (allocations familiales/kinderbijslag), responsibility for which were recently devolved to the federated entities, were low for the first two children and higher for the third child onward. However, reforms of this subsidy system are being passed, at differing speeds, in the federated entities. When these reforms come into effect, there will be a more limited or even no differential between the subsidies paid for successive children in a given family. These subsidies are significant, amounting to about €700 per month for three teenage children and close to €1,000 per month for four teenage children. Moreover, significant personal-income-tax cuts offer additional support to households with children, with and other small benefits are offered to families with children by some local authorities (e.g., a certain number of free garbage bags per year), NGOs (e.g., a special card entitling the bearer to lower prices in some shops) and public transportation services (e.g., free use of trains up to the age of 12).

High implicit tax rates on low-wage earners, which effectively create a substantial labor-market-entry barrier for low-skilled second earners in a couple (who are typically women), remain a hurdle to equitable family policy. Official statistics show that the labor-market activity rate for highly educated women is only five percentage points below the comparable men’s rate, but is a full 18 points (35% as compared to 53%) lower for women with lower levels of education.

Pensions

#12

To what extent does pension policy realize goals of poverty prevention, intergenerational equity and fiscal sustainability?

10
 9

Pension policy achieves the objectives fully.
 8
 7
 6


Pension policy achieves the objectives largely.
 5
 4
 3


Pension policy achieves the objectives partly.
 2
 1

Pension policy does not achieve the objectives at all.
Pension Policy
7
Pension policy has long been a touchy issue in Belgium. Reforms were continuously delayed until the financial crisis hit the country and forced the previous government to initiate a number of reforms to restrict early retirement. Despite considerable political opposition, the current government has steadfastly pursued an effort – based on a firm plan passed by parliament in July 2015 – to gradually raise the legal pension-eligibility age from 65 to 66 years (by 2025) and ultimately to 67 years (by 2030). It is also seeking strong limits on access to early retirement (especially before 60 years of age), with the aim of making the system more sustainable in the long term. The outcome in terms of higher labor-market participation rates for those aged 55 to 65 has fallen short of expectations, but this is partly the result of the adverse economic environment faced across Europe.

The fact that such a policy was approved after so many years of stalemate can be regarded as a significant step forward. In June 2015, the government also set up an advisory commission for pension reforms (comité national des pensions/nationaal pensioencomité), composed of economic experts and other key stakeholders, including trade unions. In 2016, this body reported that the 2015 reforms were insufficient and endangered “solidarity” by increasing future poverty risks. However, no additional measures have been implemented to date, even though this remains a topic of high priority for the current government.

Citations:
http://www.oecd.org/belgium/Better-Life-Initiative-country-note-Belgium.pdf

Pension experts’ negative assessment: https://www.rtbf.be/info/article/detail?id=9447107  

https://www.lecho.be/economie-politique/belgique-federal/La-rentree-s-annonce-chaude-si-la-reforme-des-pensions-passe/9909613

https://www.lecho.be/monargent/dossier/guidepension2017/Plus-aucune-pension-ne-sera-victime-des-pieges-fiscaux/9937526

Integration

#26

How effectively do policies support the integration of migrants into society?

10
 9

Cultural, education and social policies effectively support the integration of migrants into society.
 8
 7
 6


Cultural, education and social policies seek to integrate migrants into society, but have failed to do so effectively.
 5
 4
 3


Cultural, education and social policies do not focus on integrating migrants into society.
 2
 1

Cultural, education and social policies segregate migrant communities from the majority society.
Integration Policy
6
Belgium has a contradictory attitude toward immigration. On the one hand, it has traditionally been quite welcoming to political refugees. Its initial reaction to the Syrian refugee inflow was no exception. The government responded with the rapid creation of emergency accommodation centers, followed by the re-dispatching of families to different cities and villages to promote integration and avoid the creation of ghettos. But the situation deteriorated since then, particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Brussels and in the rest of Europe. As in many – if not most – EU countries, popular support for a complete halt to immigration is rising strongly. To fulfill its plan of returning illegal immigrants to their home countries or preventing future entries, the government has been forced to take increasingly controversial actions. These have ranged from signing the EU-Turkey agreement to block immigrants from reaching the EU, to inviting Sudanese officials suspected of crimes against humanity to identify migrants of Sudanese origin. Even the minister responsible for this latter initiative, who belongs to the expressly conservative NVA party, admitted that he had to “hold his nose” when engaging in such deals. Indeed, some of these policies border on illegality, given that Belgium has signed all Geneva conventions, including that on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

For those who remain in Belgium, including second and third-generation immigrants, the degree of economic integration is far from being satisfactory, a fact that has produced increasing cleavages in the Belgian society. The Itinera Institute has argued greater data collection within these communities would be a necessary first step for identifying immigrants’ skills for job placement.

Even when legally Belgian, second-generation immigrants are confronted with a school system that is insufficiently adapted to people whose parents’ mother tongue is not Dutch or French. The OECD’s PISA reports note that the country’s significant inequalities in pupil performance can largely be explained by the immigration issue.

Belgium has long been making efforts to combat these challenges. The Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism was created specifically to address discrimination issues. Civil society and the press are very wary of acts of outright discrimination and racism. Nonetheless, existing public funding levels and proactive policies remain insufficient to deliver the substantial results needed to demonstrate that the last 30 years of immigration have been a success.

Citations:
hhttp://www.oecd.org/pisa/
https://www.cire.be/analyses/1318-asile-et-migration-une-politique-restrictive-et-stigmatisante-envers-les-migrants
http://plus.lesoir.be/102685/article/2017-07-02/dautres-reformes-controversees
https://www.courrierinternational.com/article/en-belgique-une-campagne-coup-de-poing-pour-denoncer-la-politique-migratoire

Safe Living

#29

How effectively does internal security policy protect citizens against security risks?

10
 9

Internal security policy protects citizens against security risks very effectively.
 8
 7
 6


Internal security policy protects citizens against security risks more or less effectively.
 5
 4
 3


Internal security policy does not effectively protect citizens against security risks.
 2
 1

Internal security policy exacerbates the security risks.
Safe Living Conditions
7
Belgium is generally a safe country, yet violence does occur and the country’s crime rate is higher than in neighboring countries. In addition, Belgium has disproportionately attracted members of Islamist terror networks, who are producing a new type of threat that the country has found it difficult to manage.

With regard to low-level criminality, self-reported rates of victimization are slightly above the OECD average, in part due to an above-average incidence of bullying that has not received sufficient policy attention. Underfunded and overcrowded prisons are another source of the problem, though successive recent governments have invested in new prison facilities. The court system remains slow (due to a huge backlog) and is often perceived as lenient. This helps maintain a feeling of impunity for misdemeanor offenders. Yet, the country’s relative social stability, neocorporatist arrangements and limited levels of income inequality have largely insulated it from mass demonstrations or riots of the kind sometimes observed in France or other EU countries.

Citations:
OECD 2015. Better life initiative. How is life in Belgium? October 2015. http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/belgium/

Global Inequalities

#17

To what extent does the government demonstrate an active and coherent commitment to promoting equal socioeconomic opportunities in developing countries?

10
 9

The government actively and coherently engages in international efforts to promote equal socioeconomic opportunities in developing countries. It frequently demonstrates initiative and responsibility, and acts as an agenda-setter.
 8
 7
 6


The government actively engages in international efforts to promote equal socioeconomic opportunities in developing countries. However, some of its measures or policies lack coherence.
 5
 4
 3


The government shows limited engagement in international efforts to promote equal socioeconomic opportunities in developing countries. Many of its measures or policies lack coherence.
 2
 1

The government does not contribute (and often undermines) efforts to promote equal socioeconomic opportunities in developing countries.
Global Social Policy
4
The economic crisis has placed continued pressure on the government’s development-aid efforts. International-development policies, which are now split between the federal and federated entities, are increasingly being seen as an instrument to help Belgian firms export to developing countries. Unrelated aid is being cut, and Belgium has repeatedly missed its own spending targets despite recognized Belgian expertise in the field, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. At the international level, Belgium has been part of efforts to push for more fair-trade arrangements, but has not been an agenda-setter.
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