Belgium

   

Executive Accountability

#9
Key Findings
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.

Citizens’ Participatory Competence

#6

To what extent are citizens informed of public policies?

10
 9

Most citizens are well-informed of a broad range of public policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many citizens are well-informed of individual public policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few citizens are well-informed of public policies; most citizens have only a rudimental knowledge of public policies.
 2
 1

Most citizens are not aware of public policies.
Political Knowledge
7
There are few sources of data that allow one to assess the citizenry’s level of information with precision. However, it is possible to surmise that individuals’ policy knowledge must have increased under this government, if only because some measures are controversial, and controversy attracts media attention. The last legislative elections and the recent government change in Wallonia has put right-wing parties and the Christian Democrats in power at the federal level and in the Flemish and Walloon governments, with the Socialists and other parties controlling the region of Brussels. This has increased polarization, but should also improve accountability. Belgian citizens have access to an independent press, and government interference with the media is limited to the usual pressure to emphasize favorable news.

Does the government publish data and information in a way that strengthens citizens’ capacity to hold the government accountable?

10
 9

The government publishes data and information in a comprehensive, timely and user-friendly way.
 8
 7
 6


The government most of the time publishes data and information in a comprehensive, timely and user-friendly way.
 5
 4
 3


The government publishes data in a limited and not timely or user-friendly way.
 2
 1

The government publishes (almost) no relevant data.
Open Government
6
In 2011, Belgium launched an open data platform with the aim of making government information readily available to citizens. In general, Belgium is comparable to the average European country in terms of open data policy. However, perhaps due to a lack of communication, Belgium continues to lag behind its European counterparts in terms of the use and impact of open data initiatives.
Belgium is ranked 22 out of 115 countries in the Open Data Barometer Global Report Fourth Edition (2016) and 22 out of 94 countries in the Global Open Data Index 2016/2017. The Global Open Data Index highlights Belgium’s poor performance regarding the availability of information on government spending, land ownership, election results, draft legislation and national laws.
As a response to the lack of information, Transparencia, a private platform, was created in 2016 with the aim of helping citizens access information held by the government.

Citations:
http://digitaldashboard.belgium.be/sites/default/files/basic-page/files/2018-03/country-factsheet_belgium.pdf
https://index.okfn.org/place/be/
https://opendatabarometer.org/data-explorer/?_year=2015&indicator=ODB&lang=en&open=BEL
https://data.gov.be/fr/info-faq

Private substitute:
https://transparencia.be/help/about
https://www.sudinfo.be/art/1699151/article/2016-10-19/transparencia-une-plate-forme-bruxelloise-pour-obliger-les-autorites-a-plus-de-t

Legislative Actors’ Resources

#9

Do members of parliament have adequate personnel and structural resources to monitor government activity effectively?

10
 9

The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for monitoring all government activity effectively.
 8
 7
 6


The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for monitoring a government’s major activities.
 5
 4
 3


The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for selectively monitoring some government activities.
 2
 1

The resources provided to the members of parliament are not suited for any effective monitoring of the government.
Parliamentary Resources
9
Belgium is a parliamentary democracy. During the political crisis of 2010 – 2011, when the government was unable to be formed, the parliament took over policymaking from government without much problem. Thanks to Belgium’s strong party system, information flows well between the government and parliament. As party heads are central figures in any political agreement, they can coordinate action at each level. Individual members of parliament as well as party parliamentary groups are also well-supported by state-funded expert staff and by parliamentary assistants – their overall level of resources is thus high, even if there is often a high level of party discipline in the federal parliament.

In addition, parliament can summon any person, even ministers, to request information. It can initiate special investigations through ad hoc committees, and the Audit Office (Cour des Comptes/Rekenhof), which monitors all Belgian institutions, is a collateral institution of the federal parliament.

Are parliamentary committees able to ask for government documents?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may ask for most or all government documents; they are normally delivered in full and within an appropriate time frame.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to ask for government documents are slightly limited; some important documents are not delivered or are delivered incomplete or arrive too late to enable the committee to react appropriately.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to ask for government documents are considerably limited; most important documents are not delivered or delivered incomplete or arrive too late to enable the committee to react appropriately.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not request government documents.
Obtaining Documents
9
Parliamentary committees are de facto able to obtain essentially all documents they need, as long as documents are not deemed highly confidential. The more sensitive areas include domestic and foreign security, in particular regarding the police and intelligence services, for which two special regular parliamentary committees have been set up. These powers become even stronger when a parliamentary committee is set up to initiate a parliamentary investigation. However, this often leads to a strategy of not collecting data on sensitive issues in order to avoid having to disclose sensitive information. This does of course imply that government policymaking takes place somewhat in the dark.

Are parliamentary committees able to summon ministers for hearings?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may summon ministers. Ministers regularly follow invitations and are obliged to answer questions.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon ministers are slightly limited; ministers occasionally refuse to follow invitations or to answer questions.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon ministers are considerably limited; ministers frequently refuse to follow invitations or to answer questions.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not summon ministers.
Summoning Ministers
10
Ministers are regularly summoned to parliamentary committees. The rights of committees do not appear to be restricted. This is reinforced by the fact that most parliamentary members (majority and opposition alike) have little chance of seeing their own proposals pass in parliament. Therefore, they concentrate much of their time on written questions (which must be answered by the minister in charge), which can improve a member’s media visibility. However, when the media attention on a topic is intense, one frequently sees important ministers replaced by (less important) state secretaries during questioning.

Are parliamentary committees able to summon experts for committee meetings?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may summon experts.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon experts are slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon experts are considerably limited.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not summon experts.
Summoning Experts
9
Experts are regularly invited and questioned in parliamentary committees. The rights of committees do not appear to be restricted. Experts are often called upon, for instance when committees are addressing so-called ethical laws (involving issues of euthanasia, adoption rights for same-sex couples, religious-related disputes, and so on) or institutional reforms. There are some de facto restrictions as to the 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.

Are the task areas and structures of parliamentary committees suited to monitor ministries effectively?

10
 9

The match between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are well-suited to the effective monitoring of ministries.
 8
 7
 6


The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are largely suited to the monitoring ministries.
 5
 4
 3


The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are partially suited to the monitoring of ministries.
 2
 1

The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are not at all suited to the monitoring of ministries.
Task Area Congruence
8
The number of parliamentary committees in the Chamber of Deputies is slightly larger than the number of ministries. There are 11 permanent committees that address key policy areas largely aligned with ministerial portfolios (e.g., defense, justice, budget or external affairs), while 16 special committees focus on specific topics (e.g., committees created in the wake of the Volkswagen scandal or nuclear safety) or cross-cutting issues (e.g., cases of sexual abuse or constitutional reform). Committees are largely able to monitor ministries, but the effectiveness of this monitoring can be underwhelming, as the recent experience regarding nuclear safety and electricity supply has demonstrated.

Citations:
List and functioning of commissions:
https://www.lachambre.be/kvvcr/showpage.cfm?section=/none&language=fr&cfm=/site/wwwcfm/comm/LstCom.cfm

https://www.lachambre.be/kvvcr/pdf_sections/pri/fiche/fr_12_02.pdf

Media

#29

To what extent do media in your country analyze the rationale and impact of public policies?

10
 9

A clear majority of mass media brands focus on high-quality information content analyzing the rationale and impact of public policies.
 8
 7
 6


About one-half of the mass media brands focus on high-quality information content analyzing the rationale and impact of public policies. The rest produces a mix of infotainment and quality information content.
 5
 4
 3


A clear minority of mass media brands focuses on high-quality information content analyzing public policies. Several mass media brands produce superficial infotainment content only.
 2
 1

All mass media brands are dominated by superficial infotainment content.
Media Reporting
6
Television-news programs provide a relatively reasonable level of information, with a greater share of high-quality content and less focus on personalities than in Italy or France, for example. However, the economic crisis in the media sector is accelerating a trend toward sensational, lower-quality information, as well as a growing inability to conduct in-depth investigations or monitor policymaking. As a consequence, public perception of media quality is on a downward trend.

Bucking the trend, however, a spate of national and international scandals emerged during the review period. These ranged from abuse of public office to international tax evasion. This stimulated popular attention to the news, and induced newspapers and other media to improve the depth of their information on specific political and policy matters. But their capacity to maintain attention to specific issues over time and to explain complex policies effectively remains weak.

Citations:
http://www.institut-solidaris.be/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/LaConfianceDansLesMedias.pdf

Parties and Interest Associations

#14

How inclusive and open are the major parties in their internal decision-making processes?

10
 9

The party allows all party members and supporters to participate in its decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are open.
 8
 7
 6


The party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, all party members have the opportunity to participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and issue agendas are rather open.
 5
 4
 3


The party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, a number of elected delegates participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and issue agendas are largely controlled by the party leadership.
 2
 1

A number of party leaders participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and issue agendas are fully controlled and drafted by the party leadership.
Intra-party Decision-Making
5
Belgium maintains a multiparty political system, with more than a dozen parties that hold regular parliamentary representation. Party organizations also come in a broad variety of forms. Three parties obtained more than 10% of the national vote in the federal elections held in May 2014: the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) obtained 20.3% of the vote; the French Socialists, whose then-leader Elio Di Rupo was the prime minister in the previous government, obtained 11.7% of the votes; and the Flemish Christian Democrats obtained 11.6% of the vote.

All the other parties obtained less than 10% of the vote at the national level. However, this observation must be qualified by the fact that each party runs only in its own district, mainly Flanders and Brussels for Flemish parties, or Wallonia and Brussels for French-speaking parties. Hence, the percentage totals in the relevant regions were much higher. This is evident in the vote totals for the regional parliaments, which were elected on the same day. In Wallonia, the left-wing socialists, the right-wing liberals and the Christian Democrats respectively obtained 31%, 27% and 15% of the vote. In Flanders, the New Flemish Alliance, the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and the Socialists respectively obtained 32%, 21%, 14% and 14% of the vote.

Concerning internal selection procedures, Bram Wauters (2013) writes that “…all Belgian parties represented in parliament give their members a direct say in the appointment of the party leader, be it at a party conference in which all members can participate and vote or via internal elections granting each member one vote (either by postal or electronic voting, or by arranging polling booths in local party sections). The exception is the Flemish extreme right party Vlaams Belang.”

The actual competitiveness of these internal elections varies widely on a case-by-case basis. In most internal elections, the winner is elected by a crushing majority, suggesting that challengers are simply acting figures destined to give an appearance of internal democracy – or, quite frequently, there is only one candidate. But it does happen that some internal elections are highly competitive, and lead to surprising results (among others, the Greens typically have competitive internal elections, and both the Christian Democrats and the Liberals have occasionally had tight contests). Overall, the process is thus mostly controlled by intermediate party elites.

Citations:
Wauters, Bram (2013). “Democratising Party Leadership Selection in Belgium: Motivations and Decision Makers.” Political Studies 62/S1, 62-80, DOI: 10.1111/1467-9248.12002.

To what extent are economic interest associations (e.g., employers, industry, labor) capable of formulating relevant policies?

10
 9

Most interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 2
 1

Most interest associations are not capable of formulating relevant policies.
Association Competence (Employers & Unions)
8
Belgium has a high level of trade-union membership and a strong tradition of social consensus implemented through strong and well-organized trade unions and employers’ organizations. For instance, most 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 (budgeted and framed in legal terms), even if some bargaining and bluffing occurs.

The trade unions and employers’ organizations each have their own well-developed study services with highly technical (e.g., legal and budgetary) expertise, even on topics outside their traditional competencies.

It should be noted that, in contrast to political parties, employers’ associations and trade unions are still structured at the national level. However, there are some elements within Belgium’s social organizations that appear resistant to change, given a general conservatism and a perceived need to protect the institution.

To what extent are non-economic interest associations capable of formulating relevant policies?

10
 9

Most interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 2
 1

Most interest associations are not capable of formulating relevant policies.
Association Competence (Others)
7
There is a wide range of civil society groups with influence on policy formation in Europe, and Belgium performs well in this regard. A number of noneconomic interest associations receive state funding, including environmental, cultural, religious/philosophical, sports/leisure and minority (such as individuals with handicaps) groups.

The largest groups can both make proposals and influence policy. Consociationalism also implies that some socially important decisions are made smoothly. The decisions to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003 and euthanasia in 2002 followed intense but quite dispassionate debates. The contrast with France or the United States over similar issues is all the more striking.

The main reason why this can happen is again related to the predominance of political parties. Some groups and associations that receive funding either initially have, or subsequently develop, preferential political relationships with political parties and/or government actors. 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 noneconomic interest associations to propose policies, and further to ensure that these proposals are well founded, as there is a high probability that the proposals will be debated in parliament.

Obviously, the negative aspect of this structure is dependence on public funding. On the positive side, some groups are able to coalesce into broader umbrella organizations (such as around environmental protection) that are able to hire stable staff with policy expertise.

Independent Supervisory Bodies

#7

Does there exist an independent and effective audit office?

10
 9

There exists an effective and independent audit office.
 8
 7
 6


There exists an effective and independent audit office, but its role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


There exists an independent audit office, but its role is considerably limited.
 2
 1

There does not exist an independent and effective audit office.
Audit Office
10
Established by the constitution (Article 180), the Court of Audit (Cour des Comptes/Rekenhof) is a collateral body of the parliament. It exerts external controls on the budgetary, accounting and financial operations of the federal state, the communities, the regions, the public-service institutions that depend upon them, and the provinces. Some public firms and non-profit organizations are also subject to review (for instance, the Flemish public-transportation firm De Lijn was audited in 2013). Its Court of Audit’s legal powers allow it considerable independence and broad autonomy to fulfill its mandate. The members of the Court of Audit are elected by parliament. The Court’s reports are public and presented to parliament along with the accounts of the state. The body regularly attracts media attention for its critical remarks regarding the management of public entities or services (such as over the roads in Wallonia).

Citations:
https://www.ccrek.be/EN/Presentation/Presentation.html

https://www.courdescomptes.be/EN/

Does there exist an independent and effective ombuds office?

10
 9

There exists an effective and independent ombuds office.
 8
 7
 6


There exists an effective and independent ombuds office, but its advocacy role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


There exists an independent ombuds office, but its advocacy role is considerably limited.
 2
 1

There does not exist an effective and independent ombuds office.
Ombuds Office
9
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 makes a public report to parliament every year (6,892 complaints and information demands were addressed in 2015, in comparison with 7,018 in 2014). However, the ombudsman’s role is only informative and deals with facilitation or advocacy; it has no coercive power.

Some difficulties occur when a complaint touches upon an issue which concerns both federal and regional or community authorities. Regional authorities have their own ombuds offices, also established in the 1990s and early 2000s. Hence, some overlap occurs.

Citations:
http://www.federaalombudsman.be/homepage

Is there an independent authority in place that effectively holds government offices accountable for handling issues of data protection and privacy?

10
 9

An independent and effective data protection authority exists.
 8
 7
 6


An independent and effective data protection authority exists, but its role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


A data protection authority exists, but both its independence and effectiveness are strongly limited.
 2
 1

There is no effective and independent data protection office.
Data Protection Authority
8
In May 2018, the Belgian federal government instituted the Data Protection Authority (Autorité de protection des données/Gegevensbeschermingsautoriteit). The authority’s mission is to ensure that individual’s privacy is respected when personal data is processed. To improve efficiency, various pre-existing but dispersed authorities and services were regrouped under and are now coordinated by the Data Protection Authority. The new authority is accountable to the lower house (House of Representatives) and its board of directors are politically appointed for 6-year terms.

While political appointments may partially limit its autonomy, the authority is designed to be an independent body that communicates advice and recommendations to the chamber. For instance, the authority issued negative advice regarding the government’s proposal to incorporate citizens’ fingerprint data into the Belgian electronic ID card.

Citations:
https://www.autoriteprotectiondonnees.be/ (in French, with more information)
https://www.dataprotectionauthority.be/ (in English, with limited information)
Back to Top