Belgium

   

Social Policies

#19
Key Findings
With some sustainability concerns, Belgium receives middling scores (rank 19) in the area of social policies. Its score in this area has declined by 0.1 point since 2014.

While students show generally strong skills, educational performance has weakened, particularly in the French-speaking part of the country. A decade of educational reforms has led to little visible improvement. Access to education is largely equitable.

Popular resentment due to wage stagnation and economic hardship led to four national strikes, and boosted populists in the 2019 elections. Health coverage is broad and inclusive, with access to care quite affordable. Child care is widely available, with some rationing for children under three. The government has sought to raise the official retirement age and limit early retirement.

Controversy over the UN migration pact split the government coalition in late 2018, with anti-migrant parties seeing strong gains particularly in Flanders in the 2019 election. Even citizens whose parents or grandparents were immigrants suffer problems of social inclusion and educational performance.

Education

#24

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, despite Belgium investing slightly less than the OECD average in education (OECD 2017, Figure 7). However, an increasingly large set of indicators (e.g., OECD and European Council indicators) show that Belgium’s educational performance has weakened over the last decade, in particular regarding inclusiveness, youth integration into the labor market and higher education achievements. OECD assessments of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results highlight the drop in education performance in the French-speaking part of the country.

Over the last decade, the decline in education indicators prompted a flurry of reforms by the respective Flemish and Francophone subnational authorities (as education has been fully federalized), but many of these reforms had negligible or adverse effects. For instance, the French-speaking community government reacted with dynamism and initiated a “Pact for Excellence.” Unfortunately, the latter is largely unfunded and this has put significant stress on education teams, with criticism of increasing staff burnout, and the lack of available time and resources.
The tale is similar in higher education, with substantial underfunding translating into a widening skills mismatch. Available job vacancies remain unfilled, while job-seekers cannot find employment (see the Council of the European Union’s recommendations for Belgium, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, and Dumont and Kegels (2016)). The Flemish community is trying to address the mismatch problem by improving the financing of higher education and has initiated a specific science, technology, engineering and mathematics program. Though this approach has not yet produced concrete results.

Lumping the Flemish and French communities together, frontier analysis led by the commission on 2012 data identified inefficiencies in the Belgian education system and stated that, given the resources already available, performance could be improved by about 25%. Achieving this would, however, require tackling political barriers caused by the linguistic barrier (the current policies are poorly coordinated between the Flemish and French-speaking authorities) and by the coexistence of a public network with a “free,” publicly funded (Catholic) network. The coexistence of these networks reflects party division lines, with each network having gained a sacred status for a given political faction.

The general affordability of education helps render access to education largely equitable. University fees remain quite low (€835 per year in French-speaking universities, about €940 in Flemish universities). De facto discriminatory factors include the minimal study grants for poorer students, and the increasingly overcrowded classrooms. 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.”

Citations:
AGASISTI, Tommaso, Ralph HIPPE and Giuseppe MUNDA (2017). “Efficiency of investment in compulsory education: empirical analyses in Europe.” Publications Office of the European Union.

http://www.oecd.org/pisa/
https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/ ?uri=CELEX:32018H0910(01)&from=EN

https://www.ugent.be/current-students/en/administration/tuition/tuitionbalinkprepa20172018.html

OECD (2017), Benchmarking higher education system performance: Conceptual framework and data, Enhancing Higher Education System Performance, OECD Paris.

Schwab, Klaus (ed) (2019). The Global Competitiveness Report 2019. World Economic Forum.

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. Perhaps as a consequence of this, the “gilets jaunes” movement, so prominent in neighboring France, gained limited traction in Belgium. However, while salaried workers benefit from automatic wage indexation, the Michel government chose to limit wage increases to restore the competitiveness of Belgian workers, which met with significant resistance. Nevertheless, the impact of wage indexation on the share of employee compensation in GDP appears to be relatively limited (it stood at 49.2% in 2018 compared to 47.8% in the euro zone).

Belgium is also the only remaining EU member state to offer unemployment benefits that are potentially unlimited in time. Though both the Michel and previous Di Rupo governments have tightened these benefits, with potentially adverse consequences for a large number of people on welfare (De Brouwer et al., 2019). According to official state statistics, Belgium fares somewhat better than other EU countries in terms of income inequality. In addition, only 19.8% of Belgians were considered at risk of poverty in 2018, which is lower than the euro zone average of 21.5%.

Like in the rest of the OECD, however, popular resentment of income inequality, the lack of real wage growth and economic hardship is growing. This resentment contributed in part to four national strikes, and has led to the criticisms of immigration and globalization. In the May 2019 elections, populists gained significant vote shares, with the result of more fractionalized parliaments in all parts of the country.

Citations:
De Brouwer, Octave, Elisabeth Leduc, and Ilan Tojerow (2019) “The Unexpected Consequences of Job Search Monitoring: Disability Instead of Employment?,” No 12304, IZA Discussion Papers

https://plus.lesoir.be/198293/article/2019-01-01/des-experts-prefacent-2019-limmigration-vient-bousculer-les-clivages-politiques

https://plus.lesoir.be/245147/article/2019-09-01/competitivite-et-investissements-deux-chantiers-pour-les-nouveaux-gouvernements

https://plus.lesoir.be/art/d-20190227-3RHMD7?referer=%2Farchives%2Frecherche%3Fdatefilter%3Dlastyear%26facets%3DGL%253A3776BF00-132A-4411-BD5B-C493EDBB2DD6%26sort%3Dweight%26start%3D20%26word%3Dimmigration

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

#20

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 healthcare is quite affordable, thanks to generous subsidies. Belgium fares quite well in terms of the efficiency of its healthcare system. It ranks close to Sweden, which is often considered to be a benchmark of efficiency with regard to affordable access to healthcare.

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 graduate doctors are allowed to practice, and the short supply of doctors is increasingly translating into abusive and underpaid or unpaid working hours (totaling 70 – 100 hours per week) for young graduates.

Such bottlenecks 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 lasting sustainability within the healthcare system.

Recently, entire areas of state competences regarding healthcare 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.

Citations:
https://plus.lesoir.be/187789/article/2018-11-02/apres-une-garde-de-24h-je-me-sens-juste-abimee-lenfer-des-assistants-en-medecine
https://plus.lesoir.be/255554/article/2019-10-23/pourquoi-les-blouses-blanches-arretent-le-travail-ce-jeudi

Families

#9

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 childcare for children below the age of three is “rationed,” Belgium 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 childcare is available from 7.30am to 6pm on weekdays.

At the time of writing, the biggest change this year has been the reform of child benefits (allocations familiales/kinderbijslag) in each federated entity. Until 2018, they were low for the first two children and higher for the third child onward. Since 2019, this competence has been devolved to the federated entities. Effective from January 2019 in Flanders and January 2020 in Wallonia, the allowance has been substantially increased for the first child and the premium for large families has essentially been scrapped.

Additional child subsidies include personal income tax cuts and other in-kind benefits (e.g., a certain number of free garbage bags per year, reduced prices in some shops and lower public transportation fares), while parents of larger families (3 children or more) may also keep some of these advantages (reduced prices in some shops and lower public transportation fares) even when their children have grown up and are not entitled to child benefits anymore.

The main hurdle to female labor force participation in recent years has been the high implicit tax rate on low-wage earners, which creates a substantial barrier to labor market entry for low-skilled second earners (who are typically women). Eurostat statistics show that the labor market activity rate is as low as 42% for women with low educational attainment (68% for women with intermediate educational attainment), as opposed to 63% and 79% for men, respectively. Such gaps are substantially higher than in neighboring France and Germany.

Citations:
https://kids.partena.be/content/default.asp?PageID=39
https://finances.belgium.be/fr/particuliers/famille/personnes_a_charge/enfants#q3
Eurostat – EU-LFS microdata
https://www.lalibre.be/economie/placements/allocations-familiales-tout-savoir-sur-la-reforme-5c0f96fdcd70e3d2f730358e
https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20181212_04029342

Pensions

#15

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 Michel 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 stronger limits on access to early retirement (especially before 60 years of age) and has created the possibility of taking part-time retirement, with the aim of making the system more sustainable in the long term.

These are major steps forward. In comparison with the pre-crisis year of 2007, the outcome in terms labor market participation rates for those aged 50 to 64 marks a substantial improvement (the participation rate was around 50% in Q2 2007 compared to 64% in Q2 2019, the latest available data).

However, these improvements have fallen short of expectations, with the Council of Europe noting that “Nevertheless public expenditure on pensions would still increase by 2.9 percentage points of GDP by 2070 […]. [T]ransitions from inactivity or unemployment to employment remain low and Belgium is not on track to achieving its Europe 2020 employment target of 73.2%. Strong regional disparities in the labor market persist.”

The significant dispersion of votes in the last elections and the lack of a majority to form a federal government may eventually open the door to a partial reversal of these reforms.

Citations:
https://plus.lesoir.be/125786/article/2017-11-23/reforme-des-pensions-ce-qui-est-fait-ce-quil-reste-faire
Notes:
https://www.levif.be/actualite/belgique/reforme-des-pensions- le-conseil-d-etat-tacle-le-projet-penibilite/article-normal-1047441.html
https://www.levif.be/actualite/belgique/la-pension-a-mi-temps-possible-des-juillet-2019/article-normal-1036193.html
http://www.oecd.org/belgium/Better-Life-Initiative-country-note-Belgium.pdf
https://www.rtbf.be/info/article/detail_ce-que-la-suedoise-a-change-pour-moi-la-reforme-des-pensions?id=10223077
https://plus.lesoir.be/224006/article/2019-05-13/va-t-ramener-lage-de-la-retraite-65-ans
https://plus.lesoir.be/212077/article/2019-03-13/la-pension-65-ans-recalee
https://plus.lesoir.be/art/d-20190403-3T61XD
https://plus.lesoir.be/art/d-20190923-3W8FEQ
Pension experts’ negative assessment: https://www.rtbf.be/info/article/detail?id=9447107
https://www.lecho.be/economie-politique/belgique/elections/les-quatre-raisons-de-la-victoire-du-vlaams-belang/10130787.html 

Integration

#24

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 member states, popular support for a complete halt to immigration has risen strongly. The Michel government heralded a policy of toughness vis-à-vis immigrants and political refugees.

In December 2018, the signing of the U.N. pact on migration sparked a controversy that brought down the government coalition. The N-VA, the right-wing conservative member of the government, pulled out at the last minute in the hope of collapsing the government and triggering immediate elections. Given that elections were scheduled for May 2019, the other parties in the coalition decided to maintain a minority government, relying on external support in the parliament. The May 2019 elections resulted in a significant rise for the extreme right in Flanders, in the wake of a campaign in which immigration issues remained central. The recently formed Flemish government announced that it was withdrawing from UNIA (formerly the Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism).

Though legally recognized as Belgian citizens, second and third generation immigrants have also become victims of these tensions. The OECD and the European Semester have repeatedly underlined the dismal performance of Belgian schools, based on PISA scores, with regards to the educational performance of students with a migrant background. In its June 2019 recommendations, the Council of the European Union reports that “People with a migrant background, in particular women, continue to experience higher unemployment, lower activity rates, higher in-work poverty and over-qualification.” According to EU-SILC data, the risk of poverty among foreign-born residents is three times higher than for native-born citizens, which increases to four times higher for non-EU-born residents. The employment gap was 20 percentage points in 2016. The Itinera Institute has argued in favor of enhanced data collection within these communities to produce fresh, evidence-based policies to improve the job placement rate of migrant workers.

Thus, Belgium has been a country of immigration, and is generally opposed to overt racism and discrimination. Yet, its performance in terms of eventual social inclusion and labor market participation is less than optimal.

Citations:
http://www.oecd.org/pisa/
https://www.cire.be/analyses/1318-asile-et-migration-une-politique-restrictive-et-stigmatisante-envers-les-migrants
https://plus.lesoir.be/243237/article/2019-08-22/les-signalements-de-haine-en-ligne-ont-double-en-periode-electorale
https://www.rtbf.be/info/belgique/detail_accord-flamand-une-politique-d-immigration-et-d-integration-nettement-plus-stricte?id=10329078
https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20190930_04636502
https://www.courrierinternational.com/article/en-belgique-une-campagne-coup-de-poing-pour-denoncer-la-politique-migratoire
http://www.luttepauvrete.be/chiffres_nombre_pauvres.html
https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1560258016104&uri=CELEX:52019DC0501

Safe Living

#17

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.
Internal Security Policy
8
Belgium has always been a generally safe country and the situation has continued to improve over the last years. Yet, some violence does occur and the country’s crime rate is slightly above several neighboring countries. In addition, Belgium has become infamous for having attracted a number of Islamist terror activists, who are producing a new type of threat that the country has found difficult to manage. This is, however, a general issue in Europe and among OECD countries.

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 problem. 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, neo-corporatist 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 member states.

Citations:
OECD 2015. Better life initiative. How is life in Belgium? October 2015. http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/belgium/
https://www.rtbf.be/info/belgique/detail_l-armee-en-rue-a-fait-baisser-la-criminalite-de-30-a-bruxelles-et-anvers?id=8947069
http://www.stat.policefederale.be/assets/pdf/notes/tendances_2016_2017_SPC.pdf
http://www.stat.policefederale.be/statistiquescriminalite/interactif/graphique-par-categorie-principales-des-infractions/

Global Inequalities

#18

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.

Citations:
https://diplomatie.belgium.be/sites/default/files/rapport-annuel-cd-2017.pdf
https://www2.compareyourcountry.org/aid-statistics?cr=625&cr1=oecd&lg=en&page=0
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