Sustainable Policies


Economic Policies

Hampered by indebtedness and structural weaknesses, Belgium falls into the middle ranks internationally in terms of economic policies (rank 23). Its score in this area has increased by 0.1 point 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. The deficit has fallen below 1%. However, growth has been sluggish, productivity has not improved, and labor-market mismatches are widening.

The country’s employment rate is well below the EU average. Efforts to encourage labor-market partition by increasing the retirement age, reducing labor costs and reducing unemployment benefits have had little impact.

Labor income is strongly taxed, while the share of revenues from indirect taxes is the EU’s second-lowest. Recent tax reforms have cut rates for firms and low-wage earners. While public spending as a share of GDP is high by euro-area standards, public infrastructure and higher education are underfunded.

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 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.

Environmental Policies

Inefficient and fragmented strategies place Belgium in the lower-middle ranks internationally (rank 26) in terms of environmental policy. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.2 points relative to 2014.

The government’s climate policy has been largely ineffective. The 2009 – 2012 National Climate Plan remains current policy, while the National Energy-Climate Plan 2021 – 2030 had not been finalized despite a 2019 deadline. Air pollution in urban areas is a serious problem.

Much policy is left to the regions. This has led to some ambitious, though often uncoordinated projects, such as the Brussels plan to ban fossil-fuel-burning cars by 2035, without a plan for electricity production or sufficient intercity transport. By contrast, the new Flemish government has been accused of effectively withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.

Air quality is below the EU average, exacerbated by high levels of road traffic. Environmental demonstrations and activists have been met with distain by high-level politicians, or subject to police repression.

Robust Democracy


Quality of Democracy

With its complex federal and linguistic environment, Belgium falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 16) 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 citizen assemblies and other participative models are becoming more common.

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, recent anti-terrorist and anti-immigrant measures have prompted civil-rights concerns. Discrimination against ethnic minorities and refugees can be a problem, but the country has been a leader on same-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 are often subject to long delays. A string of office-abuse cases has generated pressure for stronger enforcement of anti-corruption laws.

Good Governance


Executive Capacity

With several significant governance weaknesses, Belgium falls into the lower-middle ranks (rank 27) in terms of executive capacity. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.2 points since 2014.

A disagreement over the UN migration pact led the right-wing N-VA party to withdraw from the governing coalition, resulting in a minority government. Legislative elections created a highly polarized parliament, with the deadlock producing a caretaker government.

The prime minister’s office contains a policy-steering unit that evaluates and coordinates the most important proposals. Although governments are generally broad coalitions, ministers must approve policies collegially, rendering informal coordination is vital. Coordination between the federal government and the 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 previous coalition actively sought to reduce union influence. The highly polarized political landscape has badly undermined self-monitoring efforts.

Executive Accountability

With strong structural legislative-oversight powers, Belgium receives a good overall score (rank 8) in the area of executive accountability. Its score in this area has declined by 0.2 points relative to 2014.

Parliament is powerful, with parties and individual members having access to significant resources. In some cases, the government has failed to collect data on sensitive issues in order to avoid disclosing it to committees. 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.

The population has become increasingly active in demanding policies from the various government levels, exemplified by “gilet jaunes”-like unrest, and young peoples’ climate-change demonstrations. Newspapers and other media have deepened their political and policy coverage.

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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