Whenever Belgium is in the international media agenda, it seems to be for bad news. From holding the record for the longest time a democracy has been without a government (589 days!) to being the world’s wealthiest failed state, and the latest string of corruption scandals rocking the political establishment.
You probably have heard about the latest news around Samusocial, a non-profit that provides support to the homeless. Former Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur and a colleague from the Socialist Party paid themselves some 112,000 EUR since 2008 for meeting they never attended and which probably never took place. Top politicians with handsome salaries diverted funds for the homeless into their pockets. This is following the Publifin affair, where generous fake jobs were created for the profit of top political figures. The Washington Posts suggests that to better understand Belgian politics we should look at the politics of Africa: the overly complicated political structure is fertile for using disorder as a political instrument.
Decades ago Belgium was praised for its political system which wants to represent every single community at a variety of levels. Brussels is its pinnacle, with a parliament and government; 19 autonomous neighborhoods; six different police zones; and over 30 public housing companies. The city has more ministers, mayors and city counselors than Paris and Berlin combined. This not only creates a wealth of jobs to distribute as pleases the next person in power, but makes it nearly impossible to hold people accountable and facilitates the siphoning of public funds and other fraudulent activities.
Granted, the country managed to work fairly well in the nearly 2 years without a government, partly because the complex structure also allows for business as usual to continue with minor influence from the politicians. And when we compare the amounts discussed they seem trivial compared to corruption in Brazil or Russia: it is hundreds of thousands of Euros, not dozens of millions. It is clear however that many politicians in Belgium, much like elsewhere, are more inclined to work for themselves than for others.
The continuous media spotlight on the Socialist Party (the protagonist of most scandals so far) on these affairs and their failure to bring about change after 3 decades of power will likely be devastating next election. But the issues are larger than the Socialist Party and touch the very heart of Belgian governance. By trying to make a country that works for all communities separately (flemish, wallon and german -and Brussels), Belgium has ended up with a political system that is expensive to run, prone to corruption and with little capacity to generate positive change.
The magnitude and frequency of recent scandals are creating the need for a political response: resignation of Yvan Mayeur, trials and the apparition of a new party, E-change, a new francophone party “à la Macron” that hopes to capture the disenchanted PS voters. While the situation will not change overnight, we can hope that Belgians will make it clear that their country needs to be governed by a competent and transparent political corps. Maybe then Europe will see Brussels in a more positive light.