Belgium: Instability reigns in Belgium

 

This year one of the CWI’s fastest growing sections has been the LSP/MAS in Belgium. The section’s twin names reflect the division of Belgium into Dutch and French speaking areas. Here Anja Deschoemacker outlines the political, economic and social developments that lie behind this growth.

Instability reigns in Belgium

If you would have to describe the Belgian political situation in just one word, that word would have to be instability.

Everyday the fall of the federal government is predicted in at least one newspaper. Although the press is telling us how good the economy is doing, unemployment is still rising and the unemployed are threatened with a permanent witch hunt. In the national negotiations between the bosses and the trade unions, the bosses’ organisations are putting forward an offensive programme: abolition of pre-pension schemes, longer working hours or lower wages, abolition of extra overtime pay (as is now already the case in the construction sector). Two public sectors (railway and post) have started up the procedure for a national strike after a series of local strikes and actions. The health sector moved massively into the streets on October 21st.

The federal government thought it wise to not go onto the offensive as hard as was predicted: almost all socio-economic questions are left to the negotiations between the bosses and the trade unions. The position of this federal government (social democrats and liberals), re-elected (but without their small Flemish Green partner) in June last year, has been enormously weakened by the results of the regional elections in May this year. These led, for the first time in Belgian history, to a situation where the federal and regional governments were composed of different parties. Since then the national question has flared up in a big way again after years of being in the fridge.

Wage negotiations and the government

In January of this year two Flemish federal social democratic ministers (Budget minister Johan Vande Lanotte and the then Social Affairs minister Frank Vandenbroucke) published an open letter in which they predicted a complete catastrophe for social security unless some drastic measures were taken to adapt the system to demographic changes as more pensioners of the baby boom generation reached retirement age. The key question in this statement was that Belgian workers do not work long enough (they retire too soon) and health care cost too much. Their aim was to prepare the climate for the government policy they proposed.

After two years of elections, which made it nearly impossible for government parties to go onto a frontal attack on workers’ conditions and rights, the bourgeoisie wants to catch up with their counterparts in neighbouring countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. Their main goals were to lower the cost of labour, to make the "rigid" labour market more flexible, to privatise the public sector and to cut workers’ social protection. These questions have of course been there for more than 20 years, but trade union resistance forced the bosses time and again to apply the notorious "salami-tactics": you cut bit by bit, hoping nobody will notice it. The idea was that this time they would go for a big piece of salami in one go.

Vande Lanotte and Vandenbroucke acted here as spokespersons for the bourgeoisie, as they have done for years. Since the christian democrats, the bourgeois’s traditional "popular" party (with bourgeois, petit bourgeois, peasant and workers’ wings, including the biggest Flemish trade union) of the bourgeoisie were thrown out of the government in 1999, the Flemish social democrats have been the architects of bourgeois neo-liberal politics. It is Frank Vandenbroucke (ex-chairman of the SP.a, Social Progressive Alternative, the renamed Flemish social democrats) who, after a year of study in Oxford, came up with the policy of the "active welfare state", a Belgian adaptation of Blairism. Since then activity has not gone up as unemployment has risen, and welfare has not grown either.

However there are a lot more part time and temporary jobs. Things like walking someone’s dog, cleaning people’s houses have now been granted the title of "jobs" through the system of service cheques. Unemployed can gather, mostly through interim offices, a number of those jobs and get a steady (non-temporary) half time contract. Wages are, of course, very low and you are running from one "work place" to another. Mostly women and long term unemployed have been forced into this system, as they have consistently seen their benefits suspended.

But up until now unemployed, with or without children, could not be suspended as there are no official time limits in unemployment insurance rights. That is changing now. A decision by the federal government transferred the responsibility of monitoring the efforts of unemployed people to find a new job from the job centres (VDAB) to the agency that has the power to penalise jobseekers who fail to find new employment (RVA). This decision, taken last spring, has created the conditions for a real witch hunt of unemployed people to start at the beginning of October.

Unemployed people are now summoned to the RVA, the agency that can penalise them, and are required to prove that they have been looking for work. In October tens of thousands of young people, most who have been unemployed since leaving school, received their first invitation to go the RVA. When the RVA deems that you have not made an effort, or if you refuse a job offer, sanctions follow. After three months of unemployment young people can be penalised by losing part of their unemployment benefit, after another three months their benefit can be completely suspended.

Next spring this operation will be repeated on an older category of unemployed workers, and over a two year period it will be extended to almost everyone who receives unemployment benefit. This is the first time that, for example, single parents and people without the support of a family or partner will see their rights to social security suspended. They will be driven massively into welfare support, where they can be forced into hamburger jobs more easily under threat of losing that benefit as well.

So in fact an acceleration of cuts and "reforms" in social rights had already begun – this plan was decided on in the middle of the election campaign. A de facto annualisation of working hours has been agreed in the construction sector. Structural changes on the way towards privatisation have been prepared in the post and in the railways. But in the new budget the government did not come forward with the heavy attacks everyone was expecting. There are cuts, but no long term measures on the pre-pension scheme, no fundamental changes in the labour regulation. All these social-economic issues are being pushed away to the two-yearly negotiation round between the bosses and the trade unions starting in November.

This was something that Vandenbroucke (now SP.a minister for Work and Education in the Flemish government) does not like. In mid-October he said that there was no space in the education budget for a pay rise for the whole two year period. He added that there was none for any worker in the public, nor the private sector. His statement was agreed to by all ministers of the Flemish government that have something to say about wages. One of them is Inge Vervotte, ex-trade union secretary of the christian trade union in Sabena, the national airline that went broke after partial privatisation. She is now Flemish minister of Social Affairs and thus responsible for the care sector that has just organised a national strike demanding higher wages and more personnel. Later in October Vandenbroucke came out with a personal open letter saying that the federal budget was a disgrace (it "didn’t tackle the challenges that lie before us"), that health care costs had become uncontrollable and that – to make "governing", meaning cutting hard, possible – the christian democrats should be included in the federal government.

The national question

As a result of the regional elections last May these christian democrats (CD&V) now lead the Flemish government coalition. This is composed of three different alliances ("kartel"). One is the CD&V and Flemish nationalists (NVA); the second is that of social democrats (SP.a) and ex-Flemish nationalists (Spirit) who now call themselves "left wing liberals"; and finally the liberal party VLD. The VLD actually fought the elections as part of an alliance with Vivant, a very small petty bourgeois group constructed around one millionaire, but Vivant did not join the government. This was an unwanted coalition for everyone, but was necessitated by the strength of the Vlaams Blok (a neo-fascist organisation that gets support by using a populist program) and the refusal of the Greens (Groen!, formerly Agalev) to enter the government. The Flemish Greens had been thrown out of the federal government in the 2003 general election. This was after four years of swallowing their "principles" on all levels, which they paid for by not even getting their ministers re-elected in parliament. They have now recovered a bit in winning back votes from the social democrats and they correctly thought it best for their own survival not to enter government just now.

In the French speaking area of Belgium the May election results showed a totally different picture. In Wallonia the French speaking social democratic party PS strengthened its position even further after already making gains in the 2003 federal elections, making it possible to get rid of the liberal party MR, with whom they had been in a regional coalition since 1999 (along with Ecolo, the French speaking Greens) and with whom they are still in coalition on the federal level. They have formed a coalition with the old French speaking christian democrats (cdH), who have degenerated into a small petty bourgeois force, whereas in the Brussels regional government they also included the Greens.

For the first time ever in Belgian history – and also the first time as well that regional and federal elections are not held at the same time – regional and federal government have not got the same composition. The only "political family" that is present on all levels are the social democrats. Flemish and French speaking social democrats are however not the same, or more precisely, they operate in different circumstances. Whereas there are still quite some illusions in the PS when it comes to the defence of social security and public services, the SP.a ministers are often openly the architects of cuts and attacks on workers’ rights. The PS plays the game very well: at the same time as being the chief in both the Brussels and the Walloon regional governments and being included in the federal government, they succeed in putting themselves forward as an opposition party as well, in that sense that on a national level they oppose too harsh measures as a minority against the liberals of both sides of the language border and against the more right wing SP.a.

The PS presents itself as the defender of the French speaking part of Belgium. In that capacity the PS resists proposals like the regional split of social security, which would be a disaster for the social system in the French speaking area, which has been hit hard by deindustrialisation. As the LSP/MAS points out it would also be a disaster for the Flemish workers, as the split would mean that in the competition for attracting investment social security would rapidly be totally undermined. Up until today it is clear that higher combativity, based on deeper traditions and a higher class consciousness of the Walloon workers, has meant that cuts often did not go quite as deep in the Walloon area as in the Flemish area, even though they were agreed on a national level. The PS works and becomes more bourgeois therefore in a different situation than the SP.a does in the Flemish region.

On the other hand it is clear that the PS has been in government since 1987 and is as much responsible for the cuts that have taken place since as the other parties involved. In May last year they agreed for instance to the control on unemployed through the federal control agency instead of the regional unemployment agencies. That means probably the end of the period in which it was mostly Flemish unemployed were suspended, while in the French speaking area (Wallonia and Brussels, both with much higher unemployment) the regional agencies almost never handed a file over to the sanction agency. The PS has worked out a plan to "make Wallonia work", that has all the classical neo-liberal ingredients to attract investment. PS ministers, including the very popular party chairman Elio Di Rupo, have been responsible for privatisation, cuts in education and social security.

In the Flemish area the christian democrats (CD&V) had formed an alliance with the Flemish nationalists (NVA) in the run up to the May elections. They were anxious to win after 5 years in opposition with not that many "jobs for the boys", something that resulted in bitter internal struggles. Those were difficult years for the CD&V, as they were limited in their possibilities for opposition. In fact, the only thing they really said whenever there were cuts was that theirs would be harder. So they strengthened their profile on the national question, as did all Flemish parties to some extent, although they gained more because of the economic difficulties, political chaos, the open fights between and within governing parties.

Included in the agreement that formed the basis for the Flemish coalition government are a number of provocative demands directed against the French speaking parts of the country. The demand, for instance to split the electoral and legal district of Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde would mean that French speaking people living in the Flemish area of Halle-Vilvoorde would, under the existing law, lose their opportunity to vote for French speaking parties or have legal proceedings and official correspondence in their own native language. Almost all commentators agree that this territorial question risks turning into a major issue that can cause the fall of the government. As the christian democrats came to power on a Flemish nationalist programme and in alliance with the Flemish nationalists backing down even a little can be very painful, without that alliance the christian democrats would not be the biggest party in Flanders, the Vlaams Blok would be.

A compromise can be found, but is more difficult than in the past because of the asymmetrically composed governments. Before the federal government could more or less impose a compromise on the regional governments, because these were composed of the same parties. Constitutionally however the federal government cannot impose anything in those fields that fall under the responsibility of the regional governments. Now the regional governments resist openly and strongly the leadership of the federal government.

But more importantly: in the past the national compromise was mostly bought. Belgium actually has a map of "unnecessary public works", huge bridges leading to cow fields, that kind of stuff. This enormous subvention to the construction sector was stimulated by the fact that each investment in one area had to be compensated by an investment in another area. This "waffle iron policy" played a big role in the building up of the still huge state debt, which has served since the Maastricht Treaty as the number one excuse for cuts. Now there is no financial space for buying off the national question, unless the government quits the idea of a balanced budget, something which currently has pride of place.

In brief: the election results have left that the federal government is standing on a tight rope and it can fall off at any time. The only reason why it has not fallen already is that no-one wants elections. The PS does not need elections as they are where they want to be; the others would most probably loose. It is probably more likely that the federal government at a certain stage includes the christian democrats, as Vandenbroucke now proposes. The CD&V refused, when asked for their opinion on Vandenbroucke’s proposal, but in a situation of crisis they can change their mind as they would want to be seen as a "responsible" party, especially by the bourgeoisie. In the recently set up Forum in which the different communities should talk about the national question, there is a small chance that a compromise can be found that would be big enough to get the regional governments to swallow responsibility for the measures the federal government still want to impose, but have now again been postponed.

In the meantime, the old game in which a more right wing Flanders puts pressure on Wallonia to cut down social security and the public sector, and in general to accept a harder neo-liberal policy, goes on. The Flemish government already has said what it wanted to say in the national wage round: no pay rises, not this year, not next. The Flemish government keeps to the strictest budget rules in order to pay off its share of the national debt. That is part of the reason why there is no money to give a pay rise to the Flemish public sector. But they did add "if other governments do the same". If not, and so far they don’t, the threats of regionalisation of parts of social security, the railways etc. follow. It is a game behind which the PS has found an ideal hiding ground.

Movements, trade unions and the youth march

In the midst of this political confusion the national wage round begins. The bosses’ organisations have prepared a list of demands that causes anger amongst workers. Since the beginning of the year it was already clear the bosses wanted to have a go on the question of pre-pension, which is used quite often when companies close or restructure and want to get rid of older (and thus more expensive) workers. It always makes up a huge part in the social plans that serve to keep social relations peaceful. The federation of bosses’ organisations, the VBO, thinks the system is too expensive (for the bosses) and that older workers who are fired should just become unemployed (totally paid by social security). They also ask for the abolition of the system that makes that the longer workers work in a sector the higher their wages become. The VBO presents that as the only possible measure against high unemployment amongst workers of 50 and older.

In doing that, supported by almost all politicians of all shades, the VBO provoked reactions from the trade unions, who consider pre-pension as a right. Also it is often the trade union leaders’ only way to convince workers to accept "restructuring" without heated struggle. On top of that demand, once the discussion was started in Germany, different bosses’ organisations demanded the 40 hour working week. Other bosses’ organisations (including car companies) did not want the 40 hour working week, but lower wages. One way or another, they want to cut wage costs, not just by pushing up productivity. All of them now ask for a more flexible calculation of work time, whether they call it annualisation or an adaption of overtime regulation. Trade unions declared the bosses were preparing a "hot autumn". This comes together with the preparation of privatisation in the post and the railways. The postal workers have gone on strike on numerous occasions against the new calculation of their work time (Georoute), which makes them run or work longer or both. Now a national strike is being prepared, as the trade union leadership can no longer stop the anger of the rank and file. In the railways a strike is preparing against the job insecurity that has been installed by splitting up the company in two parts.

The care sector has been on the move for months now (and has not really been quiet for over 10 years) for an improvement of their work conditions. Their demands include pay rise and an extra 25,000 fulltime jobs, whereas the government budget would allow for a maximum of 700 (according to the trade unions) to 3,000 (according to the government) jobs, and this not before the end of next year. The LSP/MAS intervened in the demonstrations with an appeal for generalised action, which was well accepted. Because although the government has not come with the measures they talked about and left quite a lot of the dirty work to the wage negotiations and coming budget controls when they hope things are quieter. This does not mean that the budget was good for the working class. It just means they have cut off a thinner slice than they wanted at first.

The anger amongst the working class is mounting and in some or other way it will erupt. Most probably we will see a series of struggles developing, and some sectors have already taken to the streets. The fact that the government has not yet taken the harsh measures that were expected, makes it less likely, for now, that the trade union leadership would call out for general action. The pressure for general action can mount however during the wage negotiations. It is also possible that bosses and trade unions do not reach an agreement, in which case the whole package lands back into the lap of the government.

It is very difficult at this stage to foresee exactly what is going to happen. The anger is there, but there are many obstacles in the way of a mass struggle, not the least one being the trade union leaderships. In Flanders, Brussels and the Walloon area both the social democratic and the christian trade unions have "their" party in the regional government. It’s a bourgeois credo in Belgium that such a situation is necessary in order to impose a heavy cuts plan. It does not completely prevent struggle though.

The last time both the christian democrats and the social democrats pushed through a big cuts program, while being in coalition together, that led to the biggest general strike (in numbers) ever in Belgian history. The massive struggle then, in 1993, was stopped by the trade union leadership by their statement that any other government would be worse, as that this was the most left wing government possible in Belgium. That argument – the most left wing government possible – reappeared in 1999 when the christian democrats left the government and a coalition of social democrats, liberals and greens was formed on all levels. During future struggles that will develop it will become clearer to a bigger layer of workers and youth that there is no possibility of a "left wing government" if there is no workers’ party.

Earlier this year the LSP/MAS started a campaign for a youth march for jobs. The youth organisations of the christian democratic and the socialist unions have now agreed to a joint campaign for a youth march on March 19th next year. We will campaign amongst the youth in the universities and schools, but we want to prioritise the building of mobilisation committees in the work places. We will explain that united and general action is necessary, against the divisive tactics of using immigrants, women and, in Flanders, Walloon workers as scapegoats for the crisis of capitalism.

Political parties

Flemish:

CD & V – Christian Democrats and Flemish.

GROEN! – (formerly AGALEV) Greens.

NVA – New Flemish Alliance: conservative Flemish nationalists.

SP.a – Socialist Party.Alternative.

Spirit – (now associated with SP.A): progressive Flemish nationalists

VB – Vlaams Blok/Flemish Block: neo-fascists demanding the break-up of Belgium

VLD – Flemish Liberal Democrats: conservative liberals

Francophone:

cdH – Humanist and Democratic Centre: the remnant of the christian democrat PSC.

Ecolo: greens.

FN – National Front: neo-fascist party supporting Belgian unity.

MR – Reformist Movement: conservative liberals.

PS – Socialist Party: social democrat.

 

Belgian Federal Government coalition:

VLD, Ecolo, MR, PS, SP.a-Spirit. The Federal government is headed by Guy Verhofstadt from the VLD.

 

Flemish regional government coalition:

The two alliances of the CD&V/N-VA and SP.a/Spirit, plus the VLD. The Flemish government is headed by the Yves Leterme from the CD&V.

 

Walloon regional government coalition:

PS and cdH. The Walloon government is headed by Jean-Claude van Cauwenberghe from the PS.

 

Brussels regional government coalition:

PS, Ecolo, cdH, VLD, SP.a and CD&V. The Brussels regional government is headed by Eric Tomas from the PS.

 

Trade Union federations

ABVV-FGTB – social democratic (largest federation in Wallonia)

ACV-CSC – christian (largest Flemish federation)

ACLVB – CGSLB – liberal

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