Belgium, my country, has been living in denial



There was a time when Belgium was at Europe’s vanguard. It was the second country in the world to industrialize, the founder of art deco and surrealism, and a producer of Nobel scientists who discovered — among other things — the God particle.

I was born and bred in this country, but I fear we are now trailblazing a much less positive path for Europe.

Although the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, they were also symptoms of a profoundly Belgian failure. The institutions of a well-policed and efficiently governed state have been evaporating for decades.

Belgium has been torn by the demands of its warring Flemish- and French-speaking communities. At the same time it has been squeezed by an ambitious European project that subsidized and empowered the country’s regions at the expense of the state. Belgian institutions were left hollowed out, impotent to address the strains of immigration and incompetent to penetrate a rising extremist threat.

This is at root a story of failed investment in all forms of capital — physical, human and institutional. For election cycle after election cycle, politicians squandered the wealth of the state to buy their way back to power. Investment became superfluous, vote-buying and social spending the priority. Belgian voters, who allowed this state of affairs to persist, share some of the blame.

When Belgium’s ironworks and coal mines were closed, governments preferred to deny the inevitable outcome and borrow to subsidize these loss-making industries. The nation’s public debt burden soared to a peak of 140 percent of gross domestic product. Rather than meet debt reduction requirements for joining the new euro currency in the 1990s, Belgium’s government chose to fudge budgets, airbrush statistics, sell assets at fire-sale prices and bring critical investment to a standstill. The result was catastrophic.

Public spending on investment fell by more than half, to just above 2 percent of GDP, from 5 percent in 1980. At first, the effects could be ignored, because Belgium was able to rely on past stock, but that cushion disappeared long ago.

For 30 years, there has been talk of building a Brussels commuter train service, similar to the RER in Paris or London’s new Crossrail. The land was bought, but the track remains half-built. Nor have we maintained the infrastructure we have. Potholes on the highways routinely force four bands of traffic to cram into one. Museum roofs leak while masterpieces stand unprotected. Recently, the tunnels of the capital’s main traffic artery were closed for months, because 20 years without proper maintenance had left them a safety hazard.

Funds were available for all of these priorities, but politicians funneled the money elsewhere. Social transfers, a sure vote winner, increased from to 30.7 percent of GDP in 2014, from 23.5 percent in 1980. The increase, went to handouts such as lifelong unemployment benefits and early-retirement pensions starting at 50.

As if that wasn’t enough, Belgium’s political parties divided public sector employment between them. To be a journalist in the public television station, one needs to have a political party affiliation. The same goes for even minor jobs at the municipal level. Political connections, rather than merit or hard work determined advancement.

Brussels, my city, was worst affected. Unable to agree on a peaceful divorce, because both sides claimed the capital, French-speaking Wallonia and Flemish-speaking Flanders plundered it. Brussels may be Europe’s third wealthiest region in per capita terms, providing a fifth of Belgian GDP, but it can only collect taxes from its residents, not from the many workers who commute from outside the city limits. The city treasury is forever empty as a result.

Police districts and the city’s 19 councils weren’t merged because the Flemish community, which accounts for just 10 percent of the capital’s population, would by law hold half of the city’s ministerial posts. Inefficiencies and lack of coordination followed.

This is why it took so long for police to find Salah Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man after November’s terrorist attacks in Paris. For four months he hid under the nose of Belgium’s security apparatus, in the Brussels district of Molenbeek.

Faced with soaring marginal labor tax rates, too many of the able young have left the country. High levels of remittances and of Belgian graduates moving to other developed economies suggest a brain drain. Those who stay go into the private sector, depriving public institutions — including the police and security services — of excellence. Those who try their best are overwhelmed by the size of the problems, running from one emergency to another, unable to focus on the long term challenges.

As Belgians left, poor uneducated migrants from North Africa arrived. Heavily subsidized by Belgium’s over-generous welfare system, but at the same time despised, much of this immigrant population has turned inward, alienated from wider society. Too many young men and women have been radicalized. A failing state was unable to either stem illegal immigration, or to generate a business environment in which the private sector could create jobs for young second generation immigrants. They were left instead to fester in ghettos such as Molenbeek, marred by high unemployment, crime and an extensive drug economy.

Terrorist attacks such as those that struck Zaventem Airport and the Brussels metro system on Tuesday can happen to any country — Belgium did not invent the Islamic State. But my country needs to stop living in denial. It was the logical conclusion of our failures that Brussels should produce so many of the perpetrators of jihadist atrocities in Europe. We need to keep calm, as the British say, but not to carry on. This week’s tragedy must, finally, become the catalyst that forces Belgium to change.

Jean-Michel Paul is founder and chief executive of Acheron Capital in London.

  • castle_picture

    Great article – Cry the beloved and dysfunctional country (my father’s) indeed. Interesting to read how even the divorce failed; Belgium is a country much like many in the Middle East in that its very creation was to suit outsider interests. I read that before Belgium was created, the French speaking part actually really wanted to be part of France (and the Flemish wanted their own country). Never too late to start over again, either still as a single country or divided one way or another, so long as the inhabitants in that space get their act together!

    • Olivier Laurent

      “the French speaking part actually really wanted to be part of France (and the Flemish wanted their own country).”

      Nope they wanted to create the United States of Belgium around 1789-1790. It was called the Brabant revolution.

      Walloon used to speak walloon wich is a set of dialects closely related to French but they did not speak French at that time. Only the nobles/bourgeois from both regions used to speak French. My grand mother was punished at school for speaking walloon with her schoolmates. she was born in 1911.

      Be careful not rewriting the history to suit the current political agenda.

  • valakos

    “Terrorist attacks such as those that struck Zaventem Airport and the Brussels metro system on Tuesday can happen to any country”… well not really. Do they have muslim terror attacks in South Korea? In Japan? in Peru? etc… the fact of the matter is that immigration policies of european leftists in letting in unskilled migrants from the middle east have created this mess – they voted for the leftist morons who welcomed muslim immigration from nations ravaged by islamist terror – what did europeans expect?, live with it. Many japanese leaders have cited the social issues (crime unemployment etc) and islamist terror in europe as a reason to restrict immigration – how right they are!

    • Loïc Desiron

      It is easy to restrict immigration when you live on an island. this said what you talk about is totally out of place. Current immigration has nothing to do with it. Unskilled migrants have nothing to do with the attacks. Those who perpetrated the where Second generation French and Belgian citizens, NOT migrants.
      The fact of the matter is that the real problem of this kind of attack are people like you who would use them to validate their intolerant and selfish political views. You are actually more dangerous that the terrorists because you allow your hate for the unknown (you clearly dont know that much) rob you of any decency and human empathy. “Live with it” a very dignified way to adres people who where hurt. You sir are not that different from the brainwashed people who have been perpetrating these attacks, you sold you humanity to an ideology.

      • valakos

        Like I said many Japanese prime ministers have pointed to the rapes, crimes, social issues and murders committed by mostly Muslim immigrants to show why immigration is not a viable policy for Japan, that is something you have failed to address. Also you have failed to address why Japan does not have Muslim terror attacks… Typical leftist response that dies not address the fact that the attacks are a direct result of leftist immigration policies that brought in Muslims to europe

      • Loïc Desiron

        A typical answer from an excuse for a human being that can’t process the complexity of this world and therefor cowards in simple minded argumentation.
        That just illustrates the inherent racism of Japanese politici. And japan has no “Muslim” terror attacks because it serves no purpose as a strategic target. Japan is not implicated in any military action in the middle east, it didn’t prevent them from decapitating two Japanese a year ago. And what was the response of the Japanese public ? Shame on the family of the deceased…. such an example! Japan is also (literally) on the other side of the planet compared to Syria which also weighs into the equation.
        Also to say crimes are mostly a Muslim problem is a plain fallacy. The only correlation that exists between petty crime and population is economical: the poorer you are the more chance you have to be tempted by a life of crime. Japan has over-population problems, has a shady government is just and plain inherently and culturally a racist county. That’s not saying it is all bad, I love the nippon culture, but I am also well aware of the withdrawn character of the isle.
        To end the argument: I dont give a damn about Japanese immigration policies, if you want to justify the hypocrisy of Japan and other wealthy countries for not helping out do it, but you dont need biased and bigoted arguments to do so. And Ps: Japan has had no terror attacks YET, as was the case of Belgium before the 30th may 2015.

      • valakos

        japan does not have muslim terror attacks as there are very few muslims in japan – if we just look at the region near japan – thailand has muslim terror attacks, malaysia has muslim terror attacks, phillipines has muslim terror attacks, indonesia has muslim terror attacks… but not japan, not south korea….hmmm i wonder why?

      • Leto_Atreides

        England is an Island too.

      • Loïc Desiron

        So? they also have a better control over their immigration point proven.- which did nothing to prevent the subway attacks. Or the Knife attacks-. Also what is your point?

  • Loïc Desiron

    Ok, STOP. there’s so much in this article and in the comments.This is exactly what my fears are with the attacks: distortion of the truth, mind warp fear mongering and political appropriation. Shame on you, ALL.