Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: European Union

Plucky Little Belgium

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

 

Belgium is a strange concept, more of a vague idea than a real country. There is a joke that there is just one real Belgian, and he is the king, (currently King Philippe, who is married to a speech therapist). Everyone else is either Flemish or Walloon. General de Gaulle described Belgium as a country invented in 1830 by the British to annoy the French. The dominant powers in the 19th Century constructed a neutral state to prevent an invasion of England from Antwerp harbour.

For rich French people, including Gerard Depardieu, the idea of Belgium is as a tax haven. The village of Nechin – which has a street known as Millionaire’s Row – is less than two minutes drive from the French town of Roubaix.

There is a tired old joke about the only famous Belgians being fictional characters like Tin Tin and Hercules Poirot. Let us not forget Plastic Bertrand, born in Brussels of a French father and Ukrainian mother. There are major real Belgian talents such as Georges Simenon, Jacques Brel and painters like James Ensor, Paul Delvaux and René Magritte. Jonathan Meades observed that when you go to Belgium, Rene Magritte stops looking like a surrealist and starts looking like a devastating social realist.

Magritte often painted enigmatic men holding umbrellas. In his recent novel, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels, (the title of one of Ensor’s paintings) Dimitri Verhulst wrote: “the inhabitants of this kingdom value the anonymity provided so perfectly by an umbrella”. In the novel, Jesus Christ announces his return to Earth, and his selected point of entry is Brussels. The citizens of the Belgian capital receive the news with equanimity. There is no reason to get excited.

Centre of the EU Enterprise

One hundred years ago it was thought of as “plucky little Belgium”, a small powerless nation bullied by German military might. The country is about the same size as Maryland, with a population of 10,839,905 people on January 1, 2010. Today, it is the epitome of what EU haters hate about the EU. For Eurosceptics the name of the Belgian capital, “Brussels”, is shorthand for oppressive, anti-democratic, bureaucratic dictatorship.

Belgium was an early adopter in the European project. It was one of the six founder members of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951; in 1957, it was among the founding members of the European Atomic Energy Community and European Economic Community. Today Brussels is the home of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the extraordinary and committee sessions of the European Parliament.

As well as 20,000 EU civil servants, Brussels attracts a large population of lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals. The EU has brought an estimated 115,000 extra people to live in Brussels. These people tend to have few or no Belgian friends. There may be some resentment among Bruxellois because of Eurocrats buying up houses with their large tax-exempt EU salaries. People who had lived in Brussels for years suddenly discovered that the best idea to earn is to rent their apartments to the officials and leave the city.

Let’s Talk about the War.

Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg used to be the Low Countries. From the end of the Middle Ages until the 17th century, the area covered by Belgium today was a prosperous commercial centre. It was also a battleground between European powers. The British ‘invented’ Belgium as a neutral state, a buffer zone against the French. Britain intervened to defend Belgian neutrality when German troops invaded in 1914. Before the war, Belgium had one of the world’s most successful economies. The war displaced a third of the population and in the first months of the war, as many as a million Belgians faced starvation because of German requisitions. Around 6,000 Belgians were executed, there were as many as 60,000 military and 23,000 civilian deaths, 25,000 homes and other buildings were destroyed. One and a half million Belgians (20% of the entire population) fled from the invading German army.

Belgium as Oppressor

Belgium is a young country that grew rich suddenly during the industrial revolution, thanks to coal and steel. It also acquired wealth from looting the Congo. Plucky little Belgium was particularly vicious in Africa. Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising, exposed Belgian crimes in the Congo. King Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State, which covered the entire area of the present day Democratic Republic of the Congo and ran it as a personal fiefdom and business venture. Labourers were not paid but they were beaten, mutilated and murdered.

The province of Katanga seceded after Congolese independence from Belgium in June 1960. Belgium-based mining interests engineered the rebellion so that they could continue mineral extraction. Belgian settlers and former Belgian Army officers provided military support. Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba demanded that Belgian troops withdraw and, when they refused, Lumumba expelled Belgian diplomats. On October 6th, the Belgian Minister for African Affairs sent a cable that stated clearly that Belgian policy was the “definitive elimination” of Lumumba. Lumumba was, indeed, assassinated. A case has been presented that the Belgian government also had a hand in the killing of UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld.

Rwanda was also part of Plucky Little Belgium’s empire. In 1933, the Belgian authorities issued identity cards classifying every Rwandan as Tutsi or Hutu. In 1994, these ID cards helped Hutu to identify hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and kill them. The ethnic cleansing and genocide of twenty years ago were horrendous extensions of the trend that began in the 1950s under the Belgians.

Economy

Belgium was the world’s 15th largest trading nation in 2007. There is still a highly productive work force, high GNP and high exports per capita. Belgium’s main imports are raw materials, machinery and equipment, chemicals, raw diamonds, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, transportation equipment, and oil products. Its main exports are machinery and equipment, chemicals, finished diamonds, metals and metal products, and foodstuffs.

Poverty

Belgian Premier Elio di Rupo has questioned the EC’s commitment to austerity and has raised concerns about the best way for Belgium to balance growth and austerity. Political tensions have prevented him doing anything about this in practice. Between 1990 and 2009, the poorest 30 per cent of Belgians saw their share in net taxable incomes fall (from 11.2 to 8.3 per cent), while the richest ten per cent saw their share increase (from 27.3 to 31.9 per cent).

According to the EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey, 15.3 per cent of Belgium’s population in 2011 was at risk of falling into poverty. In Flemish-speaking Flanders, the wealthiest region in Belgium, this was 9.8 per cent, whereas in Wallonia, a poor French-speaking region, this was 19.2 per cent.

In 2012, nearly one in seven Belgians had a monthly income that was lower than the official poverty threshold (€1,000 for a single person or €2,101 for a couple with two children).Twenty-one per cent of the Belgian population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, according to the new European poverty indicators.

An Experiment in No Government

During 2007-11, cultural and linguistic tensions resulted in the state being without a government for 589 days. In 2011, Elio Di Rupo became Belgium’s first French-speaking premier; He is of Italian origin and he is gay and socialist. Despite reforms, tensions remain; the formation of a coalition government took 18 months following the June 2010 federal election. However, the hiatus did show that the country could function with just a caretaker government and the civil service.

Federalism

Verhulst sees Belgium a pantomime horse of a country, puzzling to outsiders and infuriating to its inhabitants. Belgium is a federal state divided into three regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, francophone Wallonia in the south and Brussels, the bilingual capital, where the French and Dutch languages share official status. There is an ongoing political crisis, which may lead to the country splitting, as did Czechoslovakia. It is ironic that the country seen by eurosceptics as the seat of a federalist plot, may itself fall apart. This would provide encouragement to separatist groups throughout Europe. Wallonia is the poorer segment of federal Belgium. How will it survive without the efforts of the industrious Flems? Wallonia will probably need EU subsidies.

Conclusion

A persistent note in visitors’ accounts is that Belgians are discontented and rude. Some might feel guilt at the barbarity of the Belgian colonial project. some feel uncomfortable about the presence in their midst of migrants from that empire.

 

To end on one positive thing about Belgium – it was Belgium that helped soul genius Marvin Gaye to recuperate, if only for a little while. A sojourn in Ostend gave Gaye the breathing space to reach one of his greatest achievements, Sexual Healing.

Plucky little Belgium is in dire need of some kind of healing. One wonders whether this will be possible given Belgium’s central role in the EU project. The EU project itself seems to be increasing the natural disgruntlement of its people.

On 28 July 2010, Plastic Bertrand finally revealed that he was not the singer of any of the songs in the first four albums released beginning in 1977 under the name Plastic Bertrand.

The Goulash Archipelago

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 2 2014

Colman's Column3

Imagine a country where a populist leader wins a two-thirds majority in parliament and uses it to make radical constitutional changes, which were not in his election manifesto. The opposition is negligible and ineffectual. The popular leader sees his electoral success as a mandate to restructure the justice system and to place his acolytes in important institutional positions. He clamps down on the media, undermines religious organisations and imposes a nationalist viewpoint, citing national sovereignty when subject to international criticism. Checks on executive power are removed. Transparency International condemns widespread corruption. NGOs (including some based in Norway) are intimidated by police raids. Slum clearance is making people homeless. The leader seems to regard himself as a monarch. Where is this country?

map2

It is not some failed state in Africa or Asia. It is right at the heart of Europe and of the “ethical” project known as the European Union.

Will Hungary become a dictatorship and remain within the EU?

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has said that his aim is to build an “illiberal state” on “national foundations,” citing as models China, Russia and Turkey. He denied that these plans conflicted with Hungary’s EU membership.

EU Values

The EU presents itself as a moral model to the world. Any European nation wishing to become a member of the EU must, in theory, respect the values set out in Article I-2 of the Constitution. Turkey has been trying to get into the EU for a long time, but, despite its ongoing electoral success, the Erdoğan government makes the EU uncomfortable. The EU takes steps to ensure that a prospective member state meets certain criteria about democratic practices. This has delayed Turkey’s acceptance. What happens when a state is accepted into the EU, and then reneges?

Although Viktor Orbán has made no secret of his plans to use his popular support to make sweeping constitutional changes, to muzzle the media and reshape Hungarian institutions to suit his own purpose, the European Commission agreed in August 2014 to provide Hungary with nearly 22 billion euros of economic assistance. The money will arrive between 2014 and 2020 to boost competitiveness and growth. Hungary will also get €3.45 billion for rural development and €39m for fisheries.

Collapse of Communism

Hungary was the first Eastern European country to gain some economic freedom under “Goulash Communism”. Communist leader Janos Kádár, through the New Economic Mechanism, reintroduced some elements of a free market. Hungary was “the happiest barrack” in Central and Eastern Europe. However, Kádár had to borrow money and, in 1982, joined the IMF. The resultant debt contributed to the instability of subsequent governments.

In 1989, Hungary allowed thousands of East Germans to escape to the West by opening its border with Austria. Hungary began a programme of privatisation soon after the collapse of communism and within four years privatised half of the country’s economic enterprises. By 1998, nearly half of foreign direct investment in Central Europe was going to Hungary.

Hungary and the EU

In 1988, Hungary was the first among the Central-Eastern European countries to establish diplomatic relations with the European Community and benefited from assistance programmes. Every political party elected to the Hungarian National Assembly after the first free elections of 1990 agreed that accession to the European Community had to be a priority.

At the EU Summit in Dublin on 25-26 June 1990, the twelve then existing members initiated talks with the Central-Eastern European countries to establish a “new type of relationship”. In 1998, the EU began negotiations with Hungary on full membership. In a 2003 national referendum, 85% voted in favour of joining the EU and Hungary became a full member on 1 May 2004.

Credit Crunch

Despite EU membership, a high level of private and state borrowing left Hungary vulnerable to the credit crunch of 2008, and in October of that year, the government was forced to appeal to the IMF and the ECB for huge sums to avoid disaster.

Fidesz

In 1992, Viktor Orbán became leader of the Fidesz party, which was originally founded by young democrats persecuted by the communist party. In 1998, Orbán formed a successful coalition and won that year’s parliamentary elections with 42% of the national vote. Orbán became Prime Minister of Hungary at the age of 35.

Fidesz does not have a coherent ideology, but draws on populist themes, including those espoused by extreme right wing groups- national sovereignty, distrust of foreigners and NGOs (an NGO that trains dogs to help disabled people was recently raided by police). Fidesz narrowly lost the 2002 elections to the Hungarian Socialist Party. Dissatisfaction with the Socialist government’s subsequent handling of the economy from 2002 to 2010 coincided with the rise of the right-wing nationalist party Jobbik. Fidesz moved to the right and won the parliamentary election in 2010. Fidesz scored another comfortable victory in the 2014 election and Jobbik increased its share of the vote from 17% to 20.5%.

New Constitution: Top-Down Coup d’État

The two-thirds parliamentary majority gained by Fidesz in 2010 allowed it to replace the comparatively liberal post-communist constitution. Critics say the new constitution removes essential checks and balances but Fidesz claims that the constitution needed to be changed to expunge vestigial traces of communism. However, deep constitutional change was not part of Fidesz’s electoral programme and it does not have a democratic mandate for the changes it has introduced.

NGOs were raided by the police. This was “completely unacceptable”, complained Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s minister for Europe. News services became centralised monopolies. Employees lost the right to strike. Dozens of religious organisations closed. The government looted private pension funds. Schools were nationalised and all headmasters replaced. The government attacked critical intellectuals. Fidesz loyalists gained long-term powerful posts, including the presidency, the office of the chief prosecutor and the audit court, as well as top jobs in cultural organizations. The Orbán government reduced the powers of the constitutional court and the budget council. Bill Clinton said Orbán was an admirer of “authoritarian capitalism” and never wanted to leave power. “Usually those guys just want to stay forever and make money”.

Corruption has worsened, says Transparency International. A recent report highlights “worryingly negative trends” in Hungary. In the Social Justice Index (SJI) Hungary scored 4.44% in 2014, down from 4.79 in 2011 and 5.07 in 2008. The report showed that 43% of children are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Children are worse off in this respect only in Romania (52.2%) and Bulgaria (52.3%). Hungary ranks second to last with respect to the percentage of children suffering severe material deprivation (35%), with only Bulgaria (51%) behind it. In Miskolc, a slum-clearance programme has made many homeless.

Democracy in Danger?

According to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, Orbán’s politicisation of the constitution poses serious threats to democracy and the rule of law. The opposition had no say in the drafting of the new constitution. Further amendments weakened opportunities for political competition and removed checks on executive power.

In April 2013, the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly recommended monitoring of Hungary. Hungary would have been the first extant EU member state to have its democracy scrutinized. On June 25th, the European Parliament voted not to subject Hungary to the monitoring procedure but adopted a resolution, stating that according to Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, the situation in Hungary is incompatible with EU values.

The Economy

When in opposition, Orbán accused the government of allowing the Hungarian economy to fall under foreign control. Fidesz bases its political appeal on an image of rescuing the country from an incompetent and corrupt Hungarian Socialist Party. Despite this populist stigmatising of foreign control, Hungary received a bailout of over $25 billion jointly from the EU, the IMF and the World Bank. Orbán was unwilling to make severe cuts in public spending and the IMF declined to provide the requested flexible credit line for Hungary.

Recently rating agency Standard and Poor’s warned that growth could slow to about 1% to 1.5% pointing to a large public sector, political uncertainty, weakness in the banking sector, and a regressive, complex tax system. Nevertheless, GDP rose in the second quarter at an annual rate of 3.9% and industrial output is up 11.3%. Tourism revenue has risen by more than 10% year-on-year.

Because Hungary is not a member of the Eurozone, it has the option of doing what ECB membership denies Greece and Ireland: printing more money and devaluing its currency. This could provide the sort of internal stimulus needed without additional borrowing. Orbán has said he has a duty to protect national sovereignty and preserve Hungary’s independence. Adopting the euro would mean local officials losing control over monetary policy. Hungary is required to introduce the euro eventually under its EU accession obligations. However, analysts believe there is not much chance of Hungary   adopting the euro before 2020.

EU Failure

International organizations like the IMF and the Council of Europe have criticised Hungary’s political direction but nothing practical was done to stop Orbán unpicking the framework of Hungarian democracy. The Council of Europe adopted an ineffectual resolution, which criticised undermining of European democratic standards in Hungary, but merely resolved “to closely follow” the situation in Hungary. The Hungarian government has agreed to a few constitutional changes after the latest Council of Europe Venice Commission report, but did nothing to withdraw measures on political advertising and recognition of religious groups.

Sweden’s EU Affairs Minister, Birgitta Ohlsson, proposed that EU funds – which Orbán distributes to his supporters – should be withheld and that he should be warned that Hungary’s EU voting rights could be suspended. The European Parliament on 15 September rejected a proposal by the liberal group for a plenary debate on Hungary at its session in Strasbourg.

A few years ago, Tibor Navracsics boasted that he faithfully executes all tasks he receives from his superior. Navracsics has been appointed EU commissioner for education, culture, youth and citizenship.

Conclusion

Orbán has moved out of the Hungarian equivalent of the White House into a castle that formerly housed Hungary’s kings. Six million dollars from the exceptional provisions reserve fund will pay for renovation.

If Orbán succeeds in his stated ambition of building an illiberal state within the EU, existing or new members might copy him. Is the success of Fidesz and Jobbik a peculiarly Hungarian phenomenon, or is it an advanced symptom of a broader popular discontent with the “Europe Project”?

If Hungary gets away with using sovereignty as a justification for passing laws that directly contradict important democratic and human rights principles, this could undermine the whole ethos of the EU. As the EU expands to include a more diverse array of countries and cultures with different versions of democracy, it needs to examine its economic, social, and political values. Can the EU’s current mechanisms cope with further expansion?

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