Flemish N-VA leader attacks Wallonia's low employment rate

Flemish N-VA leader attacks Wallonia's low employment rate
N-VA chair Bart De Wever delivers a speech at the traditional new year's reception of Flemish nationalist party N-VA. Credit: Belga/Nicolas Maeterlinck

In a recent speech, the leader of the Flemish separatist rightwing N-VA party Bart De Wever pointed the finger at Belgium's French-speaking population, saying that Wallonia has "one of the lowest employment rates in the Western world."

De Wever's statement was based on figures for Belgium's three regions coming from the country's statistics office Statbel. The party then compared the employment rate in Wallonia to the rates in other European countries. However, as RTBF pointed out, comparing a regional employment rate (the proportion of people aged between 20 and 64 who are employed) against other countries' national ones is a questionable method.

Currently, 72.1% of Belgians aged 20 to 64 are at work, according to the latest available figures (the third quarter of 2022) – an increase compared to the second quarter of 2022 or the third quarter of 2021 (71.4%).

Still, the national figure hides significant regional differences: 76.8% of the working population in Flanders is employed, compared to 65.9% in Wallonia and 65.8% in the Brussels-Capital Region. N-VA then took that 65.9% and compared it against other countries in Europe.

Making valid comparisons

To verify De Wever's statements, the comparison should not be made with the rates of other countries but instead those of other regions.

Going beyond Belgium, the EU's statistical office Eurostat lists the employment rates of 20-64-year-olds in 123 European regions – making a valid comparison possible. Of those 123 European regions, 84 have up-to-date figures for 2021.

Across Europe, the regions with the lowest employment rates are in southern Italy (48.9%) and the Italian islands of Sardinia and Sicily (47.7%). The best employment rates were registered in the regions of Central Hungary (82.7%) and the Southern Netherlands (82.6%).

Based on those 2021 figures, the Brussels-Capital Region was the eighth-worst region in Europe with an employment rate of 62.2%. This rate now has risen to 65.8% in 2022, but this increase would only move the region up a few places in the ranking, at most.

The overall average for the EU as a whole was at 73.1%, with Flanders ranking 40th (out of 84), with the rate of 75.3% measured in 2021, rising to 76.8% in 2022. Wallonia was the tenth-lowest (74th) region with an employment rate of 65.2% in 2021 – a rate that has barely improved in 2022, rising to 65.9% according to Statbel.

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On top of that, it is very difficult to make an objective comparison on the scale of the "Western world" mentioned by De Wever, mainly because there is no definition of the Western world or a list of countries that would be part of it.

Additionally, even using the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries as a reference is impossible because the organisation does not compile employment statistics per region in these countries.

In Belgium, employment rates for all three regions have been on the rise since the first quarter of 2017 (the earliest available figures on Statbel), but the increases are not the same everywhere.

The rates in Flanders and Wallonia went up by six percentage points since then, but increased by ten percentage points in the Brussels-Capital Region. Countrywide, Belgium's employment rate is currently 72% – a figure that the Federal Government is aiming to raise to 80% by 2030.

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