Belgium Uncomplicated: 'Belgian federalism needs to be improved, simplified'

Belgium Uncomplicated: 'Belgian federalism needs to be improved, simplified'
Credit: GC

Belgian politics is at first glance an indecipherable labyrinth of different levels of governments and laws. But it does not have to be this way! Check back in regularly with The Brussels Times as we try to shine some light on matters.

In an attempt to help the uninitiated navigate such a complex system, we will be speaking regularly with politicians from the regional, national and European level. They will give us a taste of what they do and how their small piece fits into the bigger jigsaw puzzle that is Belgium. If there is a particular topic you would like us to put to those in power, get in touch!

The German-speaking community of Belgium (GC), sometimes known as East Belgium, is one of three federal communities in the country along with Wallonia and Flanders. The entity has its own government and decision-making powers, which are overseen by Minister-President Oliver Paasch. He told us more about his work.

The GC community is at the crossroads of Europe quite literally, bordering three countries. How important a role does transport play in what you do?

The border situation is of fundamental importance to us because we experience Europe in our everyday lives. Thousands of people commute to work every day to Germany, Luxembourg and also the Netherlands. Many people use healthcare abroad, shop there, visit their families, in all directions of the borders. In this respect, mobility plays a major role. But there is still a lot of catching up to do in public transport. The connections are not always coordinated. There is still no harmonised cross-border fare system and certainly no common ticketing.

Unfortunately, we do not have competence for mobility policies and are dependent on lobbying. From our point of view, the border closures were particularly dramatic, when even cross-border transport by car was only possible to a limited extent. One of the big mistakes in the fight against the pandemic was certainly the closing of the borders. Instead of joining forces, the states wanted to isolate themselves from each other. This must never happen again.

Do you collaborate closely with local governments in, for example, Germany's Nord Rhine-Westphalia or the Netherlands' Limburg?

Yes, we do. Both in the Euregio Meuse-Rhine and bilaterally. With NRW, for example, we have concluded numerous agreements and there are regular meetings between the members of the governments. For a small federal entity like us, international cooperation is necessary for survival in order to be able to offer our population optimal services. Moreover, we like to act as a bridge between German-speaking Europe and the other federal entities of Belgium.

Climate change is a huge challenge. What particular initiatives is the German-speaking community involved with?

Averting global climate change is arguably the greatest and most forward-looking challenge facing humanity in the 21st century. All political levels have every interest in moving forward together in a timely manner to address the key challenge of climate change.

The GC, as a constituent state in federal Belgium, does not exercise direct competences for environmental policy. Nevertheless, we believe that no one can declare themselves not competent on such an important issue. In February 2018, the government took over the coordination and funding of its own integrated energy and climate plan with the goal of reducing CO2 emissions on our territory by 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. These are ambitious, but nevertheless necessary goals if we want to seriously contribute to the implementation of the Paris climate goals regionally and with our resources.

All municipalities in our area and other regional stakeholders have decided to join a common East Belgian action alliance as part of the energy and climate plan. Moreover, the GC and its municipalities have joined the global Covenant of Mayors, arguably the largest local-level climate initiative in the world. To achieve its goals, the government is providing  a €181 million funding package, over 40% of an annual expenditure budget.

Projects currently in progress include the development of an e-bike sharing network, the development of an e-charging station network and more. In addition, we want to invest in our own and other public infrastructures to improve their efficiency.

Furthermore, on 1 January 2020, the GC was able to take over important regional competences in the fields of spatial planning, housing and energy policy, which allow us to launch new needs-based strategies and approaches. It is now necessary to articulate the new responsibilities in the energy sector with existing GC responsibilities, identify and use interfaces, simplify application procedures, and significantly increase funding for the implementation of energy and climate projects.

Studies and work to improve the energy efficiency of infrastructure can now be subsidised at 80% instead of 60%. €15 million euros are available for this purpose. We have integrated the funds of adopted Walloon funding programmes into our regular funding instruments, so that in future applicants will only have to submit a single application to a single authority in order to be able to benefit from a climate-relevant grant.

We have also massively simplified the modalities for the payment of energy premiums for private households and premiums for low-income households and made them more transparent for citizens. The government is now making €1.1 million available to support climate projects at local level.

Tell us about the citizens' council. It was a world’s first and widely reported. Have there been any major developments since it was launched in 2019? What are the early results of this initiative?

For us, civil dialogue is an important complement to representative democracy. It can contribute to narrowing the gap between politicians and citizens and to regaining lost trust. If we want the citizens to trust us more, we must also trust them more. The citizens' council creates another opportunity for citizens to influence politics in a concrete way, independent of election dates. If we want to preserve representative democracy, we must be ready for such reforms.

The citizens' assemblies have so far dealt intensively with three topics: care, inclusion and housing. We are striving to implement a maximum of the recommendations that have come out of them. Much has worked very well, but of course not everything is perfect yet. It is a constant learning process, both for us and for the participating citizens who were selected by lot. The experience so far will enable us to make further improvements to the process.

Political scientists often cite the ‘Belgian model’ as a system that could be used elsewhere in the world to solve regional disputes. Most recently it’s been touted as a solution for Kosovo and Serbia. What is your appraisal of this kind of analysis? Is it people who don’t know what they’re talking about or do you see merit in what they are saying?

Belgian federalism is certainly complex. It needs to be further improved and simplified. What is certain, however, is that the Belgian model has succeeded in peacefully uniting different linguistic and cultural communities with very different socio-economic conditions under one roof. Belgian federalism also contains important concentration mechanisms that ensure that all components of the federal state come together very frequently to reach agreements, resolve conflicts and find the famous Belgian compromise. In the current pandemic crisis, it has been shown that even in difficult times, such a model succeeds in overcoming linguistic and party boundaries to find consensus in the interest of the population.

Presumably you have a close working relation with the federal government but what is it like with the administrations in Wallonia, Flanders, Brussels? Do you exchange often or collaborate on anything?

We work closely and concretely not only with the federal government, but with all Belgian federal entities - Wallonia, Flanders, Brussels and the Wallonia-Brussels Federation - also through cooperation agreements. In East Belgium, we can learn a lot from others just as others sometimes learn from us. These cooperations cover practically all areas of competence of the German-speaking Community.

What exactly is the German language’s status in your community, is it the only official language or does it coexist with the other languages of Belgium?

German has been one of three recognised official languages in Belgium since the 1960s. Consequently, we offer all our services in German. There are language facilitations for francophone fellow citizens; so they can apply also in French for official documents.

What role does it play in education, are children predominantly taught in German?

Yes, the teaching language is German. However, we attach great importance to promoting multilingualism. French, Dutch and English are particularly important to us. We start teaching French in the first year of kindergarten in the form of foreign language activities. The school authorities have the option of setting up bilingual classes as early as kindergarten and primary school. This makes us one of the regions in Europe that start foreign language teaching the earliest and offer the most hours in class.

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