Belgian social policy inspired by new active welfare state approach

The current Belgian government is heavily influenced by the active welfare state model propounded by the Minister for social affairs and pensions, Frank Vandenbroucke - as evinced by measures such as late 1999's "Rosetta plan" on youth employment. We examine Mr Vandenbroucke's ideas on responding to the "crisis" of traditional welfare states, and their possible EU-wide significance, as set out in a speech in December 1999, and look at some criticisms of this approach.

The social policy of Belgium's current coalition government of Liberals, Socialists and Greens, which came to office in July 1999, is substantially influenced by the ideas of the present Socialist Minister for social affairs and pensions, Frank Vandenbroucke. Mr Vandenbroucke's thinking on the "active welfare state" (actieve welvaartsstaat/Etat social actif), as a response to the problems the traditional welfare state is facing, is widely seen as the first coherent set of proposals put forward in Belgium since the beginning of the present "crisis of the welfare state". Mr Vandenbroucke's ideas are reflected in the government's coalition agreement and in the government's activities - measures which have been enacted within the framework of the broad concept of the active welfare state have, most notably, included the recent "Rosetta plan" on youth employment presented by the Minister for work and employment, Laurette Onkelinx (BE9911307F).

Below, we outline and summarise Mr Vandenbroucke's concept of the active welfare state and the responses of several political parties. We focus on the most explicit description of this idea, and its broader European application, as given in a speech in the Netherlands in December 1999, on The active welfare state: a European perspective (De actieve welvaartsstaat: Een Europees perspectief). Three main aspects are of central importance in the active welfare state idea: first, it is a reasoned response to the socio-economic challenges which welfare states are increasingly confronted with; second, Mr Vandenbroucke defines the concept as a social democratic response to these challenges; and third, it is a proactive response to what the essence of a European project in this area should be.

The active welfare state

Welfare states in transition

According to Mr Vandenbroucke, the traditional welfare states are confronted with a certain number of problems, of which the most important are: the ageing of the population, the "feminisation" of the labour market, an increasing individualisation, and the transition from an industrial economy to a service economy based on information technology. Although these changes are "neutral" as such, they call for a coherent adaptation of existing welfare states.

Except for the problem of individualisation, which is not further explained, the problems specified by Mr Vandenbroucke are as follows.

  • The ageing of the population means that additional efforts have to be made in some of the traditional fields of social security, specifically pensions and health insurance. While about two employed persons contributed for each non-active person in 1970, now only one employed person must bear the contribution for each non-active person. In simplified terms, half of this increased dependency is due to increased unemployment and half to the ageing phenomenon.
  • Although the feminisation of the labour market (ie women's increased participation) must be regarded as an improvement, the aim of full employment has become even more difficult to achieve. The traditional welfare state offers no clear answer in order to combine new emerging needs for family life, work and education. Also, in the analysis of Mr Vandenbroucke, the feminisation of poverty is not being met with adequate answers.
  • The transition to a "post-industrial society" — although it extends beyond the problem of the crisis of the welfare state — prevents low-skilled people from fully participating in society. Here we come to what is considered as the core of the active welfare state: creating the possibilities for people to participate actively. It is essential to note that, in this analysis, participation is not limited to participation in the labour market but refers to participation in other spheres of social life as well.

The new blueprint

What should be the orientation of the active welfare state? The answer, for Mr Vandenbroucke, is a "reasonable" active policy aiming at an active society while being loyal to the old welfare state ambition of adequate social protection. This should be achieved through four main goals.

  • First of all, "activation". Mechanisms in the current social security system that do not encourage people to be active should be abolished or adapted in order to prevent the social safety net from becoming an "inactivity trap". Moreover, the active welfare state should be proactive and should try to prevent people from running into social risks. Here, Mr Vandenbroucke uses two terms to explain how the new approach differs from the traditional welfare state. If the latter was directed at "caring", proactive measures and after-care are now necessary to make people independent again.
  • The active welfare state acknowledges the fact that individual vulnerability is at least in part socially determined and that, consequently, intervention strategies are possible. In this context, social investments are needed, specifically in the field of training and education.
  • The active welfare state intervenes on a tailor-made basis. This means that target groups and goals have to be identified carefully and that mechanisms must be adaptable to individual situations. It also means that it must be constantly questioned whether the existing structures are appropriate to solve present social problems, and not the other way round. An important element should be the re-evaluation of specialists with the required knowledge of the field.
  • The active welfare state is a state that delegates rather than imposes. Acknowledging the importance of the social partners, institutions within national health services and so on, and allocating social responsibilities to them is of paramount importance. If these bodies meet qualitative and quantitative standards defined by the government, more administrative and management autonomy could then be conferred on them.

Why participation?

Frank Vandenbroucke gives two possible answers as to why an active participation in society is desirable. The first answer refers to the ageing of the population and is one which would be given by a "macroeconomic accountant with a social consciousness". The ageing of the population and the unfavourable relation between active and non-active people in society compels society to activate people. It is an argument that both liberals and social democrats can relate to.

The second answer is that, within a social democratic perspective, people should have optimal chances for societal participation in order to achieve equality of opportunities - Mr Vandenbroucke describes himself as a "radical egalitarian". Active participation in society is one of the essential opportunities each individual should acquire. Quoting the US political philosopher John Rawls, he goes on to state that an exception to equality of chances can be justified only if it benefits the weakest in society. From this it is evident that participation is not just formal participation in the labour market (on the grounds that "every job is a good job") but participation in society at large, so that each citizen has a real chance to be "socially useful".

In discussing social democracy, reference to "responsibility" is inevitable: the right to optimal chances means that individuals have corresponding responsibilities. However, Mr Vandenbroucke explicitly points to the fact that society also has its responsibilities. Individuals should not be harmed in comparison with others by characteristics or circumstances for which they are not responsible. Consequently, individual responsibility can only be part of social democratic discourse if such responsibility refers to a consistent solidarity with those affected by conditions beyond their will and consent.


Mr Vandenbroucke's concept is differentiated from a mere "activation" approach. He enumerates four criteria for the evaluation of results achieved by the active welfare state. The first three are related to the labour market, while the fourth one has a more general nature.

  1. No meritocracy. Preparing people for the labour market cannot be the government's only goal. Generalised competition would lead to a mere meritocracy. Furthermore, income differences generated by the market do not necessarily reflect the weight of each person's responsibilities.
  2. Real chances. Both society and the government have a responsibility in creating enough opportunities on the labour market for everybody.
  3. Easy entry and departure. Participation should not only be active but "relaxed" as well. People should have no reason to fear a decline in chances if they temporarily leave the labour market.
  4. Responsibility of the rich and powerful. Discussion of responsibility should not only address the poor and the powerless, but also endeavour to address the rich and powerful.

The European dimension

Mr Vandenbroucke's ambition is to promote a European Union of active welfare states, where employment possibilities and social protection go hand in hand. He seeks a prosperous society, which does not accept poverty. Here, reference is clearly made to the economic and monetary goals that have largely influenced European policy-making. Political goals should be pursued. After the Maastricht convergence criteria, poverty norms are now needed. A well-defined European social model should become an integral part of the European enlargement process, in the sense that applicant Member States should underwrite the ambition of creating a true social Europe.

An example of good practice is the process that started with the Luxembourg European Council employment summit in 1997 (EU9711168F), when guidelines on employment policy were defined. Mr Vandenbroucke calls this the "institutional third way" between the European law-making process and solemn declarations by heads of state. It has turned out to be an effective way of influencing Member States and implementing social goals.

Mr Vandenbroucke recalls that, in July 1999, the European Commission took the initiative of defining a common strategy to modernise social protection systems in its Communication on a Concerted strategy to modernise social protection. Four aims were put forward for closer collaboration between Member States: (1) making paid work more attractive and offering a fixed income; (2) safeguarding pensions and ensuring the viability of pension schemes; (3) promoting social integration; and (4) guaranteeing a sustainable and high-quality health service. The Council of Labour and Social Affairs Ministers approved this proposal on 29 November 1999 (EU9912215N), taking the position that standards of excellence rather than standards of mediocrity should prevail.

The Lisbon summit on Employment, economic reform and social cohesion – towards a Europe of innovation and knowledge in March 2000 (EU0001220N) should make clear choices and give substance to this proposal. The "equilateral triangle", proposed by the EU Commissioner for employment and social affairs, Anna Diamantopoulou, whereby macroeconomic policy, employment and social policy are balanced parts of the overall social policy, could then be achieved.

Political reactions

The concept of the active welfare state detailed above has been subject to criticism, mostly from Belgium's main socio-political movements. The two most significant sets of criticism, from the christian democrat and environmentalist movements, are summarised below.

Some christian democrat reactions

In general, christian democrat reactions to Mr Vandenbroucke's view relate either to its budgetary aspects or to its rather abstract nature. Budgetary remarks are quite straightforward: for Herman Van Rompuy, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the active welfare state requires an unviable increase in the government's budget. According to Mr Van Rompuy, the present government is simply reaping the harvest of the former government's budgetary efforts and the present economic revival. The coalition agreement between socialists, liberals and environmentalists has only been possible thanks to this supplementary budget. A decrease of the budget would quickly show the vulnerability of both the concept of the active welfare state and of the coalition agreement around it.

Christian democrats closer to the trade unions tend to stress what they see as the rather abstract nature of Mr Vandenbroucke's exposé (see "Frankie goes philosophical. Actief of hyperactief in de nieuwe welvaartsstaat? Rondetafel met Frank Vandenbroucke", in De gids op maatschappelijk gebied. December 1999). According to them, Mr Vandenbroucke pays little or no attention to movements and organisations in the middle ground between individuals and the state (a bias which may reflect the perceived "Anglo-Saxon" influence in Mr Vandenbroucke's approach). Furthermore, the vision of the active welfare state hardly, it is claimed, addresses the actual situation of poor people, especially the very poor. Finally, although Mr Vandenbroucke stresses the importance of work outside the labour market, he does this only in a very general way, giving no ideas whatsoever on how voluntary work and the provision of care can be organised.

An environmentalist view

Jos Geysels and Dirk Holemans, members of the Flemish environmentalist party Agalev, have expressed a moderately positive reaction to Mr Vandenbroucke's analysis ("see Witte vlekken in analyse Frank Vandenbroucke", in De Standaard, 29 December 1999). In general, they welcomed the fact that Vandenbroucke is trying to give a new content both to the "social-democratic project" and to the welfare state. They furthermore took note of Mr Vandenbroucke's concept of participation - which is centred on social participation in general, and not on labour participation only. Finally, they empathise with Mr Vandenbroucke's reference to the responsibilities of the rich and powerful.

This being said, Messrs Geysels and Holemans challenged Mr Vandenbroucke's optimism in aiming for a new welfare model. In particular, they detect little or no awareness of environmental issues. According to them, the basic problem is the neo-liberal world order, which has significantly reduced the power of individual states. The transformation of the traditional welfare states has broken the very basis of an agreement combining economic and social aims. Production growth is no longer accompanied by employment growth.

As a result, say these critics, a discourse referring to - individual and collective - responsibilities might sound cynical if it failed to take into account the risks people are facing in present-day society. On the one hand, unemployment is a structural phenomenon beyond individual responsibilities. On the other hand, work is not a guarantee of well-being: with young people especially being forced to do more and more. It is stressed that everybody, even well-paid dual-wage households, is concerned by the growing difficulties our society is facing: unsafe food, an unhealthy environment, traffic jams, stress at work, not getting to the crèche on time after working hours etc.


"Activation" policies most prominently originated in the Netherlands and Denmark from the early 1990s onward, conceived of as labour market instruments within a "workfare" context. The framework Mr Vandebroucke develops around the concept of the active welfare state is much broader:

  • it does not merely outline labour market participation incentives but also stresses the fact that other forms of participation are individually and socially relevant;
  • at least in its theoretical formulation, the "workfare" discourse is avoided; and
  • with the concept of "relaxed" labour market participation, redistribution of work is aimed at. An extremely careful implementation is, however, necessary. Previous measures to redistribute work in Belgium have notoriously failed.

Two major issues have not yet received sufficient attention in the active welfare state analysis:

  • the working poor. Income, for most people, is the result of labour market participation. Present changes in the organisation of labour, however, lead to the impossibility for a growing number of people of earning a decent income. Any effective welfare state policy should, therefore, act upon both the participation dimension and the income dimension; and
  • individualised interests. The integrative role played by the post-war welfare state in west European societies should be analysed in greater detail. Social solidarities have been largely constructed through the definition and defence of collective interests and goals. At present, much more fragmented and individualised interests have emerged, based on changes in labour (market) conditions, relations between income from labour and capital, lifestyles etc. Hence, the question must be raised as to whether the existing solidarity mechanisms (and the social institutions that "bear" them) are still adapted to the new situations; and whether they, too, need to be activated, or (re)invented in an even more profound way than Frank Vandenbroucke proposes (Jacques Vilrokx and Jan De Schampheleire, VUB – TESA).
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