Budget orthodoxy and crisis measures a focus of regional elections

In June 2009, the social partners used the occasion of the regional elections to put forward their demands to the new governments. Among the key issues raised were budget orthodoxy and tackling the economic crisis. The employers highlighted the importance of investing in innovation and infrastructure, while the trade unions focused on the need to invest in public services and to tackle social issues such as poverty and unemployment.

Political context

Fundamental constitutional reforms have resulted in a quasi-federal structure in Belgium based on the recognition of the three main linguistic communities and three regions as governmental actors – that is, the Flemish region, the Walloon region and the region of the capital city Brussels.

The communities have autonomy in cultural and educational policy fields. The regions are responsible for policy concerning the environment, housing, water, energy, employment, economic infrastructure and transport. However, although certain employment and economic policies are decided at a regional level, the federal state still has responsibility for labour law, social security matters, and the regulation of the collective bargaining system.

Nevertheless, the election and constitution of new regional parliaments and governments is still a key event in Belgian socio-political terms. It also gives the social partners the opportunity to evaluate the actions of the regional government and to formulate new demands and priorities for the next regional government (BE0407301N).

Results of Flemish regional elections

On 7 June 2009, in parallel with the European Parliament elections, the regions and communities held their elections. The Flemish elections were won by the Flemish conservative, democratic nationalist party the New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, N-VA), led by Bart De Wever. N-VA increased its number of seats from seven to 16 seats. The biggest loser was the far-right Flemish Interest party (Vlaams Belang, VB). The Flemish Christian Democratic Party (Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams, CD&V) of the outgoing Prime Minister, Kris Peeters, emerged as the largest party with 31 seats ( 3). Mr Peeters has started talks on a new coalition government and has chosen an alliance with the socialists over the liberals. N-VA, the biggest winner in the elections, has also joined the negotiations.

Mr Peeters’ priority is tackling the economic crisis and implementing a more orthodox budgetary policy. These issues were also raised by the regional employer organisations and trade unions in the run-up to the elections and in the subsequent consultation rounds of Mr Peeters.

Priorities of social partners

Points of consensus

The need for an orthodox budgetary policy seems to be acknowledged by all the social partners. The Flemish Social and Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad Vlaanderen, SERV), the bipartite consultation body of the social partners, has criticised the outgoing Flemish government for an overly expansive budgetary policy in recent years and has called for annual cuts of €1–€1.3 billion in the coming period.

Another issue on which the social partners agree with Mr Peeters is treating the Flanders in Action (Vlaanderen in Actie, ViA) initiative – the so-called Pact 2020 (203Kb PDF) – as the most important baseline of the new governmental programme (BE0902049I). They also highlight issues related to education, training and lifelong learning, referring to their agreement on the Competence Agenda 2010 (in Dutch).

Despite this consensus, differences in priorities have also emerged between the social partners.

Position of employer organisations

The Flemish Employers’ Organisation (Vlaams Economisch Verbond, VOKA) and the Organisation for the Self-Employed and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Unie van Zelfstandige Ondernemers, UNIZO) both place a greater emphasis on the entrepreneurial aspect (see VOKA agenda (in Dutch, 1.15Mb PDF) and UNIZO agenda (in Dutch, 720Kb PDF)). More specifically, Flanders needs to keep investing in innovation, research and development, and infrastructure. Fiscal policy – an area where the region still only has limited powers – is seen as important in this regard.

Both organisations also highlight the need for a new state reform in the country, as reflected by the success of the nationalist N-VA party. They point to the need to standardise the policy responsibilities of the different governmental levels. As motivation for this needed reform, they also refer to the political energy this debate cost, which has resulted in governmental ineffectiveness in combating the current economic crisis. VOKA and UNIZO also underline the need to instigate a ‘double’ reform: not only between the federal and regional level, but also at the level of the Flemish authorities. In particular, they are calling for a more efficient state administration with fewer administrative burdens and less personnel.

Trade union priorities

Neither the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) nor the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) are strong proponents of a new state reform (see ACV memorandum (in Dutch, 210Kb PDF) and ABVV memorandum (in Dutch, 270Kb PDF)). The issue does not feature in their list of demands. The trade union confederations also disagree with the employers’ call for a more efficient state. Instead, they are calling for more financial resources to be put in place to improve the quality of public services. In relation to the mobility question, they highlight the need for greater investment in public transport rather than infrastructure.

Improving the quality of work and a new action plan to combat poverty are key social priorities for the trade unions. Other important issues include tackling discrimination at the workplace, and offering help and advice to unemployed people, especially to those who are most at risk. Increasing childcare facilities, and greener and cheaper energy solutions are defined as concrete measures that need to be taken first.

Guy Van Gyes, Higher Institute of Labour Studies (HIVA), Catholic University of Leuven (KUL)

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