Belgium now and beyond
Despite its complex political and linguistic divisions, Belgium is looking towards the future with growing confidence as it positions itself as a gateway to Europe.
Belgium is the gateway to Europe
The compact country of Belgium lies at the crossroads of Western Europe, not just geographically, but politically and ideologically.
In many ways, Belgium is a microcosm of Europe; a multicultural, multilingual, federal state which recognises autonomous regions within common boundaries.
However, for those who come to live in this endearing muddle of a country, first impressions can be confusing.
The complicated mix of local, regional and federal government takes a while to figure out, as do the politics of language and heritage. On top of this, the head of state is a monarch, King Albert II.
But finding your place in this welcoming country is not difficult as Belgium has always embraced newcomers who have arrived here throughout the centuries.
The year 2005 is an historic one for Belgium as it celebrates 175 years as an independent state.
The anniversary on 21 July offered Belgium an opportunity to look back on its achievements, but is also being used as a stepping stone to future development as Belgium continues to establish itself as a serious player in European politics and economics.
The young and dynamic Prime Minister, Flemish Liberal Guy Verhofstadt, leads a coalition government (there is rarely any other form) which has led to a change of direction for Belgium.
The country is making a concerted effort to be more comfortable with itself and to be proud of its potential as a political and cultural centre.
One of the country's major successes over recent years has been the public relations makeover it has given itself.
*related*Tourism has rocketed as high-speed trains deliver visitors from all over Europe. Belgium's major cities are now recognised as some of Europe's finest, home to fantastic architecture, art, design and — in Brussels — European politics.
The accession of 10 new member states to the EU in May 2004 was largely well-absorbed by Brussels. To the casual observer, nothing much seems to have changed apart from a greater variety of languages heard on the streets in the EU quarter.
The Belgian federal government backed the European Constitution earlier this year and surveys have indicated the public is a staunch ally of the EU.
The EU presence, though, has the effect of driving up property and rental prices, leaving some locals bewildered and unable to find affordable housing in the city centre. In general, though, accommodation remains cheap compared to other European countries.
However, the cost of living in Brussels rose in the past year as the Belgian capital moved into the world's 50 most expensive cities.
The Mercer 2005 Cost of Living Report ranked Brussels 41st compared with its ranking of 53rd in 2004. The capital's climb up the rankings was attributed to the strength of the euro against the US dollar.
The good news for anyone living here is that this little country of 10.3 million people (July 2005 estimate) ranked as 12th best in the world in 2004 for quality of life.
Less than 4 percent of the population are below the poverty line. Belgian per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is among the world's highest.
*sidebar1*Belgium has a highly developed market economy with great depth and diversity. The country's GDP is dominated by a large service sector (70 percent of GDP), followed by manufacturing (25 percent) and agriculture (2 percent).
Exports account for more than 74 percent of Belgium's GDP, making it one of the highest per capita exporters in the world, with about 75 percent of those exports going to EU member states.
Yet the Belgian economy is dependent on world markets; with few natural resources, it must import most of its raw materials and balance this with exports of manufactured goods.
Economic growth in 2001-03 dropped sharply because of the global economic slowdown, with a moderate recovery in 2004 of 2.7 percent, above the euro-zone average.
However, the National Bank (NBB) also said the economy recorded zero growth in the first three months of the year, followed by a slight recovery to 0.3 percent growth in the period April-June.
The Economist Intelligence Unit had earlier forecast that economic growth will slow to 1.4 percent in 2005 with a slight increase to 2 percent in 2006.
There will be an average inflation rate of 2.4 percent in 2005 and 1.8 percent in 2006.
Belgium remains a high-taxation country, despite political manoeuvres which have seen the tax burden fall in recent years.
Verhofstadt is now suggesting shifting the burden of tax away from income tax to BTW tax (VAT in English).
Belgium also remains a largely state-owned country, with open competition and free-market principles open, but constrained — utility companies being a case in point. It is heavily unionised — large, public-sector strikes are commonplace.
While most expats tend to gather in Brussels and the immediate vicinity, other cities such as Antwerp and Ghent are also popular with international visitors.
And they are welcomed by a vibrant country offering continuing opportunities for an international workforce, and a high, safe standard of living for families.
This is enhanced by an excellent education and health system, the latter being seen as among the finest in the world.
Belgian society today is pragmatic and egalitarian. With little class distinction, there is a feeling that everyone has right of access to the best possible opportunity.
It is also intensely private, with an aversion to moralising on how others should lead their lives.
Ironic then, that government still takes a firm interest in how things should be done, dictating things like the dates of shop sales rather than leaving it to free-market forces.
Everyone who lives here, Belgian or not, still moans about the way things are — the Belgians have never taken to authority, either civil or religious — but accept officialdom as a necessary part of the living experience.
Then there's the driving, the parking, the dirty downtown streets, the tangle of red tape, the continuing sparring over language and culture.
The linguistic divisions have also sparked an agreement for renewed state reform talks to further carve up the federal state in coming years.
And one must not forget the continued calls for Flemish independence from the far-right Flemish Block party and its predecessor's conviction for racism.
Nevertheless, polls have also shown a majority of Belgians are in favour of retaining the country as it stands and King Albert II spoke optimistically about the nation's future at his annual Independence Day address last month.
The nation's drawbacks are thus largely balanced by a self-disciplined, tolerant society that has a strong sense of laissez-faire and (in general) an increasingly feel-good factor about itself.
Belgium is poised to make the next step.
10 August 2005
[Copyright Expatica 2005]