Belgium in Europe and Europe in Belgium | Special Issue European Elections 2019

The environment and migration among the biggest concerns at the very (institutional) heart of Europe

From the 23rd until the 26th of May, electors from 27 (or 28, depending on the issues of Brexit) European countries will vote to elect 751 members of the European parliament. In Belgium, home to the EU Parliament (one) and the European Commission, one could expect a certain feeling of excitement in regard to the upcoming event. But no. On one side, it may be because at the time of writing this article, the media have not started to talk about the European elections until late. On the other, it may be because these members of parliament are not the only ones Belgian people will have to vote for. As if the organization of the tiny country wasn’t complicated enough, the Belgian voters will indeed not attend one, nor two, but three elections on the 26th of May: the European elections, the federal elections and the regional elections. Belgium home to one of the most complicated political systems in the world as well as the highest number of politicians per inhabitant, has had a tradition of grouping elections together to maximize participation in a country where voting is not a right, but an obligation, while the refusal to fulfil the democratic duty can lead to serious consequences. Belgian people consider the European elections on a different viewpoint than many other voters in the rest of the EU.

People's trust in the EU and the threat of terrorism
Eurobarometers are excellent tools to have an image of the state of mind of the population in any EU country. In 2014, the Eurobarometer survey indicated that the economy, the unemployment rate and the pensions were the principal worries Belgian people had regarding their future, showing a clear distrust of the capacity of managing in the political corpus (more than 60% indicated not to the trust the government). However, the grass was for once, greener in their own garden as Belgians judged their own personal economic and financial situation to be better than the one of their country, or of the European Union in general. This might be coming from the fact that when it comes to the path undertaken by the European Union to get out of the crisis, one Belgian out of two considered it to be the wrong way. When it came to austerity, Belgian people remained divided: certain view it as beneficial while others view it as hurting the people and the economy. Yet, however pessimistic they may be, seven Belgians out of ten considered that their country couldn’t do better outside of the European Union, which is rather reassuring: no Bexit for now.

Despite being pessimists, in 2014 Belgians believed that their country could not be better off outside the EU

The years that will follow won’t be really relaxing for the tiny country. The establishment of the ISIS caliphate will see hundreds of young Belgians leaving their country to fight in Syria and Iraq. End of 2016, Belgium was hit by a terrorist attack that left 32 people dead and monstrous damage at the national airport of Zaventem. Finally, the millions of refugees entering Europe through Turkey and the Mediterranean sea have made Belgian people forget about the economic situation to focus on other issues, such as immigration and terrorism. Where are they at now that elections are slowly approaching?

Europe is not so close
Five years later, the issues that the Belgians have in mind have fundamentally changed. Eline is a 19 year-old student in journalism at the University of Namur, Belgium. While she couldn’t vote 5 years ago (and didn’t feel especially concerned to do so), she enjoys special insights and knowledge about the European elections due to her studies, something she’s aware not all of the students of her age do. To the question about how concerned she feels about the outcome of the elections, she answers ‘I don’t really feel concerned. Europe is far from me, I am not so aware about it because it’s a bit too big, too theoretical. Whatever consequences that the EU may have, they don’t appear in my daily life’. To have this feeling when politics is one of your topics at university might be surprising, yet she is not the only one as this impression is shared by many Belgians, both in the North and South of the country. Europe is not something she can really identify herself with. This lack of concern is felt by Pierre, 69 and retired university teacher, in his daily life. ‘People don’t feel concerned at all. I feel like a true European, it’s really part of my identity, but not many people feel like me. But there is worse: the organisation of both Belgian elections and European elections at the same time, on the same day, blur the lines despite the fact they have nothing to do with each other. People get confused’. Indeed. There is currently a high level of defiance towards Belgian politics due to the numerous corruption scandal that blossomed in newspapers like flowers blossom in spring. These sad events made Belgian people reluctant to vote for anybody on the Belgian political level, casting a blank vote. As the organisation of the vote for the three elections is on the same day, Pierre is afraid that there is a slight risk that people cast a blank vote for European elections as well, despite the fact that Belgian people have a far better opinion of the EU parliament than they have of their own parliament. Just like it is fear in some countries such as France, too many blank votes can potentially free the path for some more extreme parties. Yet, numbers indicate that the risk for such a destiny is really low, Belgium being one of the most pro-EU party in Europe with no significant anti-EU political parties. So what about their concerns? ‘The environment’, answers Eline without hesitating a second. ‘We must absolutely vote some laws regarding the CO2 level in the atmosphere and create more renewable energy’. This may be a characteristic of her generation in Belgium, called generation z. They feel more concerned about the environment than any other generations of their age were. However, Pierre is sharing the same feeling: ‘the environment is the absolute priority and must be discussed on a European level’. None of our two voters will mention the economic situation once during the interview, showing a real shift of concerns.

So what about their concerns? ‘The environment’, answers Eline without hesitating a second. ‘We must absolutely vote some laws regarding the CO2 level in the atmosphere and create more renewable energy’

When looking at the Eurobarometer survey, the economic situation of the country is not a preoccupation anymore, having been replaced by the problems linked to immigration. Funny enough, it’s the theme of immigration that has precipitated the federal government to resign when it lost its majority at the parliament after the NVA, a nationalist right-wing group and Flanders’s biggest political party, left the majority to protest against the Marrakesh Pact that aimed at facilitating migration formalities on a worldwide scale. Belgium has been in effect without a government since the 21st of December 2018, something that doesn’t seem to worry its citizens too much. But back to our issues. The second issue Belgians are most worried about after immigration is, just like Pierre and Eline confirmed, the environment, or to be more precise, the lack of environmental policies and the global warming. This is the most significant difference compared to 5 years ago, when the climate wasn’t even on the European political agenda of the Belgian voters. This is not really surprising, and for different reasons: These last couple of years, Belgium has been experiencing a record in temperature, volume of rain, or lack of it, which slowly but surely started to convince an increasing majority of people that something was going wrong with the climate. In fact, Belgium is the country where the teenage climate march was the most successful in Europe (and has even benefited from the attention of Greta Thunberg herself, the famous 16 year-old Swedish militant)…or could have this sudden interest for climate been provoked by the fact that the march was organized on a Thursday, hence giving the opportunity to skip lessons? It’s impossible to know, but Belgians, in this regard, have reacted far differently from their Dutch neighbours, forbidden to go to protest. Finally, the rising cost of living in Belgium and the pensions follow in the list of issues Belgian people worry the most about, showing that in five years, Belgian people have gone to worry more. These two problems, unfortunately, are not issues that can be fixed on a European level and Belgians must hold responsible their regional and federal politicians for their resolution.

Putting Belgium and Europe in perspective
Is Belgium’s situation as bad as it seems? It’s important to have some perspective. The first rule when observing Belgium’s situation is to contextualize: the political, social and economic situation both at the North and South of the country are widely different. While the EU doesn’t make the difference between Flemish and Walloons, my own personal experience would tend to make me say that the issues discussed enjoy different level of popularity in both regions, except for climate change which is a universal issue. The second fact to retain is the following: 91% of the responders to the survey declared to be satisfied to live in Belgium. While the EU may not enjoy popularity in its own Western part (the opinion of the EU are far better in central and Eastern Europe), it’s important to keep in mind that hundreds of thousands of refugees keep on crossing the Mediterranean sea, or the Turkish border hoping for a better life, the life Europeans enjoy is by far one of the best, if not the best in the world.


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