Belgium's New Prime Minister 'Europe Mustn't Just Focus on Austerity'

Belgium's new prime minister, Elio Di Rupo, met German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday on his first official visit to Germany. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, the Socialist voices doubts about German ideas for solving the euro crisis, such as introducing balanced-budget laws across the EU, and argues for more efforts to boost growth.

Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo

Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo

SPIEGEL: Angela Merkel wants to reform Europe by modelling it on Germany. Do you support her in that?

Di Rupo: Europe doesn't have to model itself on Germany or any particular country but on the European model, taking into account all 27 member states. Germany plays an important role. It helps other countries and we must be grateful for that. But Germany must also cooperate with the other countries because its future also depends on the prosperity of the other countries.

SPIEGEL: Many in Europe accuse Paris and Berlin of not paying enough attention to the small and medium-sized EU countries. How do you view the "Merkozy" duo?

Di Rupo: Belgium is one of the 10 most important countries in the EU. And each one of these countries must defend its position with a twin goal. It must take account of its domestic political reality, but also of common European interests. It is true that Ms Merkel and Mr Sarkozy meet frequently. But decisions affect the 17 countries of the euro zone or the 27 of the EU, and every country must be listened to.

SPIEGEL: Do you think the rigid austerity programs underway in Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland are the right approach?

Di Rupo: Financial markets and governments, not citizens, are responsible for the euro crisis. The most important thing, apart from conducting a strict budget policy, is to strengthen growth in Europe and create new jobs. We mustn't just focus on austerity and sanctions, we must also strengthen demand and purchasing power. Of course it is also necessary to reduce budget deficits and cut debt. But it must be done in a tolerable rhythm that doesn't choke off growth.

SPIEGEL: A year ago, Merkel in her so-called "Euro-Plus Pact" demanded an end to the practice of index-linking wages in Belgium and Luxembourg. Your predecessor Yves Leterme angrily rejected the demand. Will you be more amenable to her?

Di Rupo: I will first listen to what Ms Merkel has to say and am sure she will listen to what I have to say. But one can't solve the euro zone's most important problems with isolated measures here or there. Besides, I don't tell other countries what to do. Each country has its own traditions that we must respect. We in Belgium have a tradition of social compromise. The question of indexing wages was included in the government agreement.

SPIEGEL: But that is precisely the problem in Europe, that every country says: "Our situation is different."

Di Rupo: There is a big difference between the goals and the modalities. At the EU level we commit ourselves to common goals. But it is up to each government to decide how one reaches these goals. Europe's purpose isn't to solve the internal problems of a country.

SPIEGEL: Are you prepared to incorporate a debt brake into the Belgian constitution as Germany is demanding all euro-zone countries should do?

Di Rupo: We're currently discussing that in the negotiations about the fiscal pact. One thing is clear: Belgium has decided to present a balanced budget as early as 2015. Speaking in general terms, people are trying to solve the problems of each country and of Europe with slogans, by presenting a certain measure as a solution for everything. One doesn't solve anything with an individual measure, one doesn't solve anything with symbols. What is needed is comprehensive, serious and continuous action. Belgium is a serious country. We are prepared to conduct rigorous policies. But Belgium also wants to help Europe return to a path of prosperity.

SPIEGEL: Doesn't the situation in Belgium resemble that of the whole EU? The north is more productive than the south and feels it is propping up the south. The south complains about the arrogance of the north and demands more solidarity.

Di Rupo: Yes, Belgium is in a certain respect a miniature version of Europe: various languages, various sensibilities, various different situations. In (the French-speaking southern region of) Wallonia, we had an era when it was very rich and, as one says today, a net contributor to the country. Today (northern Dutch-speaking region) Flanders plays a stronger role economically, but the richest region is Brussels. But it is also true that there is currently more solidarity in Flanders towards the south.

SPIEGEL: Doesn't Belgium, like Europe, lack a feeling of belonging together?

Di Rupo: That depends. There is a difference between what is said in parliament and what people in the street feel. Of course there are difficulties. The best proof is that it took us 18 months of talks to form a new government. The election in June 2010 was a turning point for Belgium. The Socialist Party did very well in Brussels and Wallonia. On the Dutch side, a separatist party won for the first time in our history. That means a party that wants to turn Flanders into an independent member of the European Union.

SPIEGEL: The head of the separatist New Flemish Alliance, Bart De Wever, says Belgium doesn't have a future and will break apart of its own accord at some point.

Di Rupo: I don't share that opinion. Our future is in this country, with the regions which will play a more important role than in the past. We will preserve national unity -- with all the opportunities that arise from that. From the moment a separatist party turns into the most important political grouping of the country, it is totally legitimate to say that we are working to keep the country together. We have done that and I think a balanced budget and the economic and social reforms will help.

SPIEGEL: Belgium urgently needs reforms. In socio-political terms it is comparable to Germany before the so-called Hartz welfare reforms of 2003 and 2004 launched by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Di Rupo: That's not true. One can't compare the situation of one country with that of another, just like one can't compare one era with another. In the days of Gerhard Schröder, the financial sector didn't have as much influence on state budgets as it does today. Belgium is a country that is basically doing well. Look at the efforts Belgium has made since 1993: We had a debt level of 137 percent of GDP. By mid-September 2008 we had brought that down to about 85 percent. So one can't say we weren't rigorous. And we Socialists were always part of government. My government decided important social and economic reforms in the first three weeks, for example on pensions. New, balanced measures will need to be taken in the course of the budget review in February.

SPIEGEL: Would you also be prepared like Schroöder to be voted out of office for the sake of the reforms?

Di Rupo: I want to be successful.

SPIEGEL: Successful personally or politically?

Di Rupo: No, not personally, but successful as a reformer.

Interview conducted by Christoph Schult


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