Interview with Belgium's Finance Minister 'We're Not Crazy, Just a Little Different'

For more than a year now, Belgium has been without an elected government. Didier Reynders, the longest-serving finance minister in the European Union and deputy Belgian prime minister, discusses his country's political crisis and why, despite pessimism from rating agencies, he doesn't believe Belgium will require a euro bailout.

Belgian Finance Minister Didier Reynders.

Belgian Finance Minister Didier Reynders.

SPIEGEL: Belgium has been without an elected government for over a year now, a world record. Are you at all embarrassed for your country?

Reynders: Of course it would be better to have a proper government. But compared with other countries in Europe, we are not doing too badly at all. In the Netherlands, for example, there is a minority government which is dependent on the support of a populist right-wing party. Although we are only in office on a caretaker basis, we still have a majority in parliament ...

SPIEGEL: ... with which you even managed to approve participation in the military intervention in Libya. Do European states perhaps no longer need an elected government? Does the apparatus of government function on its own?

Reynders: We have at least adopted a budget and helped get the aid programs for Portugal and Ireland off the ground. But we cannot implement the urgent and necessary reforms of (Belgium's) welfare and pension systems. Nor would new elections result in a change to the balance of power between parties.

SPIEGEL: Why, then, are the election winners, the Socialists and the Flemish separatists, blocking each other?

Reynders: The Flemish nationalists want more autonomy, perhaps even independence. The majority of the parties oppose that. In terms of social politicies, on the other hand, the nationalists represent positions that we liberals and parts of the Christian Democrats also share. Even the Socialists, who reject cuts and demand higher taxes, do not want a government without the Flemish nationalists.

SPIEGEL: That makes it sound like Obelix, the character from French comic Asterix, may have had it right when he said: "The Belgians, they're crazy."

Reynders: I still manage to explain the situation in Belgium to my colleagues in the European Union. We are not crazy, just a little different.

SPIEGEL: Belgium's financial situation isn't the best. The country's debt level is relatively high. Will Belgium have to seek help from the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), which has provided bailouts to Greece, Ireland and Portugal?

Reynders: A few weeks ago, I went with Prime Minister Yves Leterme to London to explain to the investors the situation in Belgium. Firstly, it has become somewhat of a legend that Belgium has a debt problem. We reduced the debt from 130 percent of the gross domestic product during the 1990s down to a current level of 96 percent. Of course that is still too high, but it is not so far from the average or from Germany's level, for example. Secondly, we are among the five countries in the world whose citizens have the highest savings rates.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the rating agencies do not view Belgiums future very positively. In May, Fitch downgraded Belgium's rating outlook from "stable" to "negative."

Reynders: The rating agencies say Belgium needs reforms and I agree with that. We have an aging population and therefore need a pension reform. We have too many unemployed people and thus need a labor market reform as well. But we will not need help from the EFSF.

SPIEGEL: What do you propose to overcome Belgium's political stalemate?

Reynders: I am against early elections. This is not only because the result would not be so different from the existing parliament, but also because it would paralyze the country since, for some weeks, there would be no caretaker government or parliament. Given that I do not see the parties agreeing on a coalition in the near future, the only solution remaining is to give the existing government greater responsibilities.

Interview conducted by Christoph Schult


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