“Belgium = mini Europe” – Gwendolyn Rutten on how to overcome divisions and govern in difficult circumstances

IMG_5253The new Belgian coalition-government was sworn in at the beginning of October last year. Led by French speaking liberal Prime Minister Charles Michel, it was dubbed the “Swedish coalition,” referring to the four parties’ colours and symbols, the centre-right coalition comprises the two Belgian liberal parties Mouvement Reformateur and Open Vld, the Flemish Christian-Democrats CD&V and the Flemish nationalist party N-VA.

Economic consolidation and enhancing competitiveness rank among the coalition’s top priorities and labour unions have reacted with large protests against the economic reforms planned by the new government.

IMG_5254To discuss the reform agenda of the federal government and other topics related to Belgian politics, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation together with the ALDE Party invited Gwendolyn Rutten, Leader of Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (Open VLD) to discuss the innovations awaiting Belgium in the upcoming years. Adopting her customary optimistic point of view, she drew a comparison to the biblical story of seven years of famine – seven years of plenty.

IMG_5262During the past seven years, Belgium has been ridden by a severe financial, economic and debt crisis, topped by a long-lasting battle on institutional reform. However, now she believes that the worst is over and that the new government will finally manage to move away from the trouble-shooting mode. The current coalition government is new in three ways: firstly, it has put aside the debate on institutional reform in order to focus; secondly, it will focus on big economic reforms; and finally, it is what Gwendolyn Rutten called a “real” federal government, meaning that it has a democratic majority, though no majority in each of the Belgian regions. A strong advocate of federalism, both at Belgian and EU level, she argues that this is the future: “a country where people elect politicians according to their political views and not the language they speak.”

To bring the Belgian economy back on track, the centre-right coalition led by the liberals will focus on three main reforms: pensions, taxes and labour costs and the state. Gwendolyn Rutten admitted how ambitious this agenda is and that on top of existing tensions, new tensions had arisen, as for example with the trade unions. However, she explained that many of those tensions are due to the upcoming elections in the trade unions, which are already campaigning.

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Gwendolyn Rutten also took the time to answer questions on the terrorist threat in Belgium. She underlined the importance of cooperation in this field and explained the work of the newly created National Security Council. In this matter, she also sees a crucial role to play for liberals. Giving the government more power to act on terrorism and acknowledging the threat must go hand in hand with necessary check and balances. Measures always have to be reasonable and cannot breech fundamental rights.

But cooperation is not only needed in the field of terrorism and in Belgian politics. Gwendolyn Rutten emphasized the necessity to overcome linguistic, cultural or other borders and cooperate in Europe too. Belgium and the Benelux could be interesting models for the EU. In the Benelux the three liberal Prime Ministers Rutte, Michel and Bettel already work closely together. As she puts it: “Belgium is somehow a mini-Europe, or the other way round, Europe a maxi-Belgium”.

Julie Cantalou