Bring back optimism!
A short essay on how to revitalize Belgian economy
By Nicolas Vanderstappen
The outstanding results of the Red Devils during the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the quality of the game they delivered, showed the world that Belgium was only a small country by its size. Back at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after a long absence and clear mismanagements from previous coaches and the Royal Football Union, they have showed since then qualities and performances outpassing those of the usual big football nations. But most importantly, together with the third place medal, they brought optimism back to the country.
The nation vibrated in black, yellow and red and took conscience that it could be united and proud of accomplishing something big. The people of Belgium expressed the deserved feeling that they belong to a big nation, recognized among world nations and they were proud of it. Some commentators, French for most of them, said that we even showed some kind of bad faith when our team lost against France. But bad faith is not that bad: being a bad looser (even if we all agree that we played a better game than the French) is the feeling of a winner who could (and should) have gone further. Bad faith is the feeling of a great nation.
It was not long ago when our economy also made us proud of being Belgian. The country achieved in its not-so long history as an independent nation extraordinary accomplishments: our Constitution of 1831 long remained the most modern in Europe; Belgium was the first country on continental Europe to inaugurate a railroad; Belgium had remained the second industrial nation in the world until the mid-20th century; our companies were present on every continent and left their footprint in any industrial sectors; Belgium’s national airline Sabena was recognized worldwide; we had outstanding public servants who contributed to the creation of the UN and the European Union, and Nobel Prize awarded scholars teaching in our universities were recognized in the world.
The causes of a decline?
It is undebatable that our country has seen, as the result of bad political and industrial decisions, the disappearance of a significant part of its most symbolic actors. Compare to neighboring countries like The Netherlands, Belgian law makers never adopted protective measures to prevent our companies from leaving the country.
Unlike in France, most Belgian politicians never tried to protect our industry and our major companies from being bought by foreign groups. As authors have shown, the causes of such decline are multiple (V. Delcorps, A.-S. Gijs and V. Dujardin, Paroles de Patrons. Que sont devenus nos fleurons nationaux, Racine, 2017, p. 7). To some extent, as a result of the globalization, other countries have also seen some of their major companies disappearing or leaving the country during the last decades. But one factor is significant in Belgium, compare to other developed nations: some first-rank Belgian politicians do not seem to understand the economy nor business in general, and because they do not understand business, they have always showed some kind of disregard to it. Although the federalization of the country probably did not help this out, this observation was already valid before the federalization process even started. Also our proportional-electoral system does not encourage to put economic leaders (from the SME’s CEO to national economic leaders) in the federal or regional governments.
We have the basis
However, Belgium is far from being as desperate as some would like to say. Like in football, there are lots of positive things happening today in Belgian economy, which should provide us with the energy to turn them into success stories, and help us bring back optimism.
Top companies remain in Belgium (like Ab-Inbev, Solvay, UCB, etc.). In the meanwhile, the start-up business is growing fast and Belgium and Brussels clearly have a card to play to welcome more entrepreneurs. A recent study showed that 37% of Belgians want to start-up their own company. Last year 95,000 start-ups have been created and existing start-ups are scaling up fast.
In term of wealth, in 2017 Belgium was ranked 25th country in total GDP, 18th in GDP per capita, before France, and 6th in the amount of financial assets per capita. Belgium is one of the first country for the density of its railroads network. The Port of Antwerp is ranked Europe’s 2nd largest international port. Brussels hosts more lobbyist and journalists than any city in the world but Washington, D.C.
These assets can be relied on with a view to developing our economy and our companies. By being aware of belonging to a great nation, we can bring back Belgium among the firsts of the class. The role of political leaders should also be to understand the reality of the business and the aspiration of the entrepreneurs, and vote necessary reforms to create the positive circumstances to develop the country. It is important that entrepreneurs and business leaders have the feeling that they are understood and respected, because it is important that our entrepreneurs want to stay here. A great nation is a country where the business decision centers stay at home.
We have great assets in Belgium, let’s be sure of that. Now lest bring back optimism.