Belgians Fall Out Of Love With Europe...As Resentment Of Eurocrats GrowsWilliam Echikson
The white-clad nurses jammed the busy Boulevard du Regent. They honked their car horns. They shouted their anger about cuts in house-call reimbursements. "We're being squeezed like lemons," 10-year Yellow & White Cross veteran Marianne Micha complained over the clamor.
Similar protests in coming weeks could shut down hospitals and trains. But instead of blaming Belgium's yawning public deficits, the nurses and other angry workers pick another culprit for their troubles: Europe's proposed single currency. In particular, they blame Belgium's public-sector cuts on the strict Maastricht criteria for becoming a first-round euro member in 1999. "Europe is a nice ideal," says Susan Pescod, a protesting nurse. "But it takes our money away."
CUTS NEEDED. Little Belgium, home to the European Commission and long one of the most ardent supporters of a federalist Europe, is having second thoughts. A recent poll by the newspaper Le Soir showed that 57% of the 10 million Belgians view the European Union as a "failure," up from 44% a year before. Only 26% consider Europe "a success." "For my parents, Europe went together with peace and prosperity," recalls Tony Vandeputte, chief executive officer of the Federation of Belgian Industries. "Today, it is associated with spending cuts."
Europe or no Europe, however, Belgium's bloated public sector needs trimming. Years of profligacy have left the country with a public deficit reaching 135% of gross domestic product, higher than even Italy's infamous pile, at 122%. Spending cuts should slash it to 126% by 1999--enough to ensure the country's first-round entry. "We have a stable currency against the Deutschemark, low inflation, and improved control of our public finances," boasts Lieven Noppe, a senior economist at Kredietbank in Brussels.
Export-led economic growth could reach 2.2% this year, up from 1.3% last year, and the business community believes the single-currency plan will be a boost. Andre Verstraeten, managing director of PB Papier paper company, notes that almost two-thirds of Belgium's GDP depends on sales abroad. "For a country like ours that does an enormous amount of business with its European colleagues, the single currency is crucial," he says.
But the modest upturn has not offset the country's No.1 problem: 13% unemployment, more than double the level in the neighboring Netherlands. While the Dutch have axed social security taxes, Belgium's remain among Europe's highest. When Eva Langerova, director of a publishing company, recently hired an editor making only $13,500 per year, taxes pushed up the cost to $29,000. "The taxes strangle you," she says.
Social tension is taking its toll on the remaining optimists. "Our love affair with Europe is over," laments Etienne Davignon, a former European Commissioner and chairman of the country's largest holding group, Societe Generale de Belgique. "We have to hope the single currency will work and restore our passion" for the European ideal.
To house European institutions, host city Brussels tore down almost an entire neighborhood of late 19th century townhouses in the 1980s, replacing them with glass-and-steel monstrosities. Horrified locals resent how high-paid--and low-taxed--Eurocrats drive up housing prices and clog downtown streets with their luxury cars.
These tensions exploded over the grandiose new European Parliament building. Although its garage contains 2,300 spaces, environmentalists complained that this much parking would encourage a suffocating amount of traffic, and city authorities granted permits for only 900 spaces. "We know that Brussels profits from the European institutions," says Rita Steyaert, city public works spokesperson. "But sometimes emotions run high." The parliamentarians refused to occupy the building until they got all their parking.
A compromise reached in June allows 1,800 spaces on workdays and the full 2,300 during special sessions. Now the city and European institutions have launched an architectural contest to beautify the European neighborhood. Already, the two sides have agreed to build a walkway and green areas. But in an age of high unemployment and austerity, a face-lift will hardly be enough to renew Belgians' lost love for Europe.