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International shield

There are certain adjectives that would be positive in almost any other context, but which take on a somewhat sinister aspect when applied to particular countries – examples include a confident Germany, a growing Russia and an interesting Belgium.

The usual British complaint is that Belgium is boring. In fact, this is something we should be grateful for, because the lesson of history is that an interesting Belgium has far-reaching consequences. For instance, 200 years ago, the fate of Europe hung in the balance at Waterloo; a hundred years ago, the German invasion of Belgium pulled Britain into the First World War; fifty years ago, Brussels emerged as the capital of an increasingly federal Europe.

Today, the trouble is of an economic nature – as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph explains:

“Fitch Ratings has issued a downgrade alert, warning that the country’s primary budget surplus is evaporating. It said public debt will reach 106.9pc of GDP next year.

“New accounting rules known as ESA2010 have revealed that Belgium is poorer than previously thought, lifting the debt ratio by 3.3pc of GDP overnight. This is in stark contrast to the upgrade for Britain, Ireland, and Finland, all deemed to be richer and therefore less troubled by debt.”

(The downside of Britain’s upgrade is the EU’s unwelcome demand for extra membership fees – issued from Brussels, of course.)

The most visible threat to the financial stability of faltering, debt-laden Eurozone economies like Belgium is low growth and deflation:

“The European Commission has cut its growth estimate to 0.9pc this year and in 2015, too low to stabilize the debt. Belgium has been in consumer price deflation for the last eight months, when adjusted for taxes.

“The Commission said the debt ratio will reach 107.8pc by 2016, and warned that it could spiral much higher if there is a deflationary shock. Indeed, it came out worse than Italy in the stress test scenario.”

But underlying the headline figures on debt, growth and inflation is a much deeper economic malaise:

“The IMF said Belgium’s unit labour costs have been rising faster than those of France, Germany, or the Netherlands since 2005. This is partly due to ‘gaps in innovation and education’, and to slippage in the ‘knowledge-intensive sector’. New patents have been declining since the late 1990s.

“What is striking is that maths and science scores in schools have been deteriorating, even compared to other EMU states, let alone East Asia. Belgium has the highest ‘implicit tax on labour’ at 42pc and higher electricity costs than Germany or France. The effective retirement age is very low at 59.”

There’s a double lesson here for Britain: Don’t let debt or business costs get out of control, but also don’t neglect education and science.

Compounding Belgium’s unhappy situation is a huge political risk – that of Flemish nationalism (arguably, the free world’s only example of a serious separatist movement among an ethnic majority).

All in all a pretty grim situation: a stagnant economy, an impending debt crisis and the threat of national dissolution.

So much for being at the heart of Europe.

21 comments for: Uh-oh, Belgium is getting interesting again

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