The presentation of the Poverty Report 2010, prepared by the Observatory for Health and Welfare in Brussels received considerable media attention. The question now is whether it gets the attention of the policymakers. The Brussels government promises to do so, as they have recently put together a joint action plan ready to combat poverty.
The chance that this plan is ever implemented is minimal given the political atmosphere in which we are caught up in Belgium. Not only the current political impasse is a problem as, let us admit it: it is at least surprising that while for decades Brussels is impoverishing, the policymakers react only now with an ‘action plan against poverty’. As the ministers of Brussels government admitted themselves yesterday at the presentation of the report: the policy has failed. It is simply hard to deny the harsh reality of Brussels.
Try to explain this: while Brussels is in the top three of the richest regions of Europe, there are more than 100.000 unemployed (20,000 are long-term unemployed); more than one quarter of the population lives in poverty; in some neighborhoods one out of two children grows in a family without income; in the same neighborhoods almost one out of two young people are unemployed; and life expectancy in these areas is three times lower than in the richest communes. ‘Social inequality is large and ever growing’ is one of the conclusions of the Poverty Report. ‘How much longer?’ I ask myself. I already know the answer because it is not the first time this question comes to mind. The confronting daily life in Brussels makes you pose such questions day after day.
As a resident of Brussels, I can only watch how many benefit from the wealth produced in this city, except its own inhabitants. Eurocrats, finance guru’s, commuters, elite artists, top managers, rich people (such as ‘French millionaires’) … divide the cake among them. For Brussels people of the poor ‘sickle’ (St. Jos, Schaerbeek, Anderlecht, Molenbeek…) even the leftovers are not accessible.
As if this were not enough, they (some Belgian politicians in particular Flemish ones) want us to believe that Brussels itself is the problem because it is Brussels that asks for more money from the federal state. It is in Brussels where identity- and language policy is being conducted. It is Brussels that is always central, not its social problems that continue to increase, but its symbolism. A symbolism which all parties try to use it for their own discourse. Di Rupo (leader of Parti Socialiste) comes with plan B (if Flanders goes independent, Wallonia and Brussels make the ‘new’ Belgium), acting like he is the almighty, the one who can decide about the fate of the inhabitants of Brussels. De Wever sees in Brussels a gang of profiteers. Worst of all, the fate of the country and Brussels lies currently in the hands of these two men. These politicians are the same as their predecessors I would say, because except blame and hurl accusations at each other, this political elite is not getting any further. From the same elite is also Charles Piqué (president of the Brussels region) fooling the inhabitants of the city with his ‘jokes’ while ignoring social inequality.
What should be done? Is the Brussels region rich? Distribute the wealth in a just way. And if the rich elite, which does not like to contribute, they are free to go elsewhere. What does Brussels gain from these people as they contribute more to inequality than equality? The ‘French millionaires’ (living in Brussels in order to avoid paying taxes) are here a striking example. There should be investments where the inhabitants of Brussels are reached. We should invest in social economy and education. We should tackle the language problems by making pre-school education compulsory, but then also offer enough kindergartens and multilingual education. The housing problem can be addressed by the city if they claim the thousands of empty buildings and together with social enterprises renovate them. The group of people living in extreme poverty (homeless) is growing and diversifying. This is another finding of the Poverty Report hardly mentioned in the media.
In order to realize any of this you need a state and but in recent times we do not have one. Policymakers are needed, but that too we do not have for years now as the present politicians do not go beyond ‘pre-formation’, ‘current affairs’ and ‘clarifying assignments’ (trying to form a government procedure). What we need today – not just in Brussels but also in Flanders, Wallonia and Belgium – is an action assignment! In order to address the social and economic problems of the people we need policy makers who actually run the actions that they themselves have drawn. Dear ladies and gentlemen, for this we have elected you and you are being paid. And given the last years your most used words are: ‘responsibility’ and ‘empowerment’ I would say ‘start with yourself.’ In this way maybe we get one step further.
Bleri Lleshi, Brussels political scientist and documentary maker