Belgium needs ‘uncharacteristically’ ambitious vision to tackle big risks says employer group

The Federation of Belgium Enterprises (VBO-FEB) believes that Belgium risks becoming increasingly irrelevant within Europe and the world, because of political stagnation, short-term policies and a lack of vision.

The country has struggled in recent times to even form a government because of its complex federal structure and seemingly widening rift between the French-speaking and Dutch-speaking regions.

Such paralysis at a time of grave economic and social crises such as Covid-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the need for an accelerated shift away from fossil fuel dependance is threatening to push Belgium, its businesses and employees into the economic wilderness, warned the VBO-FEB.

“For lack of vision, our country slips imperceptibly from the top to the middle, even the back, of the European peloton. It is well known that the longer we wait to tackle the underlying problems, the less likely we are to be able to bring about structural changes,” stated the federation.

The VBO-FEB said it is not normally its style to go “full drum” but felt that the gravity of the global outlook and Belgium’s perilous position demanded action.

The VBO-FEB’s experts have, together with its member sector federations, worked hard to design a concrete plan for the future of the country, called ‘Horizon Belgium’.

The plan aims to make Belgium a stable and efficient country that provides the conditions for businesses to make a decent profit and is also a “pleasant” place to work and live. “We illustrate our plan with a metaphor: a healthy, living tree trunk must have strong roots in order to support strong branches,” stated the asssociation.

The Horizon Belgium 2030 report concludes that the country faces four major challenges and risks:

  • Slowdown in the growth of the national economy and productivity levels
  • Climate change on a local and global basis
  • An ageing population
  • The international trend towards de-globalisation.

The report goes on to say that Belgium can only successfully address these four challenges by achieving significant change or even a revolution in four main areas:

  • Digitalisation
  • Greening of the economy and society
  • Modernisation of the labor market
  • Better functioning of public authorities.

The federation also concludes that, as a small and open economy, Belgian authorities must continue to fight for a better-integrated European market and a free, fair and rules-based multilateral international trading system.

VBO-FEB president Bart De Smet has led the creation of the national strategy since he took over in 2020. He said Belgians need to “dare to dream”.

“As the title of our plan already suggests, 2030 is not an imperious deadline, but a horizon that we can exceed as we get closer. In this way, we gradually push the limits of our actions and our abilities. We dare to dream, while remaining realistic,” he said.

“Indeed, it is not necessary, to be a great country, to do great things. Look around you and you will see countless examples of small countries that are positioning themselves much better than Belgium. We must not lose sight of our own global performance in terms of research and development: in ten years, our country has risen to the top three in Europe,” continued De Smet.

The VBO-FEB president stressed that all stakeholders – employers, consumers, public authorities and politicians – will have to make a concerted effort to achieve these objectives or risk facing increasing irrelevance on the European and global stage.

“We have no other choice. Will our country once again become one of the champions that will lead the transformation of Europe towards a more competitive and efficient economy in the use of resources, in line with societal needs? One of the champions that will form the economic backbone of Europe in a world respectful of the [UN’s Sustainable Development Goals]? Or are we going to let ourselves sink little by little, almost imperceptibly, to the back of the pack?” asked De Smet.

“We, as the largest employers’ organisation in the country, will not participate in this decline. I repeat: Belgium has everything it needs to achieve this – people, companies, knowledge, ambition and now also… a plan for the future!”

Good news for the VBO-FEB came last week when it presented the vision to more than 400 business leaders, captains of industry and political leaders, including Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, at its VBO-FEB Forum: Horizon Belgium 2030.

In his closing speech, De Croo underlined the importance of such a vision for the future. In his closing address, De Croo concluded with the following message: “Our country must above all be a country open to opportunities: to numerous commercial opportunities but also to new directions in terms of innovation or societal issues. A country that is fertile ground for the growth of people and projects. Optimism will then be fully in order.”

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