Monday, February 7, 2011

Mon 7 February - Generalisms

A round up of a few things I've read over the last couple of weeks concerning Belgium, its people, and how they do things over here:

I've always suspected, but never had the stats to back it up, that the life expectancy in Flanders must be higher than Wallonia. And then along comes this (very brief) article to provide the evidence. The figures for 2009 show that Belgian men live on average until they're 77, whilst women go on until they're 82. (A recent study looking at why women in general live longer than men revealed it was simply down to the fact that men smoked more. Nothing more complicated than that. No doubt another study will soon come along with different findings).

And the key point states that Flemings live roughly 2 years longer than Walloons, which is actually less than I predicted. I expected it to be around the 5 year mark. No reason is given for this regional difference but the socially observant can easily speculate.

The Economist used its Charlemagne column to muse about Belgium's never-ending efforts to form a new government. Mischievously entitled "The Trouble with Flanders," when in fact the body of the article doesn't seek to attach blame to the north (except for the small fact that Bart de Wever's N-VA party, the Flemish separatists, were the biggest winners last June). Instead, as is widely known, Brussels is, and will always remain, the big stumbling block.

But, it was the readers' comments underneath the article that I found most fascinating. This being The Economist, you'd expect them to be made by an educated, relatively informed bunch. And for the most part they were. One comment in particular stood out. It also echoed something one of my students has said, and something I'm beginning to read more and more. It even sounds slightly ridiculous mentioning it because it seems so obvious: that the biggest divide in the country is political. Language is merely a red herring.

There are big ideological divisions within Belgium, with the north and south having very different ideas about which direction the country should be heading in. About two-thirds of Walloons voted for left-wing or left of centre parties at the last election, whereas almost three-quarters of Flemings voted for right wing or right of centre parties.

The south attach themselves firmly to a bloated, centralised state, with every facet of society being controlled by some governmental organisation. An over-generous welfare system is seen as par for the course. If ever there was such a thing as "socialism" in Europe, Wallonia would be the nearest thing to it. The north take a far more liberal, pragmatic view: less control, more market liberalism, and cut the deficit by tackling the burden of welfare.

Many other comments from Flemish readers expressed how incensed they are that the north is funding the indiscretions of the south. The same old arguments. I couldn't find anything from a Walloon. I guess not speaking English doesn't help.

I also noticed a startling fact, again in The Economist, that according to figures compiled by the OECD, the average homeowner in Belgium (and France) "has to find another 14% (one of the highest in the OECD) of a house's purchase price to pay for moving costs, including taxes, legal costs and agency fees." It continues, noting that "countries with higher transaction costs tend to have more rigid labour markets, as workers are less inclined to relocate to get a job."

For 'rigid labour markets' read "harder to sack workers."

Today, we're up to 239 days without a government. On March 30th, Belgium will beat Iraq's record. Seems a shame not to.

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