5 months ago

Diplomatic World_nummer 56.

50 This has caused an

50 This has caused an influx of over 100.000 foreign patients a year at our hospitals. The principle that the choice is free does imply that every service becomes more expensive. Our federation of Belgian industries has a department for importing people into Belgium to be treated and have them pay their bills afterwards. The Belgian freedom also creates competition in strange things. Belgium is one of the few countries where you can freely choose your doctor, hospital, school or notary. In many of Western countries, your living address determines the schools, doctors and hospitals that are available to you. In the UK, for instance, this can be a giant handicap: when you live on the left side of the street you can have a good school for your children, whilst the other side of the street can mean you have to send them to a ‘bad’ school. People are then motivated to move or work far away from the place they live, just in order to have a better school. In Belgium, the freedom of choice creates a certain competition in these different areas, which can elevate the quality overall. When your schools and universities are in competition, all of them try to be the best at what they do in order to attract people. INDUSTRIALIZED POWER AND COMMUTING Belgium is a small country but it has been through all regimes and possibilities. What few people know is that Belgium was the second industrialized power in the world in the course of the 19th century. The UK was first, Belgium second, the USA third and France only seventh. It was only in 1914, that Belgium went from the second to the third place: an unbelievable industrial development. Belgium is therefore a child of its history. From 1835 to 1865, we have filled Belgium with 5.000 km of railway lines for trains and 5.000 km of tram lines. People went to work in the coal mines in the Borinage, in Brussels and other cities but they did not have to find a home there. In 1865, the season ticket was introduced by a liberal government who had decided it was best for the workers to go home to their village in the evening, where they were taking care of by the village priest (the spiritual cement of the village) and/or the mayor of the village. People went to work in cities, travelled home in the evening and thus commuting was invented by the Belgians. Belgium is still a country of commuters, causing a major problem of mobility. The railway department in Belgium, a department I was in charge of for eight years as minister of transport and communication, can be a bit provocatively summarized as one big commuting train full of civil servants on their way to Brussels. 170 years later this has not changed. In addition, we have about four times more roads per square kilometre than the Netherlands and sixteen times more roads per square kilometre than France. Roads mean cars and many cars mean congestion. With this we avoided the huge concentrations of people like in the suburbs of Liverpool, Manchester, Lille or Paris. The consequence, however, is that due to congestion people now try to move to the place where the work takes place. There is a policy of making so-called ‘industrial zones’, well thought-out areas in every town and village where small firms are located. The zones are an alternative to commuting to work in Belgium’s main cities and enable people to work near their homes. TRANSPORT IN BRUSSELS Brussels is a very strange collection of 19 communes. In Brussels, the capital of Europe, most ‘slums’ are located in the centre while the nice quarters are outside of the city centre. Compared to Paris, London or even Berlin this is the opposite. They have beautiful city centres to display but their large suburbs can feel like slums in Africa, India or Pakistan. Tourists and visitors do not go further than the centre and are amazed by the place, whereas in Brussels any troublemaking will happen in the centre and in the public eye. So people like to flee the city, increasingly seeking homes in nice and ever expanding suburbs. Even when the city of Brussels was building beautiful town houses at Rue Quatre Bras (the former seat of Foreign Affairs) in 1880 to rent to the people working in the city, everyone still commuted to their home outside of Brussels. Since then nothing has changed, but now the 19 communes of Brussels sometimes try to make it more difficult to the commuters (over half a million) to get to their jobs by car or train. In a way, they are trying to force them to live in Brussels. During my eight years as minister of Transport, I was building 20 metro stations. I knew very well what the railway stations meant to Brussels. In other big cities it is normal to take the taxi or metro between train stations,

Prof. dr. em. Herman De Croo like for instance in Paris between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est. Brussels has three train stations: Gare Centrale (the biggest one), Gare du Nord et Gare du Midi. Midi is the only place where there is a junction between them. I decided to build metro stations inside the railway stations to avoid huge traffic jams in the city. If we did not build the metro stations, in 10 years no one would be able to reach Brussels anymore. Putting the metro stations in dry environments near the stations would encourage people to take the train without disrupting the local traveling inside the city. It seems simple and it is the most logical option but still there was a revolt by the 19 mayors of the communes of Brussels. Their reason for protesting was that these measures were advantageous to commuters, who are of no use to the communes. Commuters are not citizens who vote and pay taxes. The mayors would much rather we invest in roads and car travel, for their voters are the people who use cars in the city. Those eight years were a permanent fight but we did create a period of calm through the metro and railway stations. Unfortunately, we started investing in constructing car infrastructure and now 10 years later Brussels is completely blocked by cars, as I predicted. POLITICALLY INTERWOVEN Recently, I was in Congo for 14 days, where I tried to explain the following issue: for 541 days Belgium had no full-fledged government. Which other country — in the turmoil of the Libyan War and with all the problems we all have — other than Belgium, could survive almost two years without a new government and avoid major problems, revolts, and press scandals? I could not name you another one. When you look at the 28 European states today, there are very few who can look back at their governments and see that they were stable for over 5 years, with only small tensions interrupting. In my opinion, Belgium passes this test thanks to an interwovenness that is incomprehensible to outsiders. For a long time I was mayor and speaker of the Federal Chamber of Representatives and during that time the first government was formed by a Socialist- Liberal coalition and the next one by a Liberal-Christian Democratic coalition. In my communal council the opposition was Christian Democratic and my coalition partner was Socialist, while in the province the three parties together had formed a coalition. Nationally versus regionally, everything was different even though 51