In the past month or so, Belgian politics have been shook up with a corruption scandal that would make even Nixon turn up his nose. News last month broke that since 2008, Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur and an ally had each collected over 100,000 euros for meetings that never took place. Making the scandal even more crazy, these meetings were meant to be for the agency Samusocial, meant to care for the homeless. So, these guys were diverting funds for homeless people into their own pockets. Not surprisingly, the mayor had to resign. That’s pretty bad, no doubt, but it gets worse. For the past decade, the French-speaking Socialist Party (PS) has been all-powerful in the French-speaking parts of Belgium. Ironically, or not ironically when you consider all the corruption prevalent in many Socialist and Communist governments, members have been repeatedly caught siphoning off public funds.
Belgium’s political structure is pretty complex: a small country with just 11 million people, it’s divided between various regional and linguistic communities who speak Dutch, French, and German. To balance power among these different groups, the country is governed by six parliaments and governments. In Brussels, where the French and Dutch live alongside each other, it gets even more complex, with political institutions that are harder to navigate than they are to pronounce. The Brussels region has more ministers, mayors, and city councilors than Berlin and Paris combined, even though their population outnumbers Brussels nearly 6 to one.
These overlapping institutions are a textbook example of the darker side of bureaucracy. For example, much of the homeless in Brussels sleeps near the North Railway Station. And which bench they sleep on determines which part of the city is responsible for helping them. Public services in Brussels are delivered by about 200 agencies with around 1,400 employees. It’s a tough maze to navigate, and allows political parties in power to distribute all the jobs and favors that they want. This system of patronage allows certain people to prosper, but also makes solving any sort of problems in a coherent manner nearly impossible.
I recently read an article in the Washington Post that compared this situation to African politics, namely the work of a team of political scientists, Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, who wrote a book in the 90s called “Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument”. In the book, they argued that political leaders in Africa use disorder to their benefit by redistributing resources, patronage, and contracts to their political cronies. It’s an interesting comparison, and certainly a lot different from the more famous comparison people make between Belgium and Africa (*cough cough* Congo *cough cough*). Of course, considering how much of a mess many different African countries are, this is hardly a favorable comparison. I will say, though, it’s at least refreshing to see some bad news about Europe that doesn’t involve a terrorist attack.