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Belgian report Belgian report
by Euro Reporter
2012-02-05 10:27:48
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Belgium Slides into Recession

Belgium's economy fell back into recession at the end of 2011, reversing the strong growth it had seen in the first half of the year as the country became the latest to fall victim to the euro zone's twin fiscal and banking crises. Preliminary data released by the central bank on Wednesday showed the economy contracted on a quarterly basis for the second straight quarter in the final three months of 2011.

The flagging economy presents a challenge to the still young government of Prime Minister Elio di Rupo just as parliament is expected to ratify the 2012 budget bill. Mr. Di Rupo's painstakingly negotiated six-party coalition fought for weeks over how to find savings in the 2012 budget late last year in the lead up to the government formally taking office. Weaker growth than expected could force them to add significantly to the €11.3 billion they had pencilled in for this year.

The central bank reported that on a quarterly basis, the economy fell 0.2% in the fourth quarter after dipping 0.1% in the third quarter on a seasonally adjusted basis. On the year, the economy rose 0.9% in the fourth quarter after rising 1.6% in the third quarter from a year earlier. The central bank also said Belgium's economy expanded 1.9% overall in 2011 compared to 2.3% in 2010. It contracted 2.7% on a seasonally adjusted basis in 2009. The quarterly contraction was the largest since the first quarter of 2009.


The pride of Belgium

To this moment, I'm not quite sure what I attended Thursday night: Was it a Jacques Brel revival? A Jacques Brel preview? A Belgian ex-pat reunion? A Stella Artois and Duvel beer tasting? All I know is that by the time I arrived at the Triad Theatre on West 72nd Street, the place was rocking: Every seat was claimed, conversations in French and Flemish were flying at the surrounding tables and the beverages, peanuts, popcorn and Belgian waffles were flowing like milk and honey. I never saw "Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" when it opened in New York in 1968 and played for four years at the Village Gate Theatre. I didn't see the 2006 revival, either. But my wife had, and she had even sung Brel's music—she was a singer and actress in high school and college; I might also add that she was a cheerleader and dated the captain of the football team—and she assured me that Brel was well worth hearing. More to the point, he was apparently one of Belgium's proudest exports—a highly literate singer-songwriter, who lived in France much of his life. Having now heard him in "Jacques Brel Returns" I can says that while his style is utterly his own, there's a bit of Bertolt Brecht and Stephen Sondheim in his music and lyrics; and maybe even a touch of Elvis Costello.

To be frank, I was there more for the Belgians, the event apparently a joint venture between the Belgian American Chamber of Commerce and Ambassador Herman Portocarero, the Belgian consul general in New York. I know what French party animals look like, and certainly Italian ones. The Chinese and Japanese, too. But Belgians? Frankly, I don't think of them as blazing new territory in the realm of celebration. What have they done commensurate with creating Champagne, or inventing "La Dolce Vita"? I've never heard of a single incident of them loosening—not to mention losing—control, let alone doing things like rioting at soccer matches, as the Brits and even their next door-neighbours, the Dutch, are known to do on occasion. But the mood in the room as we waited for the performance to start couldn't have been more festive. "We do this fairly often," Mr. Portocarero told me. "I wouldn't say it's unusual."

I wasn't sure whether he was referring to Belgian ex-pat reunions or Brel celebrations. Mr. Portocarero gave me a quick geography and linguistics lesson: They speak Dutch in the north of the country and French in the south, and the culture more closely resembles France or Holland's depending on where you live. Yes, I said, but is there anything that characterizes them as distinctly Belgian? I don't know, any special tics or talents; national pastimes? That's always been my problem. When I think of the Belgians I'm grasping at straws. For no good reason, I think of them as big-boned French people, with perhaps slightly less joie de vivre—both stereotypes that the buoyancy and attractiveness of this crowd was starting to undermine.


Belgium PM: won't rise legal retirement age

Belgium will get its deficit below 3% of gross domestic product in 2012, but without altering its linking of salaries to inflation or the retirement age, the Prime Minister said Tuesday. "The situation is certainly not easy," Elio di Rupo said according to the text of a speech. While EU countries are raising the retirement age and slashing the wages of public sector workers, "We won't have any of that here," Di Rupo said.

"The legal pension age will remain at 65. Salaries, pensions and welfare payments will take account of inflation. The quality of healthcare is guaranteed," he said. Belgium has clashed with neighbouring Germany and the European Central Bank over its practice of linking salary increases to inflation, a practice known as wage indexation.

Di Rupo also reiterated that the country will have a budget deficit below 3% of gross domestic product in 2012, and a balanced budget in 2015.

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