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Opinion: Against impoverishment, for freedom

Excerpt from Erik SAELENS' column in newspaper De Morgen.

Before I became CEO of the tech company Unbox, I built political campaigns in Belgium and abroad. If I were to get back into that profession now – which I clearly don't intend to do – I would launch the slogan 'against impoverishment, for freedom'. Those who use it and link it to smart policy proposals will win the elections. Voila, free advice. Take advantage of it, Egbert, Sammy, Bart and co. Otherwise, Raoul and Tom win the election. They won't even need a campaign. You will feed it for them.

Impoverishment and freedom are the two topics that will play a role in the voting booth. As far as impoverishment is concerned, that is obvious. It used to be said about Belgium: the country is poor, but the citizens are rich. Soon we will be able to say: the country and the citizens are poor. The middle class is moaning under inflation and declining purchasing power, and is in danger of being almost completely wiped out. Advances of 1,000 euros per month for energy even put two-income earners with a good wage in trouble. In June, 204,000 people went to the food bank every month: a doubling since 2010, largely due to the influx of the lower middle class. The number of requests for financial aid and debt mediation has also risen since September last year: to a number that is already one fifth higher than at the beginning of 2020.

The fact that our governments do not act decisively and quickly against this is vengeful. By handing out a discount on the bill here and there, the citizen is given a cloth for the fierce bleeding. In this way policy parties are shooting themselves in the foot. The angry citizen works hard and is the world champion in paying taxes, but at the end of the month he has nothing left. This can only be explained by an inefficient and ineffective policy. That angry citizen will, therefore, rightly take it out in the voting booth: the extremes will win, the policy parties will be decimated, just like the middle class. Parties such as CD&V, Groen and Open VLD are not so far removed from the electoral threshold, polls show. In recent elections abroad – France and Sweden – we also saw a tendency for traditional parties to be hit hard.

Combating global impoverishment is not done by handing out alms here and there, but by pursuing a structural and sustainable policy, whereby, for example, the usurious profits made by some energy companies – the result of the sale of our Belgian energy and the good but naive green intentions – are not only addressed but also flow back to the citizens. The government also saves money on its own: nowhere in the world is the government expenditure as large as in our country. Money that disappears into black holes, because in exchange for that high tax burden, citizens receive substandard public transport, a huge shortage of social housing, too little space in childcare, a meager pension and a poor infrastructure. And now also unaffordable energy bills. No one has a problem with taxes, but they must be fair, transparent and efficient. They are not today.

The citizen is angry. Not only because of the impoverishment, but also because of the declining freedom. We all felt that during the pandemic, when even our freedom of movement was restricted. But it goes much further than that, and will continue to work after the pandemic. Who, without negative intentions, uses a wrong word, gets the good community over him. We have to walk on eggshells when we speak in public, because someone can always feel offended and then mobilize the social media mob. In the meantime, our data is often collected en masse by companies and governments without our knowledge or conscious consent, and there is no longer any question of real privacy, also a form of freedom. The big tech companies will soon know more about your baby than you do. But government agencies have also been rapidly transformed into data factories. What this can lead to was seen in the Netherlands, where the so-called 'surcharge affair' wrongly labeled thousands of parents as fraudsters, with all the serious consequences that entailed.

Freedom is also a free press. But does it still exist? Media no longer represent their readers. They are no longer the fourth power that controls the other powers and thus defend freedom; they trade in clicks and online subscriptions. Citizens no longer feel represented by the media, which in Flanders largely consists of two large media groups. Just like in our education, where everyone has to get over the bar, so that children can no longer fully develop their talents and we end up with a culture of six. Our children are also being crippled in their freedom (of development).

Freedom is making your own choices. But at the most recent Gentse Feesten, half of the food stands were no longer allowed to sell meat. And smoking is no longer allowed on train platforms, even if it is in the open air. Patronizing is gaining the upper hand, individual freedom is diminishing.

Freedom of movement? Just try to get from village A to village B by public transport. Anyone who lives or has to live without a car is not free in this country.

Would you like to walk around freely and carefree? More and more people no longer dare to go out on the street at night, due to an increasing feeling of insecurity. One can be compassionate about that, saying that those people exaggerate, but the feeling is there, it is increasing, and it frustrates a significant part of the population.

In short: people no longer feel free. That, combined with extensive impoverishment, could form an explosive cocktail for the next election. How can the center parties avoid becoming a debacle for them? The answer: radical honesty, radical transparency and radical cooperation.

Radical honesty: dare to tell the voter the hard truth. We are facing difficult years. The cake to be divided will become smaller. Dare to name it and make it tangible. Recently I was at a meeting in the US where someone put it this way: "Get an imaginary saw, cut 30% off the table, and that smaller table, that's your new wealth if you're Western European." This also applies to the people who do not have the space to become impoverished. There is your explanation for the far-reaching social unrest that has been simmering in Belgium for years, but is always covered with the cloak of political framing.

Link this hard message to a second principle: radical transparency. Make it clear what happens with government money, and that in a tangible way, so that Joe Sixpack understands. Communicate openly about who will receive which grants or subsidies. And make sure the money goes where it needs to go. If the cake gets smaller, we have to make sure that no crumbs fall on the floor. The Flemish government alone paid 7.2 billion euros in subsidies to companies and associations last year. Finance Minister Matthias Diependaele (N-VA) announced that more checks will be made to ensure that subsidies are not abused. “If we grant a subsidy now, we will check after two to three or a maximum of five years whether it achieves the social goal that we want to achieve,” the minister told the VRT.

Two to five years? Then we are already at least one dark Sunday further. However, digital technology exists to check the conditions for the subsidy and the correct spending both in advance and in real time. This technology uses closed loop systems, whereby after the necessary pre-audits, no cash is paid out, but the subsidies are converted via blockchain technology into virtual coins, which end up in a closed system. In this way, everyone involved and even all citizens can follow every step of the spending and you as a government can make adjustments in real time. In times of crisis, support for redistribution can only be maintained if there is complete transparency and no waste or fraud.

Finally: radical cooperation. Michel I was called the squabbling cabinet. We can gradually call Vivaldi the bickering cabinet. The parties' current deposition campaigns are based on marketing guerrilla techniques, aimed at destroying the credibility of the market leaders. Such techniques eventually lead to the rotting of the democratic society. If the policy parties want to survive, they will have to stop catching each other. Otherwise, one should not be surprised that, certainly with unchanged policy, the next election Sunday will be so dark that the newspapers will have to stock up on extra black ink. Therefore: against impoverishment, for freedom. We have ended up in a social context and challenge in which the political brand has even become irrelevant.

By analogy with what the American author Michael Hopf once wrote: “Difficult times breed strong politicians. Strong politicians breed good times. Good times breed weak politicians. Weak politicians breed difficult times.” Time for the strong politicians in this country to stand up.


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