Belgium, a failed state? Unsustainable public debt

Monday 11 March 2024, 17.00-18.30

Re-Bel Public Event – University Foundation (Brussels)

Is onze staatsschuld nog langer houdbaar? 
La dette publique est-elle soutenable? 

Is Belgium a failed state? The successive crises of the last three years have put Belgium’s public finances under severe pressure. International organisations, European institutions and the National Bank frequently warn that Belgium’s public finances risk becoming unsustainable. Expressed per inhabitant, Belgium’s public debt is the highest in Europe.    

Current and future challenges, regarding for example climate change, our aging population or eroding defense capabilities, require substantial government investment. While these expenditures seem inevitable, the question increasingly arises as to whether the Belgian budget can still meet these challenges. Drawing up a sound and sustainable budget requires bold and determined action by the federal government, the Communities and the Regions. However, because of the autonomy granted to our federated entities, the federal government cannot impose targets on the Regions and the Communities or force non-compliant entities to fall in line. This makes coordination harder than in other systems. 

The broader question then becomes whether Belgian federalism is still capable of achieving the long-term policy goals of the 21st century. Whilst we tackle the goal of sustainable public finances in this Re-Bel event, we will explore the green transition and other challenges in future events. Do we need to rethink our institutions to come up with effective policies? Is closer cooperation sufficient, or are more forceful mechanisms necessary? Which other pathways exist to meet long-term climate and budgetary targets in an effective and coordinated way?

These and many more questions were tackled at Re-Bel’s Public Event, held on Monday 11 March 2024 from 5 to 6.30 pm concurrently at the University Foundation (11 rue d’Egmontstraat, 1000 Brussels) and online.

Language regime: Dutch and French 

Speakers: Thomas DERMINE (federal State Secretary for Economic Recovery and Strategic Investments) & Koen GEENS (ex-Finance Minister) 

Challenges: Magali VERDONCK (ULB) and Damien PIRON (ULiège) 

Moderation: Béatrice DELVAUX (Le Soir) and Karel VERHOEVEN (De Standaard) 

Organisation: Karel REYBROUCK (Re-Bel, UCLouvain, ULB), Céline ROMAINVILLE (Re-Bel, UCLouvain) & Willem SAS (Re-Bel, Stirling, UCLouvain, KULeuven) 


Daan Bleus, Moet Vlaanderen de federale begroting redden?, De Tijd 21 februari 2024.

André Decoster, De begroting is niet onhoudbaar als men keuzes durft maken, Sampol, 2024, nr. 3, 4-12.

Paul De Grauwe, De overheid betaalt nooit haar schuld af. Is dat een probleem? Nee, als dit proces niet explosief evolueert, De Morgen, 26 september 2023.

Karel Reybrouck, Céline Romainville et Willem Sas, Une autre Belgique pour affronter les défis du XXIe siècle, Le Soir 10 mars 2024.

Karel Reybrouck, Céline Romainville en Willem Sas, Federalisme 2.0: Waar ligt de resetknop voor België?, De Standaard 11 maart 2024.

The federal constituency – a way out of the federal deadlock ?

Wednesday 22 March 2023 from 5 to 7pm
at the University Foundation and on Zoom

Een federale kieskring om federaal België weer vlot te krijgen?
Une circonscription fédérale pour débloquer la Belgique fédérale?

The event was devoted to the proposal of a federal constituency (circonscription fédérale, federale kieskring). The introductory panel consisted of Egbert LACHAERT (voorzitter Open VLD), Peter DE ROOVER (fractievoorzitter Kamer N-VA), Anne LAMBELIN (vice-présidente PS), Christian BEHRENDT (ULiège & KU Leuven) and Petra MEIER (UAntwerpen).

The conversation was moderated, as usual, by Béatrice DELVAUX (Le Soir) and Karel VERHOEVEN (De Standaard).

Re-Bel devoted an e-book to this theme in 2009 with the participation of foreign scholars. It is available on our website in English, Dutch and French. Many other substantive discussions of the federal constituency have been published since the Pavia Group launched the debate in 2007. They can be found on

Simplified Belgium reconsidered

Re-Bel event (hybrid — in person and online)
Wednesday 23 November from 5 to 7 pm

We are pleased to invite you to  our next Re-Bel event, to be held, as previously announced, on Wednesday 23 November from 5 to 7 pm, for the first time in an experimental hybrid format, concurrently at the University Foundation and on Zoom. A limited number of on-site places will be allocated on a first-come first-served basis and other participants will be able to attend online. The event will be bilingual Dutch-French, with simultaneous translation available online. 

This encounter aims to return to the question of how the structure of the federal state can be made simpler and more efficient. As you know, there is just one sub-federal government and parliament competent within the borders of Flanders, but there are two in Wallonia and two in Ostbelgien, and there are six within the borders of the Brussels region. It is widely felt that this cannot be optimal whether in terms of legibility for the citizen or in terms of consistency for public policy. In our webinars of 22 April and  25 November 2021 (both accessible on line), the Walloon Paul Magnette, the Brusseler Sven Gatz and the Ostbelgier Karl-Heinz Lambertz explained why and how they wanted Belgium to become a simpler, territorial federal state, like all other federal states in the world: a Belgium “‘à quatre/ met vier”. They were challenged by academics, who understood the underlying motivation but emphasized the difficulties to be addressed.

Since then, the debate has been enriched by a major scientific study, commissioned by Brussels finance minister Sven Gatz and coordinated by the DULBEA (ULB), on the financial implications for Brussels of a transfer of the revenues and expenditures of the Communities to the Regions. On 23 November 2022 (5-7 pm), we intend to return to this discussion in the light of these new elements. Maxime FONTAINE and Manon PIERROT, co-authors of the study, will present its most important conclusions. Sven GATZ and Paul MAGNETTE will respond. The debate will be moderated, as usual, by Béatrice DELVAUX (Le Soir) and Karel VERHOEVEN (De Standaard).

Does Belgium’s federal government lack levers to effectively tackle the energy transition?

The webinar with federal Energy Minister Tinne Van der Straeten, first scheduled for 16 February and next for 5 July 2022, will not take place, owing to the many emergencies the Minister has to address as a result of the international situation.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the energy transition even more urgent than it was. But compared to its European partners, Belgium is not doing well. Deployment of renewable energy, enhancement of energy efficiency, electrification of mobility: in all these domains, we are lagging behind.  Could a more “homogeneous” allocation of competences between the federal state and the regions fix the problem? Alas, an effective energy transition requires measures in the fields of mobility, housing, agriculture, industry, spatial planning, taxation, etc. More “homogeneity” could be achieved by locating all these competences at the federal level, but then one would recreate at this level many conflicts which motivated the regionalisation of these competences. It could also be achieved by locating them all at the regional level, but spillover effects and Belgium’s international commitments would force regions to negotiate with one another even more than today. So can appeals to “cooperative federalism” and “federal loyalty” within the existing institutional framework suffice to remove the obstacles that block the energy transition we urgently need? Or is institutional reform needed?

Language regime: Dutch and French with simultaneous translation
Moderation: Béatrice DELVAUX (Le Soir) & Karel VERHOEVEN (De Standaard)

Welcoming: Philippe VAN PARIJS (Re-Bel & UCLouvain) 
Introduction: Tinne VAN DER STRAETEN (federal minister of energy) 
Challenges: Jos DELBEKE (EIB Climate Chair, European University Institute, former Director General Climate, European Commission) and Estelle CANTILLON (Research director FNRS Solvay ULB, regent Belgian National Bank)

General discussion

Less public money for political parties?

Minder publiek geld voor de partijen?
Moins d’argent public pour les partis?

Re-Bel Zoom webinar
Monday 20 December 2021, 12.15-13.45

In Belgium like in all democracies, political parties play a central role. In Belgium like in many other democracies, they receive public funding so as to enable them to perform their democratic role and so as to counterbalance their unequal capacity to rely on private funding.  But in Belgium, the public funding of parties, both direct and indirect, is particularly generous. Should its overall level be reduced?  Or should it be made more degressive, so that smaller parties can function without big parties becoming excessively rich? Or should it take different forms, for example by shifting resources from the parties themselves to parliamentary staff? Or should one rather impose restrictions on how the parties can spend the public money they receive, for example on policy-oriented research rather than on communication? And is there any hope that enough parties will agree to reduce their own public funding or constrain what they can do with it?

Language regime: Dutch and French with simultaneous translation
Moderation: Béatrice DELVAUX (Le Soir) & Karel VERHOEVEN (De Standaard)
Welcoming: Philippe VAN PARIJS (Re-Bel & UCLouvain) 
Introduction: Kristof CALVO (federal deputy, Groen)
Challenges: Bart MADDENS (KU Leuven) and Thomas LEGEIN (ULB)
General discussion
Concluding comments: Paul DE GRAUWE (Re-Bel & LSE)


Kristof CALVO, Van een particratie met veel geld naar een parlementaire democratie met meer ideeën, discussie note Re-Bel, december 2021.

Edoardo TRAVERSA & Kris DESCHOUWER, “Financement des partis politiques, trop is te veel”Le Soir 17/12/2021.

Kris DESCHOUWER & Edoardo TRAVERSA, “De partijfinanciering beloont de status quo”De Standaard 17/12/2021.

Thomas LEGEIN, “Moins d’argent pour les partis politiques. Réaction à la proposition de Kristof Calvo”, Re-Bel, 20/12/2021.

Bart MADDENS & al., “Hoe halen we partijen van het infuus van partijfinanciering”Samenleving & Politiek 9, 2021 [background for Bart Maddens’ contribution to the Re-Bel webinar of 20/12/2021)

Belgique à quatre / België met vier — und Ostbelgien ?

Re-Bel Zoom webinar
Thursday 25 November 2021, 12.15-1.45 pm 

Why does the German-speaking Community want to become a Region? Which powers does it find important to acquire? Which ones does it wish to keep sharing with Wallonia? Given the size of the population of this fourth region, wouldn’t a Belgium with four be very unbalanced? In order to secure the financial sustainability of Ostbelgien, can a financing regime  common to all four regions be suitable? Or would Ostbelgien need a special arrangement?  And would the innovative deliberative governance it recently initiated be continued?

Language regime: Dutch and French 
Moderation: Béatrice DELVAUX (Le Soir) & Karel VERHOEVEN (De Standaard)
Welcoming: Philippe VAN PARIJS (Re-Bel & UCLouvain) 
Introduction: Karl-Heinz LAMBERTZ (Präsident des Parlementes der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft)
Challenges: Petra MEIER (Universiteit Antwerpen) and Christoph NIESSEN (UCLouvain)
General discussion
Concluding comments: Paul DE GRAUWE (Re-Bel & LSE)


Ostbelgien: op weg naar een volwaardig gewest?
Paul DE GRAUWE & Philippe VAN PARIJS, De Standaard, 24 november 2021.

Ostbelgien: vers une région à part entière?
Paul DE GRAUWE & Philippe VAN PARIJS, Le Soir, 24 novembre 2021.

Ostbelgien in einem Belgien zu viert
Paul DE GRAUWE & Philippe VAN PARIJS, Grenzecho (Eupen), 25. November 2021.

Primauté au fédéral? Voorrang voor het federale niveau?

Must federal legislation trump regional legislation?

Re-Bel Webinar, Tuesday 8 June 2021, 12.15-1.45 pm 

Background documents

Primauté au fédéral?
Johanne POIRIER, présentation au webinar Re-Bel du 8 juin 2021

Vers une hiérarchie entre Etat fédéral et entités fédérées?
Céline ROMAINVILLE et Karel REYBROUCK, Le Soir, 3 juin 2021

Krijgt het federale niveau de dirigeerstok van België?
Karel REYBROUCK en Céline ROMAINVILLE, De Standaard, 7 juni 2021


Belgium’s current federal structure aims to facilitate policy making by allocating exclusive competences to the federal government and parliament on the one hand and to the governments and parliaments of Belgium’s regions and communities on the other. Both levels are sovereign in their respective domains. There is no hierarchy that confers primacy to federal legislation over regional and community legislation, in contrast, for example, with Germany’s federal system, where Bundesrecht bricht Landesrecht is one of the guiding principles.

However, the measures necessitated by the pandemic, the need to honour EU-level commitments on the climate and the controversies over Brussels’ air traffic noise norms and congestion charges led many to question the wisdom of dispensing with such a federal primacy principle. To avoid confusion, delays and blockages, would it make sense to allow the federal level to coordinate regional action, issue binding policy guidelines or even overrule regional and community legislation? In other words, should Belgium establish some form of hierarchy between the federal level and the regional level, possibly under specific conditions, such as emergency situations or the risk of failing to comply with European obligations? Or would this amount to depriving the regions and communities of some of their autonomy without any significant gain in the efficiency of policy making? 

Language regime: Dutch and French
Moderation : Béatrice DELVAUX (Le Soir) & Karel VERHOEVEN (De Standaard)
Welcoming: Philippe VAN PARIJS (Re-Bel & UCLouvain) 
Introduction: Gwendolyn RUTTEN (Open VLD)
Challenges: Johanne POIRIER (McGill University, Montreal), Patricia POPELIER (UAntwerpen), Marc UYTTENDAELE (ULB)
General discussion
Concluding comments: Paul DE GRAUWE (Re-Bel & LSE)

Naar een België met vier? Vers une Belgique à quatre?

Re-Bel webinar, Thursday 22 April 2021

Background documents

Naar een België met vier?
Paul De Grauwe en Philippe Van Parijs, coördinatoren van het Re-Bel initiatief
De Standaard, 20 april 2021

Vers une Belgique à quatre?
Paul De Grauwe et Philippe Van Parijs, coordinateurs de l’initiative Re-Bel
Le Soir, 20 avril 2021

Belgisch Federalisme: 2 + 2 = 4 ?
Willem Sas, University of Stirling & KU Leuven, slides presented on 22 April 2021

Il est nécessaire de simplifier le modèle institutionnel
André Alen, Le Soir, 22 avril 2021

Geef dit land meer (fede)realisme en minder surrealisme
Willem Sas, De Tijd, 27 april 2021

De afspraak
André Alen in gesprek met Phara DE AGUIRRE en Theo FRANCKEN, 28 april 2021 (min. 20 tot 30)

Belgium. Une utopie pour notre temps – Chapitre 4 (“Quatre régions”)
Philippe Van Parijs, Bruxelles: Académie royale de Belgique, 2018

Belgium. Een utopie voor onze tijd – Hoofdstuk 4 (“Vier gewesten”)
Philippe Van Parijs, Antwerpen: Polis, 2018

La Belgique doit-elle prendre exemple sur le modèle suisse?
Philippe VAN PARIJS & Nenad STOJANOVIC, Le Soir, 18 mai 2021.

Zou Brussel kunnen werken op zijn Zwitsers?
Philippe VAN PARIJS & Nenad STOJANOVIC, De Standaard, 18 mei 2021, p.33.


Whether expressed as “2+2”, as “3+3-2” or simply as “4”, there seems to be growing support for the idea that Belgium’s federal structure could be more legible and more efficient if it simply consisted in four territorially defined components: Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels and Ostbelgien. This would enable the parliaments and governments of each one of these components to exercise a more comprehensive and coherent set of competences. But in this simplified federal Belgium, how should the competences currently exercised by the Flemish and French Communities be efficiently reallocated and sustainably funded? Must the reallocation operate in the same way in all sectors, from culture and education to scientific research and the media, and must it operate symmetrically for the competences of the French and Flemish Community? Can the outcome be improved democratic accountability rather than wasteful duplication ?

Language regime: Dutch and French
Moderation : Béatrice DELVAUX (Le Soir) & Karel VERHOEVEN (De Standaard)
Welcoming: Philippe VAN PARIJS (Re-Bel & UCLouvain)
Introduction: Sven GATZ (finance minister in the governement of the Region of Brussels-Capital) and Paul MAGNETTE (president of the Parti socialiste)
Challenges: André ALEN (KU Leuven), Céline ROMAINVILLE (UCLouvain) and Willem SAS (University of Stirling)
General discussion
Concluding comments: Paul DE GRAUWE (Re-Bel & LSE)

Het dialoogplatform over de toekomst van het Belgisch federalisme / La plate-forme de dialogue sur l’avenir du fédéralisme belge

Re-Bel Webinar, Monday 1 March 2021

Hoe kan het dialoogplatform over de toekomst van het Belgisch federalisme zo vruchtbaar mogelijk worden gemaakt ?

Comment rendre la plate-forme de dialogue sur l’avenir du fédéralisme belge aussi féconde que possible ?

How can the government’s “dialogue platform about the future of Belgian federalism” be made as fruitful as possible ?

In their joint policy note of 13 November 2020, the federal ministers for institutional reform and democratic renewal announced the creation of a “dialogue platform about the future of Belgian federalism” which they would chair and which would involve “a wide consultation of citizens, especially the young as well as civil society, the university world, experts and local authorities”. They also invite the Chamber to experiment with new forms of participation and set up panels that would be “invited to formulate recommendations to the Platform”. A report that includes the recommendations emerging from the Platform is expected to be submitted to the federal government by the end of 2021. 

Such an unprecedented initiative is certainly a welcome response to the dissatisfaction with the current functioning of Belgium’s federalism, especially as it involves from the start in a common reflection citizens from both sides of the linguistic border. But is it not easy job to design it in such a way that it yields fruitful outcomes rather than even greater frustration. This webinar will invite the ministers in charge to explain how they see their bold initiative at this stage and it will share evaluations of analogous initiatives abroad and host a critical discussion of suggestions about what could be fruitful, by the stated deadline, in the present Belgian context.

Language regime: Dutch and French
Moderation : Béatrice DELVAUX (Le Soir) & Karel VERHOEVEN (De Standaard)

Welcoming: Philippe VAN PARIJS (Re-Bel & UCLouvain) 

Prologue: David CLARINVAL and Annelies VERLINDEN (federal ministers for institutional reform and democratic renewal)

Lessons from experience abroad:
Conférences citoyennes (France):  Hélène LANDEMORE (professeure de science politique à Yale University, auteure de Open Democracy, 2020)
Klimaattafels (Netherlands): Ed NIJPELS (kroonlid van de Sociaal-economische Raad, voorzitter van het Klimaatberaad)

How best to proceed in Belgium: David VAN REYBROUCK (historian, initiator of the G1000 initiative), Hugues DUMONT (professor of constitutional law, Université Saint Louis)

Concluding comments: David CLARINVAL and Annelies VERLINDEN (federal ministers for institutional reform and democratic renewal), Paul DE GRAUWE (Re-Bel & LSE)

Background documents

Burgerplatform: een echte dialoog of een schijnvertoning ?
Paul De Grauwe en Philippe Van Parijs, coördinatoren van het Re-Bel initiatief
De Standaard, 26 februari 2021

Dialogue citoyen sur l’avenir du fédéralisme belge: comment éviter le fiasco?
Paul De Grauwe et Philippe Van Parijs, coordinateurs de l’initiative Re-Bel
Le Soir, 26 février 2021

Dumont. Intervention Re-Bel-1-3-21

Intervention de Hugues Dumont lors du débat Re-Bel du lundi 1er mars 2021
Hugues Dumont, USL-B

How can one facilitate the formation of Belgium’s federal government?

Tuesday 12 January 2021, 12.15-13.45 FR/NL
Zoom Webinar

Comment faciliter la formation du gouvernement fédéral?
Hoe kan men de formatie van de federale regering vergemakkelijken?

The exceptional length of the search for a federal government coalition after the elections of May 2019 stimulated thinking about the ways in which it could be facilitated. In a booklet published by the think tank Itinera (Pleidooi voor politieke renovatie/ Plaidoyer pour une rénovation politique), Christophe Convent makes a number of proposals: the replacement of proportional representation for most of the seats in the Chamber by a French-style electoral system, the possibility of minority governments, the calling of new elections after a certain time, and the creation of a federal constituency. Apart from a radical change in the electoral system — which raises many other issues outside the scope of our meeting — do any of these proposals offer any hope of accelerating the formation of our federal government? Are there any other more promising proposals?

Language regime: Dutch and French
Moderation : Béatrice DELVAUX (Le Soir)/Karel VERHOEVEN (De Standaard)
Introduction: Edoardo TRAVERSA (Re-Bel & UCLouvain)
Lead speaker: Christophe CONVENT (DPG Media)
Commentators: Anne-Emmanuelle BOURGAUX (UMons), François DE SMET(DEFI), Koen GEENS (CD&V & KU Leuven)
Conclusion: Paul De Grauwe (Re-Bel & LSE)
Prior registration indispensable.
A zoom link will be sent in due course to all those registered.

Background documents

Hoe vormen we sneller een federale regering?
Dave Sinardet en Edoardo Traversa bespreken enkele voorstellen om ‘marathonformaties’ te vermijden.
De Standaard, 8 januari 2021

Comment faciliter la formation du gouvernement fédéral?
Edoardo Traversa (UCLouvain) et Dave Sinardet (VUB/ USaint-Louis – Bruxelles) au nom de l’initiative Re-Bel
Le Soir, 8 janvier 2021