Madam Speaker, Dear Colleagues,
Early this week, I promised you that I would return to this Parliament today with a set of strong measures that will help people, businesses and organisations get through this crisis. My ministers and I did everything possible to reach an agreement, and we succeeded. We cannot afford to take no action during this disruptive energy crisis we find ourselves in.
Before you stands a humble man. But a proud man as well. Humble because I realise that the process we went through as a government was not a pretty one. We all need to learn lessons from this together. But also proud.
Proud of the content of the agreement I have the honour to present to you today. Proud because we decided on an incredibly strong package of measures to benefit our families and our businesses, with a good balance between investing heavily now when needed while keeping the budget on track.
I will outline the concrete measures in a moment. But as an introduction, allow me to outline the broader context.
The world we live in is one of great contradictions.
On the one hand, many of us - despite everything - still enjoy great prosperity. At the same time, many people today are very anxious, fearful, worried.
I feel that worry, I understand the concerns of so many. Because I too am worried. I and the other members of the Government of Flanders are concerned as well. Very concerned.
About where the world is going. About Putin’s ever-increasing aggression.
About our energy bill.
About our health.
About our climate.
About the welfare and future of our children and our grandchildren.
We live in troubling times.
The world has become highly UNPREDICTABLE. Every day, we wake up to new events, to developments that until recently seemed impossible. After all, who would have thought last Christmas - when that deadly virus seemed to have been defeated... Who would have thought THEN that a real war was imminent in Europe?
Two years ago, I spoke in this hemisphere about the
“butterfly effect”. A butterfly - somewhere far away on this planet - stirs its wings and on the other side of the world, that flapping of wings eventually leads to a HURRICANE. That’s what happened with the coronavirus pandemic, which started with a bat in China.
Many thousands of people died in Flanders too, and a multitude of people fell ill. Numerous businesses closed down. There was a great deal of psychological distress.
The crisis we find ourselves in today started completely differently. This time, it was not a bat that lit the fuse, but a tyrant. Vladimir Putin invaded his neighbour Ukraine in the most heinous manner.
With a bang that was and continues to be heard as far away as Beijing, Washington, Berlin, and Flanders. A deafening bang. A terrible sound.
While we are not combatants, we are involved in this war. We have clearly sided with Ukraine. And Putin has responded to us by waging economic warfare.
Fortunately, no blood is being spilled in Flanders, although the people of Flanders are paying a high price nonetheless. In the form of insane energy bills and high retail prices.
We cannot ignore that. However, now is not the time to back down. To double down in the hope that we can return to the way things used to be. We cannot bow to tyranny. But we will have to pay a price for it.
Also typical of the world we live in is that everything is moving faster and faster. It may surprise you, but I would like to - exceptionally - quote the communist Lenin here:
“There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen”. Lenin was a terrible tyrant, but this quote holds truth.
The last few weeks, months and years have been dizzying. With significant consequences.
We are tumbling from one crisis into another. The banking crisis, the terrorism crisis, the refugee and migrant crisis, the Brexit crisis, the coronavirus crisis, the Ukraine crisis with yet another refugee crisis and now the energy crisis. It is making us all terribly anxious. I will address that anxiety later. But either way, we have to get through it. Being dissuaded or, worse, giving up is simply not in our Flemish dictionary.
As political leaders, answers are expected from us. It is up to us to serve and protect the people, the community, the nation. That is our job, that is our mission and indeed our damn duty. Today more than ever.
The energy crisis is very much a EUROPEAN crisis. Prices are high because supply is kept artificially low by Russia, which has totally disrupted the market mechanism. Fundamental solutions to high energy prices must come from EUROPE.
Flanders has insufficient resources to fully bear the increase in energy bills for households and businesses. It would take tens of billions of euros to fully reimburse everyone. Again, we simply cannot do this, bearing in mind that Flanders’ entire budget is about 60 billion. I say that honestly, but it is frustrating at the same time.
However, this in no way relieves us of the duty to help the most vulnerable, and support families and businesses. With the limited money and levers we do have at our disposal, and without unfairly burdening our future and that of our children.
Over the past few weeks and days, we have been working with the entire government, based on the latest data, to put together a package of measures that will bring some relief to the people of Flanders. This was extremely tough, as you know by now. I can and will tell you that every minister from every party did their best to reach a balanced agreement.
This is not about my ego. I know my ego has taken a few blows. What I endured here on Monday was painful. Painful because I realised I had to disappoint the people of Flanders. But the day after, you just get back up and continue to fight. So that’s what I did. I fought like a lion. I found partners who were also willing to fight like lions. All my ministers experienced difficult moments, but we invariably fought together because we felt we owed it to the people of Flanders, to our families, our children, our businesses... I want to thank you emphatically for that!
During the coronavirus crisis, we saw the importance of a sound budget. Thanks to the budget I inherited from the previous government, THIS Government of Flanders was able to take bold support measures for our citizens and businesses.
So after the coronavirus crisis, we immediately implemented a cost-cutting exercise, putting our budget back on a path to balance. As a result, even NOW, during this energy crisis, we are able to follow through.
I make it a matter of honour to in turn leave a sound legacy to my successors, allowing the next Governments of Flanders to cope with unpredictable crises.
When drawing up a budget, there are only a limited number of opportunities to release resources to address a crisis and support citizens.
First option: cut back on spending. Even after years of budget cuts, I recognise that we often still overspend. The Minister for Finance and Budget is now taking a hard look at certain subsidies.
But if we remain serious and do not resort to cheap slogans, we will have to admit that it will be insufficient to deal with this crisis.
The really big sums in the budget are in our education, welfare, and infrastructure. Are we going to cut back on education now, during this crisis?
Or make cuts on helping people with disabilities? Cut on care for our elderly? Of course not.
Second option: increase revenue by raising taxes. I presume very few are eager for that. The tax burden in this country is already among the heaviest in the world. In terms of government spending, we are the absolute leaders in Europe. And taxes always end up hitting the very group currently suffering: the middle class.
The only option left to us is to allow a deficit in the budget in the short term. So we will do just that. But what we certainly do NOT want is to offload today’s financial problems onto the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.
We therefore definitely want to maintain a path towards a balanced budget. We want to be a caring and responsible government.
Flemish resilience is an empty concept if we do not keep our household in order. Our international rating risks plummeting if we loosen the reins.
That is why this ruling coalition is making a sound budget its priority.
This is certainly not the best way to become popular as a politician, but someone has to have the courage to deliver this message. We must have the courage to act consistently. Ensure that books are balanced and our finances are managed wisely. This energy crisis will not be solved by printing additional money. On the contrary, inflation is precisely the problem.
It is that simple and at the same time that difficult. Some feel we should or could have taken the measures sooner. I do NOT agree with that.
The complexity of this crisis does not allow for hasty measures or trial and error. This crisis may well be more of a marathon. Long-distance runners know that you don’t win a race like this by sprinting from the start, but rather by using your strength in a measured way.
It seems to me that some underestimate the seriousness and depth of the challenges we face. We opted and are opting for thoughtful decisions, without a song and dance, or outside TV studios.
We are taking bold measures that fit into a sound budgetary framework.
Let’s get specific. We are presenting here today a EUR 4 billion package of measures.
EUR 4 billion in funds to help the people of Flanders get by, to pull them through. 4 billion in both one-off and annual measures until 2027. On top of that, we are allocating another billion in loans and guarantees to support our Flemish companies.
And at the same time, despite this considerable effort, we have managed to draw up a multi-year budget that will be balanced again possibly as early as 2026, but certainly by 2027. Despite the many crises. I thank my colleagues for helping make that possible.
The crisis measures we are taking now have one common thread. They are targeted AND social in nature. We are putting our money on the people who need our support right now! People who would be left without electricity due to acute payment problems. Large and small businesses that are currently sound, but could go bust because of energy bills.
We turned over every euro to ensure that every additional expense now ends up in the RIGHT place. Both with the people of Flanders and with the companies in real need.
Because it would be senseless and unfair to hand out money to people who don’t need it in this economic crisis. It would only make the crisis bigger and bigger, and the holes deeper and deeper.
However, those who work for a relatively modest wage and therefore do not benefit from a social energy tariff, on the other hand, do deserve our support!
Let me highlight a few key measures here in advance.
1. You know that we discussed the Growth Package, which is the former child benefit, for a long time. I can tell you that this discussion resulted in a very social set of measures. We will significantly strengthen the Growth Package.
- We will re-index the Growth Package at 2%.
- Every child entitled to a social benefit will get a bonus of EUR 100 both this year and the next!
- And from next year, we will increase the social benefit for those who already have it by EUR 180.
- On top of that, we are expanding the group of children entitled to such a benefit.
50,000 additional children will receive the benefit. This will allow us to give maximum support to parents who, despite working hard, are struggling to pay all their bills.
- 2. We do not want a single citizen of Flanders to be disconnected from the energy grid in this energy crisis. This arrangement already applied in the winter months, but we are extending this protection measure. There will be a ban on disconnections from November 1 to the end of April. We are also allocating over EUR 40 million to provide vulnerable households with a minimum supply of natural gas and electricity. We expect a tenfold increase in the number of customers who will use it (some 60,000 households). Through the energy centres, we will also relieve 20,000 families with payment problems and guide them towards better-maintained heating, resulting in lower bills. We also give the public social welfare centres and the centres for general welfare work extra resources to advise people. In addition, we have decided to remove the Flemish energy tax from electricity bills for singles and families from next year. This is yet another reduction in the Flemish component in the electricity bill.
- 3. We will invest an additional EUR 115 million every year from now on in the highly affected childcare sector to improve quality, better support childcare workers and strengthen the Flemish Care Inspectorate and our Growing Up Agency. As such, we offer a response to the legitimate question that came from the sector and to the recommendations of the parliamentary committee of enquiry. Having previously concluded a comprehensive industry agreement with the healthcare sector, we are now making additional targeted efforts. Through care budgets, we will also continue to invest in our older persons. We are increasing benefits for all people with high care needs and residents in residential care centres with low financial capacity.
- 4. Low-wage workers entitled to a job bonus will get an extra EUR 100 net in November, ON TOP of the amount already provided. For these people, that will make a substantial difference to offset some of the increased energy costs. Moreover, next year we will expand the target group of people entitled to such a bonus. The Flemish job bonus is an important tool to encourage more people to look for a job, and to minimise the unemployment and promotion trap. A job is still the best way to get and stay out of poverty.
5. We are giving people who rent housing a boost. Through the Flemish Housing Rental Decree, we are going to partially or fully block the indexation of rents of houses and flats that devour energy.
Landlords unwilling to make their properties energy efficient will not be able to pass on the rent index to their tenants.
We do NOT want tenants to bear the brunt of this energy crisis!
6. We will also keep a strong safety net ready for our businesses. The adage of the coronavirus crisis continues to apply: financially sound and well-run companies, which are in danger of going under as a result of the crisis, will receive fair support. We will enrol in the European State Aid Temporary Framework and provide EUR 250 million in grants to support companies that are highly energy-dependent. In addition, we earmark EUR 1 billion – a significant amount - for loans and guarantees. In exchange for this support, companies will not be permitted to pay dividends. We are also working with banks to shore up businesses.
7. Local governments are also having a difficult time in this energy crisis. The Government of Flanders will support them with many tens of millions.
This will enable them to deliver on their self-financing margin commitments by 2025.
8. Finally, EUR 200 million will be freed up to keep energy bills of schools, healthcare facilities and other public institutions affordable.
These crisis measures come on top of the EUR 1 billion we previously released, as part of our Flemish Resilience recovery plan, for subsidies and loans for home insulation and the installation of solar panels. The recently increased renovation loan (MijnVerbouwlening) and renovation subsidy (MijnVerbouwpremie), for which citizens of Flanders are signing up en masse, come to mind.
We are expanding the target group of people who can benefit from it.
We are also strengthening the Flemish Housing Fund by EUR 250 million to provide more social housing loans.
We make these efforts GLADLY and with full conviction, because this way we ensure that energy bills are structurally lowered, reduce our dependency on dubious foreign regimes and make efforts to counter climate change.
Consuming less energy is the key. We in the Flemish government, by the way, are also setting a good example:
- We set ourselves the target of consuming 15% less gas and electricity.
We will lower the temperature in buildings (which has already happened in many places), use hot water more efficiently and dim the atmospheric lighting of buildings and monuments. The small things matter.
- We will also continue to invest heavily in heat networks and green heat. And we are going to put solar panels on many more public buildings.
We in the Government of Flanders will continue to invest fully in the areas in which we have already made great strides in recent years. For instance, the Sigma Plan and the Blue Deal. Last summer already demonstrated the importance of that Blue Deal in our fight against drought. The Blue Deal will get an additional one-off EUR 150 million, the Sigma Plan EUR 60 million.
And then, of course, there is our education, where we are making tremendous efforts to significantly raise quality again. No easy task, given the huge shortage of teachers.
Many initiatives have already been taken to combat the shortage of teachers and these policies are starting to bear fruit. We will continue these policies and therefore let the education budget continue to grow structurally.
Specifically for pupil transport in special educational needs education, we have allocated an extra EUR 25 million per year structurally, plus EUR 10 million for bus attendants. Because it is unacceptable for children with disabilities to sit on a bus for hours.
We are also making an additional effort for the staff of the Flemish public administration. We are continuing the social dialogue on making the Flemish public administration more dynamic through a 5-track policy, without delay.
I realise only too well that we are far from solving all the problems of all people with these measures. That would be impossible. A terrible war is raging in the eastern part of Europe, threatening to become even more tragic. Nobody today knows how long this misery will last and what havoc will be wreaked in the war zone and far beyond.
The latest decisions by the Kremlin bosses look set to exacerbate the problems.
What Putin is doing is criminal and the Ukrainian people deserve all our support. The Russian aggressor must be defeated.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I return to the anxiety that we are all feeling. In an increasingly fast-moving world, there is a constant avalanche of information coming at us. Information that overwhelms us and of which it becomes increasingly difficult to discern what is true and what is false.
Over time, we no longer see what is good and what is beautiful. How good it is to be able to live here and to live in complete freedom. In a region with good schools and healthcare institutions, with sound businesses and hard-working people, with beautiful nature and wonderful culture.
Last Saturday, the finest museum in Flanders finally reopened after 11 years. It was mesmerising! I hope from the bottom of my heart that not only tourists from faraway countries will discover this museum to enjoy and taste so much beauty, but that the people of Flanders too will flock to it.
Everyone needs to see and experience it. Culture enriches and enhances our lives. Culture is our wealth, technology our future.
After all, dear colleagues, in terms of science and technology too, we are among the best in the world. It strikes me every time I am on a mission abroad: Flanders enjoys enormous renown; everywhere I meet people of Flanders who amaze the world with their expertise. Far more than we ourselves realise.
We must continue to invest in this, despite the crisis. In fact, I would reverse it: especially now, when the crisis is in full swing, we need to make our citizens and businesses resilient to future crises.
Give them opportunities to continue to excel, to amaze both Flanders and the world.
That’s why - after 25 years - a new version of the glorious Flanders Technology International is coming. The Government of Flanders will put its weight behind it.
The slightly older people among us remember FTI from the biennial technology fairs in Ghent; you probably remember the iconic logo of the two hands. These fairs, conferences, and events attracted hundreds of thousands of young people, old people, families, and schools.
Did you know, incidentally, that the 1970s and 1980s were similarly fraught with crisis?
A severe oil crisis, major economic problems, coupled with hyperinflation and many geopolitical tensions with the still-taut Iron Curtain. There was a lack of confidence in our own ability. THEN, too, technology contributed to solutions.
FTI made the people of Flanders believe in a better future. Successfully. And all thanks to the then proportionally composed Government of Flanders under the visionary leadership of Gaston Geens. Everyone cooperated!
Young people will discover FTI for the first time in the coming years, while older people will notice the new content. From now on, the “I” not only stands for “International” but also for “Innovation”.
Flanders Technology & Innovation. Through FTI, we are going to showcase ourselves as the world's technology laboratory, but we are also going to tackle major societal challenges. FTI will be an important community-building project; I invite you all to participate in it.
We already spend more than 3 per cent of our GDP on research and development. This puts us in the global vanguard. This Tuesday night, we will introduce FTI’s new approach. Everyone will be able to follow that online.
As political leaders, ladies and gentlemen, we bear a great responsibility. Even and especially now that things are difficult. Or as Steve Jobs aptly put it: “Innovation is the only way to win.”
We are facing tough times. The population demands decisiveness and leadership, but also cool-headedness and fortitude. It is really worrying when people in a democracy lose faith in the resolving ability of politics and governance.
Let us convince the doubters and the naysayers by bringing solutions, involving them, and by simply “doing”.
I ask and invite all parties in this hemisphere to cooperate, to participate.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The trick is not to discuss problems, but rather to solve them.
NATURALLY, political ideologies are bound to clash. NATURALLY, competition leads to better results. NATURALLY, sharp and bold position statements are needed.
But the people demand LEADERSHIP from politicians in times of crisis. Not the leadership of one person, not the leadership of one Minister, one Minister-President, of one Prime Minister. No, the leadership of all politicians of good will. Call it The Coalition of the Willing.
Because we will have to continue to act during periods of uncertainty. People do not know how much the next energy bill will be and whether they will still be able to pay it. Companies do not know how they can still control wage costs and what that will mean for their competitiveness.
With our measures and those of the federal government, we are going to help them.
Nobody knows how the situation in Ukraine will evolve and what the geopolitical consequences will be.
The world as we knew it is no more. And we, we will have to adapt.
The better nations are able to cope with - and are prepared for – crises, the stronger and more competitive they are. The answer to uncertainty is our decisiveness and our innovation. That is the ambition of the nation of Flanders.
The past few days have been anything but a pretty picture of how we want to govern Flanders, organise it, and move it forward. There were some harsh words and recriminations. Also to my person.
Some statements were insulting and demeaning. Everyone is free to choose their own personal style; I am not going to demean myself.
Besides, who I am as a person is irrelevant, as is my ego. I can take a punch, although I do worry about the coarsening of political mores. This does not serve our democracy. What does really matter, though, is the welfare, the happiness, the progress of the people of Flanders. That is why I got into politics, that is why I keep giving my all.
Now is the time to act on our FUTURE. “Luctor et emergo”. Literally translated, this means: “I struggle and overcome”.
Translated to here and now, I dare ask you: let us work together to overcome this crisis and work together for a better future.
So I ask you, representatives of the people of Flanders, to enable the robust package of support measures. Quickly and decisively. For the sake of the people of Flanders and with an ambitious look to our future. Thank you.