The De Croo government calls on eight experts to find answers to the crisis. Objective: to break taboos. This mode of management, inspired by the pandemic or the pension reform, has advantages. But this is no panacea.
We are now governed by the experts. The inflation crisis could be managed in the same way as the covid pandemic, with a delegation of powers from politics to academics, at least to advise them. On April 28, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo set up a group of eight economic experts – comparable to the “Gems” of the health crisis – to “provide the government with recommendations and concrete courses of action to make in the face of inflation and economic challenges related to the war in Ukraine”.
We are now governed by the experts. The inflation crisis could be managed in the same way as the covid pandemic, with a delegation of powers from politics to academics, at least to advise them. On April 28, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo set up a group of eight economic experts – comparable to the “Gems” of the health crisis – to “provide the government with recommendations and concrete courses of action to make in the face of inflation and economic challenges related to the war in Ukraine”. Alexander De Croo’s promise? There will be no taboos. “Experts will be able to work with an open vision,” he says. It is a way of overcoming divisions to dare discussions that we know to be explosive on the automatic indexation of salaries, in particular. But the risk of encommissioning is not excluded. Many players also point out that the crisis and its potential remedies have been known since the beginning of the year. But politicians are slow to act. “These are not easy discussions,” says Bertrand Candelon, professor of economics at UCLouvain, one of the experts called to the table. Chaired by Pierre Wunsch, Governor of the National Bank, the group also includes Mathias Dewatripont (ULB), Philippe Defeyt (ex-Ecolo, UNamur), Paul De Grauwe (London School of Economics), Koen Schoors (UGent), Sarah Vansteenkiste ( KU Leuven), Bertrand Candelon (UCLouvain) and Sofie Geeroms (BeCommerce online business association). So many personalities whose names have been put forward by the seven parties of the federal coalition. Plenaries are currently taking place. A report must be filed at 16 rue de la Loi by July 1 at the latest. The experts were asked for discretion regarding their work. Bertrand Candelon summarizes their mission: “The Prime Minister asked us to think about the price of energy, how we could compensate for the loss of purchasing power, but also to consider the need to preserve the competitiveness of our companies. Inflation is an important factor, we know the risks that a wage-price spiral can generate. The situation is particular in Belgium with automatic indexation. Inflation is also largely fueled by the explosion in the cost of energy and the question arises whether it will be transitional or long – the Prime Minister has hinted that it will be long. We have to take all these parameters into account”. The expert does not evade the comparison with the Gems, the group of specialists brought together to face the health crisis. “That’s kind of the idea. The government wanted to rely on experts beyond the political parties. I don’t have a map! I take the time to consult colleagues at European level to feed the reflection, there are certainly policies from which we can draw inspiration.” Will it really be without taboos? “There are bound to be different sensitivities around the table, recognizes Bertrand Candelon. But in academic circles, a series of consensuses are being reached on fundamental ideas, for example the fact of not carrying out an austerity policy in a period of crisis. That said, we are not the ones who are going to decide, necessarily. We will make certain proposals, we will formulate certain questions, but it will remain for politicians to decide. Mathias Dewatripont (ULB), another member of the group, reminded RTBF that having recourse to groups of experts is standard practice in other countries, particularly in Scandinavia. “In Sweden, they made a lot of proposals, reforms, including budgetary procedures, etc. When you even look at Europe… the monetary union… it was still strongly nourished by the work of economy. So I think there are, in fact, a lot of examples where this kind of group can have influence. It’s a way of informing the debate and thereby perhaps partly of dispassionate, even if we agree that there will be very distributive questions in there. And therefore not everyone will agree. “I think it’s a good idea to have such a scientific council with different sensitivities, approves Bruno Colmant, professor at ULB and UCLouvain. It’s good to allow experts to think by taking long time.” Beyond this positive opinion, this sniper adds, however, that he is probably not part of it himself … because he has “too free speech”. For months, Bruno Colmant has been sounding the alarm about the disastrous effects of the war in Ukraine, which could result in “generalized impoverishment”. I anticipate that inflation could be 12% in December compared to December 2021, he tells us. Distributors mention the possibility that certain basic products – such as milk or bread – will increase by 20%. This inflation is essentially of an energy nature. Since it is linked to an external shock, there are not many ways to thwart it. The real question, to which the experts will very quickly arrive, is to know how the index is composed or at what rate wage increases are expected. It is a question of knowing if we replace the percentages by cents.” Energy is part of the constrained expenses, underlines the economist, inflation therefore affects low and middle incomes more strongly. The answers will have to take this into account. “The employers are asking that this automatic indexation be postponed. This has already been the case, in part, due to the decision to reduce VAT on energy. Dismantle the system? It doesn’t seem like a good idea to me since it’s a founding element of the social consensus in this country.” Touching on the foundations of our social balances: that’s how explosive the experts’ mission is. “This group is comparable to Gems for the management of covid, but also to the commissions created to prepare tax or pension reform, testifies Jean Hindriks, president of the Economics School of Louvain, who was one of the latter. We try to come up with new ideas, to launch trial balloons. It’s good to work with our own collective expertise, it’s a good alternative to the French McKinsey approach.” A reference to the scandal caused by our neighbors’ use of the consulting firm, with hundreds millions, by the government of Emmanuel Macron.” The citizens generally appreciated the way in which the covid crisis was managed, continues Jean Hindriks. This makes it possible to dismantle misconceptions, to put certain scales of value back in their proper place. There is educational work to be done in addition to the ability to identify new solutions. The questions of purchasing power and competitiveness are very closely linked, it’s a good working basis. We could have added the energy transition and the climate issue, but I am sure that the appointed experts will not miss this obvious fact.” On the strength of his experience in advising the government, the economist insists: “To avoid disillusionment , I insist on the need to set up a center of expertise to carry out simulations. This requires access to the Crossroads Bank for social security, pension data, household income… The Planning Office can also play a role. The previous times, it remained managed by the political cabinets. Was this a way of padlocking the debates? I would not impugn my intentions, but it could give that impression.” Simulating is all the more important since it may be necessary to force major socio-economic shifts. “Such calculations make it possible to objective the proposals. This may demonstrate that the effects are not as dramatic as expected. Misconceptions can be dismantled. The model is the Institute of Fiscal Studies in the United Kingdom. This is essential because these questions are complex.” Jean Hindriks calls this “the hygiene of decision-making.” Is it really hygienic? Jean Faniel, director general of the Center for Socio-Political Research and Information (Crisp), is less convinced. “By supporting the appointment of experts, without them necessarily being inserted of course, the parties of the majority control the process – or in any case maintain it in a logic of the coalition, he tells us. It would not have been the same if there had been experts commissioned by DéFI, the PTB, the N-VA or the Belang. The objective of such a mission must be to broaden the debate, perhaps even to go beyond it. I don’t mean that all of this is a joke, but the experts themselves risk suffering from the way this is carried out. We must also prevent this way of delegating the decision-making process from becoming a form of entrustment. At the start of the inflationary wave, we saw how much the government initially suggested that it was perhaps temporary…” According to the political scientist, the very composition of the groups is “striking”. “In the case du Gees, who succeeded the Gems to manage the exit from the pandemic, there was a representative of the bosses in the person of Johnny Thijs, another representative of the bosses, more social certainly, in the person of Céline Nieuwenhuys. On the other hand, there were no trade unionists. When Alain Destexhe (former deputy MR, editor’s note) wrote a book to denounce the unions as being the most powerful lobby in Belgium, one wonders what the others are. Because the results of the unions, over the past 10 years, are not folichon.” According to the director general of Crisp, the unions have reason to complain of being bypassed in this way by the experts: “Historically, since 1944, the social balance was between trade unions and employers. In 1996, when he negotiated the law on competitiveness, Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene tried to involve the social partners after the Global Plan, but it did not work. The modification of this law by the Michel government, in 2017, remains across the throat of the unions. This process could confirm their sidelining.” It’s a way of overcoming their reluctance. “The risk, when you want to depoliticize the discussion, is that you end up in a form of Tina , ‘there’s no alternative’, believes Jean Faniel. If the experts arrive at funnel-shaped choices, it is difficult to take another direction.” If the Gems of the health crisis are a model, he must, in the eyes of the political scientist, be invoked with caution. “On the In terms of health, Belgium unfortunately remains poorly placed in the rankings of deaths linked to covid. At the economic level, a series of stabilizers have allowed the economy to stay afloat, but there have still been mistakes with respect to certain sectors. From a democratic point of view, we cannot say that this has helped to strengthen trust with citizens.” Be careful, experts are not necessarily oracles.