Foreign Correspondent: Belgium



Ghent, Belgium. In recent months, our politicians have tried at least twice to come up with a Belgian Watergate. It doesn't seem like they have succeeded yet. First came IBRAMCO. The province of Liege has long hankered after a local petroleum industry which would hopefully give them back some of the economic glory dying with their moribund coalfields. The project was touted around to all comers. Oil companies from different countries submitted schemes but dropped out afterwards, so the government decided to do a straight deal with the Iranians. The trouble, as it later turned out, was that only the socialist part of the coalition government knew about this. The others all thought "studying prospects" was the only thing agreed upon. The main storm, however, came when the statutes of IBRAMCO (Iranian-Belgian Refining and Marketing Company) were published in the official Gazette and it became clear that three socialists, including the Economics Ministry Secretary General, were on the board (as good dialecticians, the socialists in Belgium have always remarkably succeeded in making a "synthesis" out of "public" interests and their own). Additional protests came from the environment-minded Dutch, who didn't like the idea of a refinery close to their frontier and, naturally, from the petroleum sector, who rightly feared government "competition." In spite of all this, it seemed likely that IBRAMCO would get the green light until Iran suddenly announced that it was pulling out of the project.

The second "scandal" is of the more usual type. Allegations were made by a former Chief Engineer of the state-run telephone and telegraph administration (RTT) that several thousand million Belgian francs went into the pockets of private construction companies, when the RTT went straight to private contractors for several building projects instead of putting them out to tender. He claimed that the prices were considerably in excess of normal rates and that two companies in particular were involved, one of which had connections with a government minister. The Chief Engineer's allegations have been well substantiated in the meantime and one of the ministers involved (there are two, both socialists again) has been discharged. Still, the mess does not seem to have been cleaned up completely yet.

Elections were recently held here, the socialists having coolly decided to withdraw their support for IBRAMCO, after Iran announced it would pull out. The results indicated that the Belgian voter needs more than a few mini-Watergates to change his political adherence. The big "winner" indeed was the Christian Social Party, which gained five Chamber seats (total number of seats: 212), while no party lost more than two seats. The governmental repercussions may be more important, however. It is unlikely, at the moment I am writing this, that the three-party coalition will be resumed. A Christian-socialist coalition seems more probable, and since the socialists campaigned on a rather radical pro-nationalization and anti-big business platform, it looks like we won't have to worry about creeping socialism for some time: it will be galloping.

Since good politicians don't let prices rise during an election campaign, Belgium had (and still has at this moment) the lowest oil price in Western Europe. Result: the oil companies decided to cut supplies. Reaction from the government: they had to continue supplying the customers (no right to strike for capitalists). Additional result: customers, wanting to profit from the low prices, started buying more than they usually do, thus worsening the supplying problem. Intellectually, as an illustration of market economics, it was all very satisfying.

Some of the biggest political excitement here has developed around what may seem to be an insignificant problem: the closing hour of shops. Shopkeepers resenting (you guessed it) unfair competition from supermarkets, persuaded a parliamentarian to introduce a bill (which has become law in the meantime) imposing 8 p.m. as a compulsory closing hour for shops and supermarkets (most supermarkets used to be open until 9 p.m.—an additional hour which makes a big difference for a lot of people who work at the office or factory during the day). The reaction from the supermarkets was vehement, although unsuccessful: the bill was rushed through Parliament, together with 25 other ones, some of which also about important matters, the day before parliamentary recess. This fact, incidentally, may illustrate to what degree the parliamentary system in Belgium has simply become a farce.

Another scandal, although no one calls it that way, is that from this year on, the daily press will be subsidized by taxpayers' money. Some 25,000 dollars will be used, an amount to be doubled next year. Once again, our clever socialists originated the scheme: their newspapers are so uninteresting to read (consisting partly of pure party propaganda) that even many working-class people prefer a "bourgeois" paper. So in order to preserve a "democratic choice of different view points" something had to be done. And so, dear readers, as usually happens when somebody says that something ought to be done by someone, it's the taxpayers who will have to pay something for it.

Mogens Glistrup, the Danish antitax lawyer, whose "Progressive Party" is on the rise, seems to have become very popular with American libertarians. Anyone who is against taxes can't be all bad, but still I am skeptical about a man whose "defense" program consists in a proposal for establishing a telephone answering service saying "we capitulate." Meanwhile, Mr. Glistrup's Norwegian alter ego, Anders Lange, recently captured 4 of the 150 parliamentary seats there.

On a practical note: I am trying to arrange a correspondence network between American libertarians and Europeans (not European libertarians, as the Society for Individual Liberty wrote, although the purpose, of course, is to make them so). So if you want to follow the example of your venerable executive editor, Lynn Kinsky, who has already bravely volunteered, write to me, Guy de Maertelaere, c/o Hugo Vandeputte, Drongensteenweg 230, B 9000 Ghent, Belgium, adding as much information about yourself as possible and mentioning at least your main points of interest, your favorite libertarian thinker and whether you are for anarchism or limited government. Most Europeans participating will probably be radical leftwingers, some of them even anarchists (not anarcho-capitalists, of course).

Some juridical wisdom to end: Supermarket thieves were acquitted recently because, so the judge decided, "The abundance of publicity as well as the way the goods are presented constitute as many almost irresistible temptations." Who says better?