The challenges of the Flemish government: children, farmers, energy and water
With the 2024 elections in sight, the last political year of the current Flemish Government is about to begin. And there are still some big dossiers on the table. With the nitrogen dossier, the decision on the Ventilus high-voltage line and the growing energy bill, the pressure rises, while there is hardly any money available.
Next month, the government will start discussing the budget for 2023. According to the latest estimate, the budget deficit will be at least 1.7 billion euros in 2023. The government now faces a difficult exercise. Where to invest and where to save? On 26 September, the result of that exercise will be presented in the September Declaration by Prime Minister Jan Jambon before Parliament.
The farmers or the children
One of the pressing choices is between support for agriculture or social support. Last year, the government decided that the basic amount of the growth package, the former child allowance, would no longer be indexed annually by 2% but by 1%. The CD&V wants to see that scaled back. Furthermore, earlier this year, after some scandals, the Government received recommendations from the enquiry commission on childcare. The quality must be improved, the number of children per supervisor must be reduced and there must be a place for every child. That sector is also begging for money.
"I also continue to find it absurd that we find it normal that a place for every child is guaranteed at school, but not in childcare," says Hannes Anaf of the socialist opposition party Vooruit. "I also hope that the funding for the growth package will be increased, but even the 2 percent will not be enough to cover the increase in the cost of living. In fact, the child benefit should follow the health index again, like it used to."
But in all likelihood, the government will have to choose: budget for the child benefit or budget for a revision of the nitrogen agreement.
Earlier this year, the government decided that some forty red farms would be forced to close by 2025. These are farms that, due to the combination of their location and their emissions, have a significant impact on the nature in their vicinity. A whole series of other farms will have to invest heavily in order to remain open.
Almost 19,000 letters of objection were lodged against the draft agreement. CD&V has traditionally had strong ties with farmers and in Jo Brouns chose a new minister who, with his local background, has a great affinity with the sector. Brouns wants to take the objections into account. "I am going to thoroughly look at the 19,000 objections that have been received together with Minister Demir," he said in an interview with Het Laatste Nieuws on 25 August. And: "We have to meet the targets for nitrogen reduction, but the road towards them needs to be debated - with the farmers."
Another minefield for CD&V is Ventilus. This new high-voltage line in West Flanders is intended to bring offshore wind energy on land, but has for years been met with protest in a number of municipalities. The mayors of the municipalities involved and a number of action groups are working to get the lines underground. But according to the appointed intendant, Guy Vloebergh, this is virtually impossible. In his report, he clearly prefers an above-ground line.
The decision was postponed again in July, at the last council of ministers before the recess. This summer, new bilateral discussions were held with the mayors concerned, who were given the prospect of additional flanking measures. Prime Minister Jambon promised in July that a final decision would be taken in September. "The parliamentary majority for an above-ground solution is there, so what does CD&V need to make the turn?
A dossier that all governments in the country will have on their plates after the summer is the energy bill. After all, Flanders also has an impact here, with a series of its own levies on gas and electricity bills. Earlier this year, the government decided to pay out EUR 1.2 billion less in green energy certificates to large investors over the next ten years. This will allow the bill to come down a little.
The opposition parties continue to press for drastic measures to insulate Flemish homes in the short term. For example, Vooruit and Vlaams Belang are in favour of pre-financing. The government would then pay for the renovation and the consumers would pay back with the money they save on their energy bills.
In the somewhat longer term, according to environmental associations, after the energy crisis and the nitrogen crisis, a water crisis is lurking around the corner. Today, the European quality standard is only met in one of the 195 Flemish waterways. In principle, all watercourses should be compliant by 2027, but that is no longer feasible. A court ruling could lead to a blockade of new economic activities, just as happened with nitrogen in the Netherlands - and not so much in Flanders.
© Flemish minister president Jan Jambon and Flemish minister of Environment, Energy, Tourism and Justice Zuhal Demir pictured during a working visit to Moelingen, Voeren, Saturday 16 July 2022.