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The poor should just sweat it out, says the N-VA

Thanks to the calculations of the Planning Bureau, the election campaign has finally ended in reality. The electoral battle can now leave the irrational delusion behind and focus on the questions that really matter. Which population group will pay the bill for the budget deficit is one such question. It is the Planning Bureau’s merit that, unlike Vlaams Belang and the MR, among others, it continues to focus on the budgetary emergency. But the Planning Bureau does not answer the question of who will pay for the inevitable savings and whether those groups have sufficient capacity to do so.

Until recently, the question of capacity was almost taboo at most government institutions. There were no concrete and solid figures about the very unequal distribution of wealth, not even at the Planning Bureau. During the previous elections (2019), it had to give a forfeit when it had to calculate the possible proceeds of a millionaire tax. In recent months, every effort has been made to complete the job.

The result can still be improved. It is clear that the Planning Bureau is entering unknown territory here and fears a minefield. For example, it underestimates the absolute top assets – a blow to the PVDA, which only targets the 1 percent – and it probably overestimates the reaction of the millionaires. However, the most important question is not answered: which households have sufficient reserves and resilience to cover the budget deficit? That is surprising, because we have more insight into the financial capacity of Belgian and Flemish households than ever before.

It would be useful if the Planning Bureau looked beyond the budget deficit and also calculated the social impact of the restructuring programs. Which group is spared and which is roasted? It is nice to know that the N-VA will reduce the deficit to “only” 3.6 percent of GDP in 2029, but even more important is that the blunt ax of the party will hit the most vulnerable in society. As if Charles Woeste, the conservative godfather who denounced Priest Daens at the beginning of the last century, has risen from the dead.

Mark Elchardus, who recently became a militant nationalist, has just dusted off a threadbare killer. While he underlined the growing importance of the fault line between nationalists and cosmopolitans in this electoral battle, he minimized the contradiction between left and right. “It is less clear what still distinguishes the socio-economic left and right.” Elchardus wrote this three days after the N-VA had come up with a plan that showed the opposite. The party that constantly honks its horn about a warm Flemish community has served up a right-wing remedy that destroys the basic principles of a solidary society.

The next government, the N-VA proposes, must commit to saving 21 billion euros. More than half of this restructuring should take place in social security. In addition to a drastic brake on healthcare expenditure, living wage earners and the unemployed in particular are being targeted. Both groups would have to swallow five index jumps. While the rich 1 percent is allowed to continue drinking undisturbed – the N-VA rejects any new tax that targets their wealth – the bottom of society is being put on rations. If that plan becomes reality, many people will fall below the poverty threshold again.

That is also the intention, De Wever is not shy about it. At the press conference where the package was presented, he was clear: “They have to sweat it out.” It would show decency if De Wever apologized for those ominous words. The same contempt with which Hillary Clinton once insulted the “deplorables” can be found when the top of the N-VA talks about benefit recipients: they are sweat thieves who derail the budget because they have nestled comfortably in the unemployment trap.

That trap exists. If some people are better off on benefits than with a minimum wage job, then something is wrong. You either increase the minimum wages or cut benefits. The N-VA chooses the latter, because it is good for the treasury. The fact that the least wealthy are being blamed for the unemployment trap through index jumps illustrates how tough and ruthless conservative nationalism currently is.

Less than 5 percent of Belgian households consist of unemployed or subsistence earners. They are in the basement of the wealth pyramid and at the slightest setback they are in danger of going under. You have to activate and encourage that group, not smoke it out. At the same time, sparing the club of the 1 percent, which accounts for approximately 20 percent of Belgian wealth and with portfolios between 5 million and 5 billion euros, illustrates the advance of the new morality: the winner takes it all.

Paul Goossens is a European journalist. His column appears biweekly on Fridays.

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