Belgium has dropped to 18th in the rankings this year as an improvement in the Education sub-index is offset by a drop in both the Digital and Government sub-indices. With Belgian politics in limbo after federal and regional elections, a population that appears more polarised than ever, and a national strike over pay and working conditions that brought the country to a standstill earlier this year, it is no wonder why Belgium’s score on the Government sub-index has taken a hit. Despite being a hub for European institutions, think-tanks, and NATO’s European Headquarters, Belgium has still not been able to re-enter the top ten for Engagement, hindered by its relatively small diplomatic network. The lure of Belgian culture is nevertheless high as it was ranked 2nd among the EU-28 countries in tourism growth in 2018. Its historic cities continue to attract tourists and its sport industry continues to perform well as excitement builds around the national football team. Belgium’s Africa Museum, reopened in December 2018, should also offer a huge draw after five years of renovation has turned a symbol of colonialism into an eye-opening critique of Belgian colonial rule.
Brussels is still the stage for numerous crucial negotiations and meetings as Brexit discussions rumble on and a new European Commission takes office. All eyes will be on Brussels as Ursula Von Der Leyen and her team take the reins on 1 November, setting the tone for the next five years. If the Commission can reinvigorate a union that has been fraying at the edges, Belgium’s central role in the international sphere is guaranteed for many more years to come.
The Digital sub-index is a weak point for Belgium. Belgium’s financial sector lobby group recently announced their dismay at the fact that 63% of Belgian transactions are still made in cash, well behind other EU nations. So desperate are they for the “cashless revolution”, they designated 11 May as “Digital Payment Day”. Whether this catches on remains to be seen.
Belgium needs to shed its political immobility to move up the Government sub-index. This will not be easy for the country that achieved a spot in Guinness World Records for the longest time without a government in peacetime (541 days). The art of compromise will also be key in another area. The Belgians need to use their convening power to encourage a Brexit deal that avoids serious economic repercussions. Predictions that Belgium’s economy would contract by nearly 1% and that Belgians would become poorer if Britain crashes out of the European Union would risk causing Belgium’s Enterprise score to fall out of the top 20.