The recent elections in Belgium and in Europe have clearly shown a strong divide within the European population which appears more and more to be an expression of a profound insecurity, even fear for the future, and a lack of trust in the current political class with the European voters. If we look at Belgium, in Flanders for example this led to a significant vote for right wing and extreme right parties. The more extremist of those two parties fielded a more socially conscious program for the very first time while also adapting their tone to be a bit softer, without really changing the underlying message. They are looking for the perception of respectability. The Green Party, which had expected to see a major breakthrough in Flanders, failed to live up to the expectations, except in some of the cities. Losers were all government parties, with the Christian Democrats getting the worst beating in recent history. The losses of the other parties, and lose they did, seemed small in contrast to what appeared to be a full collapse of traditional base which stood for more than 100 years. One thing is clear … the support for the center is thinning.
In Wallonia and Brussels, votes mainly went to the other side of the spectrum. Both Greens and extreme left parties won, again thinning the support for the center.
So the question becomes, now what? Give in to the extremists? But to which ones, the left or the right? To what end in the long term? Because that is assuming the electorate voted for extremism, while it seems a lot more likely they voted against an established political class they no longer feel connected to.
In my opinion, there is a responsibility for a political class to stand up, to listen, to understand and to act. But to act how? Let’s take a look at the basics.
What most people want
Contrary to belief in some circles, all people do not aim for world domination. I’ve had the pleasure to speak to many a taxi driver in quite a few cities around the world, and the story usually goes along these lines: life here for a taxi driver is difficult, but it’s better here than it was there (wherever here or there is, there being where they can from or were before), we are feeling safe and we make ends meet. We can create and maintain something. We are working to allow our children to have a better future. On occasion, there is even more pride when a child is going to college, often the first child of their family to do so.
And that is what most people want: they want a safe life which is less of a struggle than it was before, and the possibility to create something for future generations. Because in the end, most of us love our children and want them to have a good life.
What we see around us
Given those objectives, what do we see around us? We see a climate of fear. There is fear of the other, whomever the other may be, because he will come and take away our privileges. There is a strong fear of the future, because quite a few of us believe the future is likely to be worse than it currently is. We don’t see any real solution to this crisis, which is fundamentally a crisis of faith in human resourcefulness. What we are all very aware of is that our politicians don’t have any of the answers either. Which explains votes for clownesque figures such as Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson in the UK. We still desperately want to believe someone can make it better, can restore what was.
We see first sparks of a forward-thinking, more progressive movement, but those fail except for some brave souls that chain themselves to whatever edifice is closest and most visible. In Belgium, Youth for Climate chained themselves across the road next to the parliament. Result: traffic jams and even more pollution in the Brussels’ skies. But at least they actively make themselves heard.
The question then becomes … what are we going to do about it? Is there a need for an external shove (a “revolution”), or can we work based of the existing structures (an “evolution”)? And while the pirate in me loves the idea of a good push to the system, we need to recognise that given the time left to us to act decisively – read, about 15 years, a projection which is regularly being revised downwards – we cannot but use the existing systems and structures to course correct.
Any solution will need to be credible at different levels as well as sustainable over the longer term. We cannot just shout out ideas because we believe they will generate traction and votes (clownesque, see above) … ideas will need to be considered and explained, and feasible at both technical and financial levels. In other words, story telling time is over. Now it’s about getting and staying real. Ideally, we need a parliament that is free from party-imposed bonds and has the capacity and capability to critically and transparently challenge everything. Or, to quote Reagan quoting a Russian saying: “Trust, but verify.”
So, who is going to do this?
But whom to trust? Whom to verify? Who is going to take this in hand? We need to unite committed, credible and engaged elected officials, hence some type of politician (hence “evolution” instead of “revolution”), to commit to this work. Ideally they need to work together in the context of a platform built on three axes: green, socially conscious and liberal. Why these three elements?
A green platform puts the current main challenge, the environment, front and center of the debate. Which is where it should be. We cannot ignore that if we do not solve the climate challenge in the coming years, a significant portion of the world’s population will die. They will not just die, they will fight to avoid dying, as we all would. It is even more likely our children or our children’s children will have a lower likelihood to survive and grow old than we currently have. Solving such an enormous problem will require sacrifices, from everyone. Silver lining: if we do this right, I actually believe life for all of us will get better instead of worse. Perhaps less abundant, but better.
But the only way to onboard everyone in an ambitious green agenda is to ensure that we even the odds for everyone, not just for us. And that means making additional sacrifices, mainly for the privileged few. Then again, what is the difference between very rich and a little less rich … we need to build mechanisms which correct for improper imbalances but without making these mechanisms themselves too costly or too difficult to maintain. So, no overly large government structures watching our every move and our behaviour in a Big Brotherly-like fashion. Because, dark cloud, that would make life actually a lot worse. For the young ones, go read Orwell’s 1984. And while you’re at it, read this recent LA Times article on why Orwell’s book remains relevant. Now, to avoid all that and make sure we don’t all go broke in the process, we need the third component.
A platform needs to be liberal. Liberal in the strict sense of the word: freedom of the individual, but not at all costs. Neoliberals tend to forget the part right after the comma. A liberal approach allows other structures, such as governments, to intervene only when self-regulation does not function or fails to do the job.
Given the number of joint business-NGO initiatives I’ve seen developing over the past few months, such as the Belgian sustainability network The Shift and its projects, I believe that such collaborations, combined with an increase in transparency via social media, can provide an effective manner of monitoring. That said, I don’t think the invisible hand exists, there always need to be aware, informed and committed people behind it to give policies an overall direction.
I also advocate for a liberal dimension to a new, centrist, progressive platform because I know that a liberal accent ensures that budget deficits don’t explode or that solutions implemented are financially reasonably realistic. We of course need the right liberals. Real ones. Not kind of neo-liberals which forget the part after the comma (see above.)
Those taking such an initiative need credibility. This is why I hope to count people such as Frank Vandenbroucke among them. The people need to believe that what such a platform proposes, makes sense at both the financial and at the operational feasibility level. Because the platform needs to propose solutions which are concrete, feasible in the short, medium and long term but also some quick wins to solidify support. To be seen as part of an answer.
Such a platform therefore also needs both a clear long term vision and agility of those charged with the implementation of that vision to develop, implement, fail, learn and iterate fast. We don’t have the luxury of time, but we do have the luxury of having a lot of good experts in this country.
And finally, such a platform needs to be sustainable. When at the first sign of success, political parties start to fight to get as much political credit as possible, that will not bode well for any longer term mutual engagements. The only real way to build such a sustainable platform is with a lot of trust between the participants. Trust (and we’re not going to go into details about this, but we can and will revisit) is based on four factors:
- Trust is inversely related to exposure to risk: the higher the risk exposure, the lower the baseline trust is … and because we are all very exposed, we will need a lot of other factors to counterbalance the risk exposure;
- Trust is a function of intimacy: we trust people we know well more than we trust people we don’t know. The platform needs to work permanently on developing the relationship between the people involved;
- Trust is also a function of subject matter knowledge: we trust people we deem specialists more than we trust novices. This is why we trust doctors.
- Trust is finally a function of experience: while often intimately related to subject matter knowledge (you build knowledge by working in the knowledge area) they are not the same: especially in newer fields, experience is less of a factor than depth of immersion of the expert. In other fields, experience is essential because the experienced person knows what works and what doesn’t.
Such a platform needs to be accountable and to be held accountable. Interestingly enough, we have the means and the experience to actually implement such an accountability. We just need to apply them to the reality in front of us.
Prior to any policy choices being made, regulation impact assessments, or RIA’s, will need to be made. Real RIA’s, not the fig leaves being used at ministerial councils in Belgium right now. A true RIA starts when the thinking about a policy starts, and assesses all possible impacts and all possible alternatives. We need to know what is likely to happen, and not leave that to chance or gut feeling.
Any implemented solution needs to be measured as well, at two levels. First, we need to assess whether the intended outcome objectives were reached. Where output has little relevance in an agile context, we need to make sure that what we set out to do, was really achieved. Did we reach the outcome. This experience exists as well, in development aid.
And finally, even with achieved outcomes we need to assess over the longer term whether the identified and sought after impacts were achieved. Impact assessments as a tool and a technique exist as well, and have been for years, for example in development aid. We just need to repurpose them.
Enforcing policy relevance by excluding failed politicians
There is a very simple rule that can be applied to ensure that policy relevance is optimised: in case outcome and impact objectives are missed by a certain percentage, the political owners cannot stand for reelection.
An election would then become an assessment, by the people, of the level of ambition, but only those who can realise their ambitions get the chance to run again.
We are missing a balanced middle. I don’t think such a middle should be a political party, but it could well be a platform of likeminded politicians. I believe the focus should be on socially conscious, green and liberal aspects, with clear systems that allow for measurement as to goal achievement. And while we will all have to do with less, I am not sure that is actually going to negatively impact our lives. It actually may give each of us more time for the other … and increase our mutual quality of life.