Belgian citizens' assembly recommends reform of party funding

25. May 2023
We need to talk

34 recommendations on the reform of party financing in Belgium are the result of a citizens' assembly on the subject. On 24 May 2023, all the recommendations of the 60 randomly selected citizens were presented to the Parliamentary Committee on Constitution and Institutional Renewal.

The assembly participants are of the opinion that every party should be able to have sufficient funds to fulfil its social tasks. However, they should also abide by some rules in doing so. These include restrictions to prevent waste and the accumulation of excessive reserves. Other proposals: An annual cap on spending on social media advertising and a clear definition of what parties can and cannot spend their money on. A balanced distribution of state funding between large and small parties is considered more important by the assembly members than the amount of funding.

More transparency and control

The Citizens' Assembly is also in favour of more transparency and external control: the parties' income and expenditure should be visible on an online platform. The audit of party accounts should be carried out by an independent body, for example by an external audit body with independent experts or by giving the Court of Audit additional powers.

In order to introduce new ideas into the political debate, new parties should be able to apply for basic funding under strict conditions. If a new party collects more than 50,000 signatures, it should thereby be entitled to a "start-up grant". If a party reaches 50,000 votes in a national election but does not win a seat, it should also receive basic funding until the next election.

"Now it's the politicians' turn"

"All the puzzle pieces for reform are on the table. The citizens' appeal is clear: now it's the politicians' turn. This deserves follow-up," says Alicja Gescinska, spokesperson for the citizens' dialogue project "We need to talk".

The assembly participants formulate clear expectations. The panel has worked hard," says participant Julia Dora (16): "We really want the politicians to react to it and work with it. It would be a shame if the whole thing ended up in a drawer."

"Take our recommendations seriously"

Participant Jan (62) "still believes in a democracy where parties have an important role to play. Of course, they need effective means to do so. But I miss transparency in how these means contribute to the functioning of our democracy". He concludes with an appeal: "Take our recommendations seriously and also see this as an important step towards citizen participation in politics."

Annelies Verlinden, Minister of the Interior, Institutional Reforms and Democratic Renewal, received the participants of the citizens' assembly on 25 May 2023. The youngest and oldest of the participants handed over the report to here. The Minister thanked them for their remarkable work. "I hope you will convince parliamentarians to move the subject forward and I will facilitate this work if necessary. The debate is very topical. Party financing is a subject that can help restore trust between politicians and citizens", Verlinden said.

Reform of party funding politically deadlocked

In Belgium, the reform of party funding is politically deadlocked. A group of think tanks and the citizens' platform G1000 have therefore jointly launched the citizens' debate "We Need To Talk". They hope that the citizens can get the debate going.

Belgian political parties receive more than 75 million euros in subsidies every year. In practice, this amount is even twice as high, as a recent study by the KU Leuven has shown, because the parliamentary party staff, who are paid by the parliament, in reality often work for the parties. The actual subsidy thus amounts to 160 million euros.

80 percent of the parties' income comes from state subsidies. In relation to the number of voters, Belgian parties receive twice as much tax money as their German, Danish or Swedish counterparts and four times as much as Dutch parties.

Belgian parties are rich

Compared to other countries, Belgian parties have a lot of money. This is shown by the large amounts the parties spend annually on advertising in social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Belgian parties spent a record €5 million on social media advertising in 2022, making the country the European champion. There are seven Belgians in the top 10 European politicians with the highest social media spending.

The idea behind this is that in this way parties are not dependent on corporate donations and thus do not become vulnerable to corruption. However, experts have long warned that the system has gone too far.

"Money influences parties' actions"

"All the money, of course, influences the actions of the parties," says writer and philosopher Alicja Gescinska, a spokesperson for the project. "Instead of doing politics, they are permanently campaigning. As a result, the importance of election results has greatly increased. They determine not only how many seats you win, but also how much money you can earn."

The government under Prime Minister Alexander De Croo set out to reform party funding in its coalition agreement, but this reform has stalled. All parties agree that something has to change, but not on what the new system should look like.

Breaking the deadlock

This was also evident on 1 February 2023 in the parliamentary constitutional committee dealing with party funding. A committee of experts had submitted a report with proposals at the end of 2022. Nevertheless, the committee had decided to hold new hearings.

With the initiative "We Need To Talk", a group of think tanks and organisations, including Itinera, the Friday Group, the Egmont Institute and David Van Reybroeck's G1000, want to break the deadlock through a citizens' debate.

"Take a different approach"

"It's time to take a different approach. If politicians can't get out of their own way, we should ask citizens how to proceed," reads the Citizens' Debate website. Citizens have something to say, especially today, it says. "They don't have to take into account political strategies and elections, so they can think freely and make proposals. Besides, political parties in Belgium are largely financed by taxpayers' money. Doesn't it make sense then that citizens should have a say in how they are financed?" they argue.

Everyone recognises that the system needs to be changed," the organisations state. "Some parties have such large assets that they invest part of their funds in real estate or on the stock market. There is practically no independent control of party funding. Council of Europe experts have been criticising our country in this respect for years." The current regulations are more than 30 years old, it says.

All citizens could participate

In the first phase of the citizens' debate, all citizens could contribute. Through the online platform Rhetoric, interested people were able to express their opinions on proposals such as "Political parties should be allowed to invest their money in the stock market" and "Companies should be able to donate money to political parties" until 24 March 2023.

The responses served as input for the citizens' jury, which met from 25 March to 14 May 2023. 16,200 randomly selected people have received an invitation for this. In the end, 60 citizens were left to deliberate over three weekends on how political parties should be financed. They received all the information they need to do this from independent experts, exchange views with the political parties to hear their views and be informed about what moves the general public.

Political scientists Bart Maddens (KU Leuven), Jean Faniel (CRISP) and Ingrid van Biezen (Leiden University) provided information to the citizens' jury. Political parties were also be able to have their say.

Discussion in small groups

After the information phase, the citizens' jury participants deliberated among themselves. In smaller working groups, everyone could contribute their perspectives. They discussed what everyone values and formulated a series of recommendations at the end of the deliberations.

As a thank you for their commitment, all jury participants received an honorarium of 325 euros. For citizens who live further than 100 km from Brussels, the costs for hotel accommodation were covered.

Meeting with political actors

The Citizens' Debate was supervised by a Monitoring Committee, with former Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy (CD&V) as an observer. After the conclusion of the citizens' debate, its organisers organised meetings with key political actors to find out what they think of the citizens' recommendations and what they want to do with them.

On 31 January 2024, the Parliamentary Committee on the Constitution and Institutional Renewal took a position on the Citizens' Assembly's recommendations. During the hearing, it became clear that the governing parties were once again unable to agree on a reform of party funding. The coalition partners were only able to reach an agreement on a few small measures such as the regulation of membership fees and the ban on donations from abroad. The Citizens' Assembly participants present were disappointed: "Not a single proposal was taken seriously."

"You are missing a great opportunity"

"In the end, nothing is on the table," concluded Ben Eersels from the citizens' platform G1000. "The only thing missing is political courage. People have been talking about it for 20 years - without success. 51 per cent of Belgians no longer have confidence in politics. They are missing a great opportunity to strengthen this trust."

Following this criticism, the parliamentary committee announced on 7 February 2024 that it would make one last attempt to reach an agreement after all. Each political group wanted to indicate whether it agrees or disagrees with each of the 34 "We need to talk" proposals by 22 February 2024.

No concrete process

The committee met on 28 February 2024 to discuss the proposals. But the meeting did not produce any concrete progress. The parties were unable to reach agreement despite the fact that majorities were possible for 25 out of 34 recommendations. The governing coalition could agree on 13 of the recommendations. Audrey Broxson, one of the participants in the citizens' panel said: "So, if I understand correctly, everyone agrees on 13 of the 34 recommendations. But what are they waiting for to implement them?"

What "We Need To Talk" has achieved is for all the parties to take a position on each of the recommendations, indicating whether they are for, against or in favour with modifications. The parties were also given the opportunity to justify their position. An unusual exercise in transparency.

The Constitutional Committee's work on the Citizens' Assembly recommendations was due to continue on 13 March 2024. However, it was not discussed because not enough MPs were present. The initiators of the Citizens' Assembly now hope that Parliament will take up the citizens' proposals again after the parliamentary elections on 9 June 2024.

Read more: Burgerdebat „We need to talk“