Party funding: "We need to talk"

03. February 2023

In Belgium, the reform of party funding is politically deadlocked. A group of think tanks and the citizens' platform G1000 are therefore jointly launching 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 serve as input for the citizens' jury, which meets 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 receive 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) provide information to the citizens' jury. Political parties will also be able to have their say.

Discussion in small groups

After the information phase, the citizens' jury participants will deliberate among themselves. In smaller working groups, everyone can contribute their perspectives. They discuss what everyone values and formulate a series of recommendations at the end of the deliberations. By June 2023 at the latest, a broad-based final report with reform proposals should be on the table.

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

Meeting with political actors

The Citizens' Debate will be 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 want to organise meetings with key political actors to find out what they think of the citizens' recommendations and what they want to do with them. Parliament's Constitutional Committee has agreed to receive a delegation from the citizens' assembly to listen to its recommendations.

Citizens' debate not cheap

The cost of the project is 250,000 euros, which is to come from private contributions. That is not cheap, but, according to the organisation, "that is about how much the parties receive every day".

Read more: Burgerdebat „We need to talk“