Jubilee's letter on cultural & civic sector cuts in Flanders

Brussels, 10 December 2019.

Dear friends and colleagues,

We would like to inform you about the recent turmoil within the cultural and social landscape in Flanders. Our new Flemish government (we don't have a federal government in Belgium yet!) has announced severe austerity measures. This new government is a combination of N-VA (Flemish nationalist party), Open VLD (liberal party) and CD&V (Christian democratic party). The extreme-right party Vlaams Belang won 23% of the votes in Flanders in the last elections in May, but after long talks with NVA they did not become part of the Flemish government. The other political parties objected to their participation. But in the hope to win back voters, the parties of the current coalition in government are implementing some of the Vlaams Belang programme in the new policy proposals as we speak. (The final budget vote is scheduled on 19/12/2019.)

We have been informing and reaching out to our international peers, as we see these developments not as an isolated Flemish phenomenon, but as something that is playing out in Europe and globally. We cannot stand by and stay silent.

These proposals, on the verge of being implemented, are also part of government practices that try to hollow out voices of the critical media, of academia, fundamental research, critical arts, vulnerable groups of people, asylum seekers, different ethnic groups, the unemployed etc. In context of these practices, some people felt emboldened to spread hate and even commit violent acts in our country...

In order to inform you about the current policy proposals we are making an overview here in this letter.

Already in January 2020 a budget cut of 3% for bigger art institutions, 6% for all other art organisations and a 60% cut of the individual artist project funding (from 8,5 million to 3,5 million euro) has been proposed!1 The total arts budget represents only 190 million euros. Some of the current political opposition parties are well aware that artists' and art workers' labour situation is very dire. In their programmes they even call for the implementation of a Fair Practice Charter. To give a full picture, the whole cultural sector (including arts, heritage, socio-cultural work) only represents 1,12% (a total of 517,7 million euro) of the total budget of the Flemish government, the lowest point in the last 20 years.2

But what we want to stress is that we are not concerned about the arts alone. This government is playing by a neo-liberal script that cuts deep in the social fabric of society. The VRT (Flemish Radio and Television) loses 44 million euro and thus 250 jobs. Also funds for independent journalism disappear.3

Next to that 130 socio-cultural organisations need to cut 6% of their planned operations. This also applies to youth accommodation centres and children's rights organisations. SAM, a mediator for general welfare work loses no less than 27%. Associations of ethnic-cultural minorities were almost4 barred from subsidies and cut in their current operations.5

Public transportation, such as De Lijn, suffers lack of investment. Healthcare is struggling with long, growing waiting lists. The climate ambition is too modest. The climate walks and climate school strikes have led to nothing. The proposed policies are hampering citizen associations instead of expanding them. The heart of society, the social fabric is losing its oxygen. These policy choices will transform Flanders into a very cold society.

"Everyone has to cut expenses," is the mantra. But that is not entirely true.

This government is also 'investing'. For example, in the arts. Their project is an ideological one, it wishes to promote the Flemish Identity and a Flemish Canon. They plan to invest in the building and programming of a Museum for Flemish Culture and History, in the regeneration of the old American Theatre (a residue of the 1958 World Exhibition) to implement a Flemish programme, and in Bokrijk (an open air museum of 14th to 19th century village buildings and crafts). Next to that they plan to subsidize private art foundations that can be part of a 'programme of ambassadors' to promote the Flemish Canon and the Flemish Masters abroad (examples given are: Phoebus Foundation of Fernand Huts (CEO Katoennatie) and Axel Vervoordt (art dealer, collector, interior designer).6 Focussing mainly on buildings and on heritage to 'make the Flemish culture excel and shine abroad', and cutting funds for contemporary artists is not, we think, a sustainable choice...

The Flemish government will also 'invest' in big industry with 'climate subsidy' to assist with their high energy bills, so they can stay competitive and will not move abroad as a consequence. These subsidies will be tripled in 2020 (from 34 million to 93 million euro). Beneficiaries of the subsidies are multinationals like i.e. ExxonMobil, ArcelorMittal, BASF, Nyrstar.7 Tax benefits and subsidies going to the pharmaceutical industries amount to 554 million euro every year.8

This is not a caricature. The numbers are all in black on white in government documents. These money transfers impoverish society. Tax justice in our country is in a degrading state of affairs. The so-called notional interest, the tax-shift and a lower corporation tax have created holes in the income of the government, which it has to compensate elsewhere.9

An inquiry by the committee of the European Parliament concluded that Belgium is one of seven European countries that facilitate aggressive tax avoidance. They reported that multinationals' choice to create a seat in Belgium is only for the profit exemptions and consequently they are not very interested to employ more than a few people.10

In this context, we reject ALL proposed savings. After all, the question is: In what kind of society do we want to live? What kind of values do we want to promote?

Civil society is about people who find each other in networks. They are committed to what is valuable. They assist people that have difficulties finding their way in our complex society, increase inclusiveness towards ethnic minorities, they strive to improve public transport, support actions for cleaner air and the climate, create possibilities for critical voices within the arts, education and journalism...Without those associations, unions and other advocates, every citizen becomes an island that has to survive on its own when his or her rights are restricted. Our civil society associations take care directly and indirectly for the well-being of the people in Flanders. Their added value is priceless and precious. In the past decades the social profit accounted for above-average growth of the economic added value, employment and the impact on the rest of the economy in the form of positive externalities, next to its incalculable symbolic and human emancipatory values.

Of course, there is anger, disappointment and frustration among professionals and volunteers, within culture, education, care, civil society organisations, organisations working with asylum seekers, the homeless and other vulnerable groups. Of course, we do not want to allow ourselves to be torn apart for a few crumbs within the turmoil of an ideological war, it is essential to show our solidarity with all people affected. Affected by funding cuts, but also by practices that position groups of people against each other. These words and practices instigate fear, divided-ness and even acts of violence, as the recent arson attack on a future asylum centre shows, an act that did not even provoke a strong public condemnation by minister president Jan Jambon.11

If the government really wants to invest in a warm Flanders, it should throw its disastrous plans for civil society, public services and the cultural sector in the dustbin, and go back to the drawing table... This government should address inequality instead, and create policies that increase fairness, inclusivity, and protect vulnerable people and the climate.12

Dear friends and colleagues, if you see any way of supporting our (common) cause that would be very much appreciated by a lot of people...

Best wishes, Jubilee

Jubilee is an artists' initiative which provides support for 5 independent artists' research and production, and temporary guest projects with a focus on the sustainability of artistic practices. (https://jubilee-art.org)

Jubilee engages in SOTA (State of the Arts). SOTA is an open, artist-run platform including autonomous group initiatives as well as anyone worried about the state of the arts today. http://state-of-the-arts.net/

Further reading (in English)

An open letter was written and published in the newspaper De Standaard on 12/11/2019 by 13 international performing arts and theatre directors.