She Who Must Be Obeyed and I spent last week in Belgium (with additional stops in the Jura and Beaune) to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary and have a holiday. Hence, as my readers no doubt noticed, a dearth of posts on this blog.
Although we were basically tourists, due to the people we stayed with and the observations of my eyes I was able to come to some rather depressing conclusions about the future of Belgium. Mind you all this is anecdotal so YMMV etc. etc.
The first little anecdote was what we observed while sitting outside eating lunch in a reasonably busy but non-touristy street. Pretty much every woman who passed our table and who was wearing a headscarf was also pushing a pram, stroller or otherwise carrying a baby or small child. There were (out of perhaps 40 or 50 women) no more than two or three exceptions. By contrast out of the far larger number of non-headscarf wearing women there were no more than a dozen who seemed to be similarly encumbered. This may illustrate the demographic challenge of fecund immigrants and sterile Europeans but it need not be so as it is entirely possible that many of the non-headscarf wearing women have children but that they were being left at home with a babysitter or in some other childcare facility. What it obviously does not illustrate is the opinion of some that Islamic immigrants force their women to stay at home in their ghettos. On the other hand I think it does illustrate that headscarf wearing women have trouble getting jobs, because women who are at work during the day do not usually walk around at lunchtime with their babies or young children. This could be for a whole range of reasons from racism to large families to a lack of affordable childcare, but no matter what the cause it is bad news for Antwerp society because a lack of immigrant women working at full time jobs means that these women will not be getting to know let alone making friends with people from outside their own community.
Secondly there are all the stories about the diamond business, probably a major contributor to Antwerp's economy. However we can't be too sure how much of a contributor because the whole trade seems to operate on a cash basis with little or no reporting of statistics. The interesting thing here is that the Belgian tax authorities seem relatively content with this situation, only raiding the most blatently black economy traders and leaving the rest to continue with their 90%+ cash based trading. The problem for the tax guys is this: there is no reason why so much of the diamond trade needs to occur in Antwerp, its major players are Hasidic Jews (long term Antwerp residents) plus newer Lebanese and Indian traders. Many of these players could (and would) move elsewhere at the threat of an industry-wide tax investigation and the departure of the hundreds of diamond traders and their thousands of relatives would take millions of Euros out of the the local economy as demand for basic service industries such as schooling, home and garden care, new cars, shopping etc. would plumet.
Interestingly enough the diamond business does seem to regulate itself fairly well despite having little or no recourse to official law enforcement. This is possibly because it is very much a family/community business where reputation is critical to being able to do business and where everyone knows each other. Allegedly there are also some rather drastic measures taken against those who do defraud the rest - apparently such people tend to leave the country rather abruptly to visit their family back "home" and then have a tragic but fatal accident in Mumbai/Beirut/... and/or become a (concrete) pillar of the community. Also interestingly the certificate of provenance to prove that the diamond you just bought was not funding some African war is reportedly more of a private tax levied by the industry on the gullible than any useful way of tracing the origin of the diamond. Yes you pay more for a diamond with a "certificate" but what you are paying for is the effort involved to make the certificate and provide a paper trail rather than any actual proof of origin.
To go back to the black economy. It was amazing (well not really) to note how many places in Belgium (not just Antwerp) failed to provide a real receipt when the customer (i.e. me) paid cash. Restuarant bills tended to be handwritten on stationary that omitted key details such as the name of the resturant or its VAT number and the hawkers of souvenirs seemed averse to providing any receipt at all. It was only when you paid by credit/debit card that any "paper" trail appeared. I have no idea what proportion of local and tourists pay cash for janitors, taxis, horse-drawn tours, snacks, souvenirs etc but I suspect that it is quite large and hence I'm absolutely positive that the Belgian economy is severely understated in official figures. I saw that Belgium appeared to be trying to get people to move to some sort of electronic cash card system and I suspect that this attempt will fail because it would severely constrict the black economy.