Belgian Business Leaders Would Hold Fast to Unity

BELGIAN economists and business leaders like to point out that while European currency markets were going wild recently, Belgium stood like an island of calm amid the storm.

"We couldn't help but remark that Belgium was an oasis of stability during the monetary crisis, and that says something about our economy and our financial strength," says Tony Vendeputte, chief of the Federation of Belgian Industries.

And while economic leaders generally frown on the idea of dividing Belgium in two, there is nonetheless a reigning confidence that the country, already effectively linked to the deutsche mark, will remain a stable and prosperous part of Europe.

"We feel Belgium is already too small in ways that can make our economic development more difficult, so we certainly wouldn't recommend a separation," says Roland Rosseel, an engineer and spokesman for Tractebel, Belgium's largest utilities and engineering consulting corporation. "We are organized and prepared to face whatever comes, but we hope that Europe's integration will go fast enough and a policy of regions given force soon enough so that the separation of Belgium becomes irrelevant."

Although one of Europe's most ardent supporters of European monetary union, Belgium does not yet meet the strict fiscal conditions set in the European Community's Maastricht Treaty for participation in a single European currency. While the treaty calls for a national deficit of no more than 3 percent of gross national product by 1996, Belgium's deficit currently stands at 5.7 percent, one of the highest in the EC.

A government proposal to cut the deficit to 5.2 percent by next year was roundly criticized by economic leaders. "We were disappointed that the deficit-cutting didn't go farther," says Mr. Vandeputte, "but we think we've been heard - the government is now promising supplementary measures."

While confident that Belgium will easily qualify for single-currency participation when the time comes, Vandeputte and other business leaders say their chief concern about Belgium, accustomed to a high standard of living, is competitiveness.

The expenses Belgian firms face - contributing to unemployment funds, social security, and other costs - must either be reduced or pose increasing problems as the EC's single market takes effect, industry officials say. Size is another issue. "Belgian companies including ours are going to have to create partnerships to face up to Europe's giants," says Mr. Rosseel. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30062.

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