The Flemish government must act quickly to prevent companies from perishing due to high energy prices. Waiting for the government statement at the end of September is not an option, says Voka CEO Wouter De Geest. ‘Otherwise we lose part of our wealth and well-being forever.’
“I want to sound the storm bells all over Flanders.” It is not the first time that Voka chairman Wouter De Geest has sounded the alarm during his annual ‘Return’ speech. But where he looked hopeful at a post-corona recovery plan last year, he sounds more pessimistic this time. “A recession is coming. How long and how deep it will be, no one knows. But I do know that Flemish business life is giving us very alarming signals. A third of the companies indicate that they will have to reduce or even stop their production due to the rising energy bill. And that will not pass within a few months, but weeks.”
Waiting for Flemish Prime Minister Jan Jambon (N-VA) to reveal his energy plans in the September statement is therefore not an option?
“To have a September statement that can be implemented immediately, we have to start thinking tomorrow. Companies need a clear signal that their competitiveness will be supported. Because right now they are bleeding. Their artery is open, and if we don’t do anything, they’ll bleed out completely.”
Then what are you advocating?
“I want everyone to take responsibility. The urge to realize something quickly is too small today. Europe naturally plays an important role. But talking to Norway to achieve a new industrial project will not lead to change tomorrow. What would help immediately is that Flanders implements the European framework that exists to support energy-intensive industry as quickly as possible. Just like Germany, France and Spain have already done. Energy efficiency and heat pumps that are already part of the coalition agreement are good. But now one step more is needed. Just like during the financial crisis, there is a need for major reforms.”
Is nuclear energy also part of such a crisis policy?
“The Belgian economy is built on energy wealth, not on energy scarcity. In other words, every electron we can produce right now counts. Whether that comes from wind, sun, gas or nuclear reactors. That is why I would like to argue in the discussion about nuclear power stations to keep them open not ten, but twenty years longer. Create a new industrial project around all this, albeit with respect for safety. Abroad we see that innovative technologies, such as small nuclear reactors, are achieving very good results.”
Now you are clearly advocating nuclear energy. But exactly one year ago, in an interview with The morning indicated that you were no longer opposed to the nuclear phase-out.
“I’ve always said that we have to keep all avenues open and have a plan A and B. Well, that plan B has now become very topical because of the war in Ukraine. This proves once again that energy dependence is a bad idea and that we should strive for a Belgium that has sufficient own production capacity. Renewable energy also remains important in this regard. But it would be stupid to cut us off from other technologies now.”
When Tinne Van der Straeten had just started as Minister of Energy, you were enthusiastic about her long-term vision. Do you still stick with that today?
“We will of course continue to endorse the long-term goals for climate neutrality and the development of a hydrogen economy. And I’m glad she and the government are continuing to follow that path. But they do need to increase the speed of their decisions.”
Many important social issues are also on the federal government’s agenda this autumn.
“Purchasing power and tax reform are inevitably linked to rising energy costs. If we go to an inflation rate of 17 percent, this currently means 26 billion euros extra in wage costs for companies, while only a small part of that ends up with the employee. Now is not the time to talk in favor of abolishing wage indexation. But we must avoid that the high indexation due to the current energy crisis has perverse effects in the long term. Voka is now arguing for an index jump with a net premium on top. In this way, people can now maintain their purchasing power, but the competitiveness of companies will not be definitively undermined if energy prices fall again.”
In any case, the unions do not seem to be open to such concessions. A national day of action is already planned at the beginning of November.
“Trade unions naturally reflect the concerns they see in their members. But one has to have the openness of mind to at least talk about that so that we can bring something together that offers perspective. We need to work on a new socio-economic model, just like after the Second World War. Everyone will have to hand in and yes, that will hurt a bit. But much less than if we permanently lose our competitiveness. If we allow that, we will lose some of our wealth and well-being forever.”