Andrew Osborn








Hell is Belgian bureaucrats, 18th July 2003 13:26

In Brussels, you can end up in court for taking your rubbish out a day early. Andrew Osborn reports

It may be small in size, but Belgium is frighteningly big on bureaucracy.

The days when Congo's vast territory was administered from Brussels have long since passed into the mists of time, but nobody seems to have told the country's small army of "fonctionnaires".

Armed with a battery of Dickensian stamps, a rulebook as obtuse as it is thick and the mindset of Cruella De Vil, they do their best to make the life of the ordinary citizen a special Belgian form of hell.

Switzerland is often accused of having more rules than cows but Belgium is not far behind, and for its bureaucrats no detail is too small. The mentality of officialdom here is not for the faint-hearted.

And while they appear merciless in prosecuting minor legal transgressions, when it comes to the really big things - like bringing convicted child paedophile Marc Dutroux to court seven years after he was first arrested on charges of child killing and kidnapping - well, you may as well whistle in the cold north wind.

Nor do they seem to give a fig about drink driving.

Hoegaarden-bloated Belgians pour out of the capital's bars in the small hours almost every night of the week, only to jump behind the wheel and zigzag home - indeed, it is almost considered rude not to. On the rare occasions when they are stopped most are let off or escape with a small fine.

No, the Belgian system pours its energy into combating other perceived sins.

Everyone has their own story to tell, usually with their brow furrowed, their head shaking in disbelief, and their mouth spewing a stream of unprintable expletives.

I was reminded of this when I sold my car recently. Sticking a neat "for sale" sign in the back window of my car as I have seen many Belgians do, I thought I would be ok.

I was wrong. A phone call from the local policeman swiftly followed with a stern warning to remove the offending sign or face the consequences. It is illegal to sell goods on the public highway, I was told, and a nameless neighbour, bless them, had had the good sense to report my misdemeanour to the authorities.

Then there is the issue of rubbish.

Put it out on the wrong day or in the wrong type of bag and you are likely to bring down the entire weight of the Belgian establishment on you. A friend recently received a letter saying she had been fined 80 euros (£57) for putting her bin bags out a day early.

But how did they know it was her rubbish? The "rubbish police" of course: enclosed with the demand for 80 euros were grubby photocopies the police had made of letters addressed to her which they had scrupulously recovered from the offending bin bag. Big Brother, it seems, is alive and living in a suburb of Brussels.

In order to contest the fine she had to appear before a special "bin bag" tribunal and explain that a neighbour had erroneously put it out for her.

Belgian rules on rubbish collection could be the subject of an entire book.

Failure to sort your rubbish into a choice of three different coloured bin bags is also a serious offence.

In normal circumstances, that would be understandable, highly laudable, and a real fillip for Belgium's environmental credentials. But it isn't: all the bags are thrown in the back of the same truck and then thrown onto the same dump. The Belgians, it is explained, are merely trying to get people into good habits before they start properly recycling the rubbish themselves.

Nor does it end there.

Want to let off a firework in Belgium? Get a permit. Is a neighbour's branch overhanging your garden? Don't actually talk to them - get a lawyer onto their backs and fast. Want to move house? Fine, but make sure you're in when a policeman drops by to establish that you have actually moved or else you risk receiving a deportation order.

"There's something about the Belgians," explains a long-time resident who loves the country but loathes its bureaucracy. "Listen to the radio in the morning and it's all about procedures - which ones have been followed and which ones haven't. There are so many rules and they need to be obeyed.

"The irony is that there are rules that they don't apply and they are usually the biggest ones of all."

The issue on which Belgian officials outdo themselves is tax. Own a car radio? You had better make sure you're paying the special car radio tax, and don't try to pretend that you haven't got one. They know.

Want to open an office in Brussels? Then make sure you're paying your computer screen tax. Just count up the screens and tell the authorities and they'll send you a bill.

Another long-time resident, who again prefers not to be named, argues that the lack of humanity is the most depressing thing.

He gloomily describes his trip to a Belgian police station to complain about being woken up by builders illegally starting work at 6.30am.

"Do you have your identity card Monsieur?" (mandatory in Belgium).

"Well, no, it's 7am and I've forgotten it. I've just woken up. Sorry."

"Monsieur, that's an infraction of the penal code. You're breaking the law."