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View Full Version : The Belgian paradox: how low level officials yield key aspects of power



Maciamo
21-09-14, 11:34
Belgium is generally a fairly good place to live. The country ranks well by international standards on many levels; compulsory education until 18 (highest in the world), high-quality and cheap health care, free motorways, excellent food, reasonably good economy...

One of the things that baffles me in this country, however, is the tremendous amount of power put into the hands of some of the lowest ranking and least educated civil servants. Two classes of civil servants in particular stand out:

1) Municipal employees

There is huge level of devolution of power to the municipal government in Belgium. One of them is the power of issuing ID cards, passports, driving licences, but also visas, residence permits and work permits for foreigners. In most countries visas and work permits are issued by a specialised government agency, typically an Immigration Bureau. Although Belgium does have an Immigration Office, its function is mostly to inform foreigners of their rights and obligations, or to deal with applications from outside Belgium. For people already in Belgium the actual visas and work permits are issued by the municipal office, and the acceptation of one's application depends solely on the good will of the bottom-level staff at the counter of one's local town hall.

As ID cards are compulsory for all residents in Belgium, foreigners do not need to carry their passport with their visa on it as a proof of legal residence. Many foreigners never get a visa document at all. The only proof is the ID card, which is the same as for Belgian citizens for EU nationals, or comes in another colour for non-EU foreigners. The validity of the foreigner's ID card is tied to the length of visa, and both are issued by the town hall. In the countryside there will generally be only one person who issues all ID cards and visas for both EU citizens and foreigners. Therefore, the success of one's visa application will depend only on that person's willingness to issue or renew one person's ID card/visa.

Needless to say that abuses are easy and frequent with so little supervision and so much power in the hand of an employee who generally does not have any more qualification than a secondary school (high school) education. One common type of abuse is for a naturalised foreigner to get a job at a town hall (and there are a lot of them in some of Brussels's 19 municipalities) and issue visas for friends and distant relatives from his/her country. This is one reason why Belgium has one of the worst case immigration control in Europe, and why the anti-immigration NV-A party won the last elections. I don't understand how such sensitive issues as visas and immigration can be put into the hands of untrained, high school level employees in any of the 589 municipalities (communes/gemeenten) in the country. What is amazing is that these floor-level employees don't even need the authorisation of of the Immigration Office or any higher level government agency to issue visas. It is totally up to them and if they like you or not.


2) Police officers

I don't think that Belgium is unique for this, but it is not required to have more than a secondary school degree (and sometimes not even that) to become a police officer in Belgium. Yet police officers, even at the lowest level, have the power to do almost anything they want and tell almost any citizen what to do, even if they don't have the right to do so. If a police officer oversteps his authority or does something illegal or beyond his competencies, even if a citizen complains to his superior, in most cases the complaint will be dismissed or the officer will merely get reprimanded, without any actual sanction. Abuses of power are frequent justly because police officers know that nothing can happen to them. Trying to sue a police officer is extremely perilous too because, in case of conflict/disagreement, a Belgian judge will always trust the police officer's version of the facts over the citizen's.

Ike
21-09-14, 13:13
I don't understand how such sensitive issues as visas and immigration can be put into the hands of untrained, high school level employees in any of the 589 municipalities (communes/gemeenten) in the country. What is amazing is that these floor-level employees don't even need the authorisation of of the Immigration Office or any higher level government agency to issue visas. It is totally up to them and if they like you or not.

Are you telling me that a pretty and eloquent young lad (such as I am :grin: ) could charm his way to Belgian visa just through the conversation with a small town female office clerk?

Aberdeen
21-09-14, 21:01
I'm surprised by that. Here in Canada, and I think in most countries, immigration is handled by a federal department that's subject to considerable oversight, so most immigration problems are caused by faulty legislation or bad judicial decisions. And police officers generally have to go to a police college for training before they can be hired. There are still some problems with police sometimes, I think because of the personality type that's attracted to the job, but there are some safeguards, including police complaints commissions.

LeBrok
21-09-14, 22:24
There are still some problems with police sometimes, I think because of the personality type that's attracted to the job. I noticed that too. We definitely need better psychological screening of candidates. Perhaps need for police officers outstrips supply of good honest and hard working people, therefore forcing screening program to be more forgiving?

hope
21-09-14, 22:33
I noticed that too. We definitely need better psychological screening of candidates. Perhaps need for police officers outstrips supply of good honest and hard working people, therefore forcing screening program to be more forgiving?
Also I think putting policing out to private sector, does not help.
Some sort of thorough screening should be in place, I agree with you on this.

Garrick
22-09-14, 00:21
I noticed that too. We definitely need better psychological screening of candidates. Perhaps need for police officers outstrips supply of good honest and hard working people, therefore forcing screening program to be more forgiving?

For such workers, in my opinion, European states should introduce test for corruption.

hope
22-09-14, 00:52
For such workers, in my opinion, European states should introduce test for corruption.
How would you measure for this, Garrick?

Angela
22-09-14, 01:46
Here, it's not that INS agents have too much discretion or are getting paid off; it's more that the government itself is telling them not to enforce the laws on the books. I know people who've been here illegally for decades, get picked up, told to show up for a court date, and just don't bother. Or, they leave and then just waltz back in. You wouldn't believe how easy it is to get fake documents if you're in that world, either. Then, in certain cases, law enforcement isn't allowed to ask about their immigration status. I don't even want to get into it. It's just a mess.

There are certainly problems with corruption in police departments, however. We just had a major one about corruption in the prisons where corrections officers were being paid to allow drugs to come into the jails. The vast sums of money paid out in bribes related to the drug trade is one of the biggest corrupting factors, imo. It's hard to turn down tens of thousands of dollars, enough to pay down your mortgage or send your kid to a great school, when all they're asking you to do is look away.

Then you have the instances where they abuse their authority. Not all, not even the majority, but enough that the situation has to be constantly monitored. It's not just that policing attracts certain kinds of personalities...it's even more, imo, what happens to some men as the result of being "on the job".

What's the old cliche? Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? I remember reading in college about those experiments where people were given the power to electrically shock other people,and how many of them took advantage of it.

I can't speak for other countries, but the cops here also have high rates of alcoholism, failed marriages, suicides etc. There's incredible stress involved with police work if you're doing homicides or sex crimes or violent assaults. You see terrible things and have to make terrible decisions. It's all very traumatizing.

Maciamo
22-09-14, 07:44
What's the old cliche? Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? I remember reading in college about those experiments where people were given the power to electrically shock other people,and how many of them took advantage of it.

Stanley Milgram's famous experiment (http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm) on obedience to authority figures. Here is a summary video.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCVlI-_4GZQ

This kind of test could be used for psychological screening for some sensitive jobs that need to determine if an individual as possess enough critical thinking and an independent sense of moral responsibility or just follow orders blindly like a Nazi soldier.


I can't speak for other countries, but the cops here also have high rates of alcoholism, failed marriages, suicides etc. There's incredible stress involved with police work if you're doing homicides or sex crimes or violent assaults. You see terrible things and have to make terrible decisions. It's all very traumatizing.

Being a cop in the US is probably far more stressful than in most Western European countries. The main reason is that the legality and wide availability of guns in the States. The police never need to ask apparently unarmed suspects to put their hands in the air or behind their back in Europe because the chance that someone is hiding a gun is very low. That fact alone makes up for a huge difference in stress levels.

A typical day for a Belgian police officer consists mostly of patrolling around neighbourhoods, verifying residence registrations, dealing with traffic accidents, or having badly parked cars removed.

Angela
22-09-14, 16:53
Stanley Milgram's famous experiment (http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm) on obedience to authority figures. Here is a summary video.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCVlI-_4GZQ

This kind of test could be used for psychological screening for some sensitive jobs that need to determine if an individual as possess enough critical thinking and an independent sense of moral responsibility or just follow orders blindly like a Nazi soldier.



Being a cop in the US is probably far more stressful than in most Western European countries. The main reason is that the legality and wide availability of guns in the States. The police never need to ask apparently unarmed suspects to put their hands in the air or behind their back in Europe because the chance that someone is hiding a gun is very low. That fact alone makes up for a huge difference in stress levels.

A typical day for a Belgian police officer consists mostly of patrolling around neighbourhoods, verifying residence registrations, dealing with traffic accidents, or having badly parked cars removed.

Yes, those are the experiments. I found it as hard to watch this time around.

You make a good point about the contribution of the accessibility of guns. However, I would suggest that even without guns, working a homicide unit can be very stressful, whether it's here or in Europe. People don't only kill with guns. Then, gang violence often, but not always, related to drugs, can be brutal even without them. It's incredible what carnage can be created with a knife, or a machete, or even with the fists. Working on a sex crimes unit is perhaps the worst; it can tear the soul out of people, particularly if children are involved. Officers and even prosecutors often have to be rotated out because a lot of people can't stand it for very long. In the long run, it either hardens you, or it takes its toll psychologically, or both.

Traffic cops or FBI agents working on white collar crime, i.e. tax evasion, money laundering etc. are a totally different story.

oriental
23-09-14, 01:11
When I was a student up to high school teachers had complete authority in the classroom. They used malacca cane to whip students a la Dickens' Oliver Twist style. Teachers would wrack the knuckles if you got the wrong answer with the wooden ruler (scale) and throw the duster at the student if also for wrong answer. I got caned a few times for other things. Yes, I went to Jesuit Christian Brothers' school.

Angela
23-09-14, 01:50
One of the boys I knew in high school got cold-cocked and wound up totally unconscious on the floor for mouthing off to a rather inaptly named "Christian" Brother. Those were different times...corporal punishment was supported by the parents. I have to say, though, this particular order had a reputation for this kind of "discipline".

Ed. Sorry, off topic. Feel free to remove it.

Garrick
23-09-14, 02:11
How would you measure for this, Garrick?

There is integrity testing, it is instrument that enhances both the prevention and prosecution of corruption.

This is Document of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

UN Anti Corruption Toolkit

http://www.unodc.org/pdf/crime/corruption/toolkit/corruption_un_anti_corruption_toolkit_sep04.pdf

Integrity testing: pages 62-63 and 396-411.

oriental
23-09-14, 19:28
this particular order had a reputation for this kind of "discipline"

Education was expensive in India and some family friend thought it was a good idea to send us boys to a Christian school and learn English and be civilized. But it sure toughened me up. I had so many fights. Mostly the British boys were friendly but it was the Indian boys that would fight with me. Some would tell me get out of India. Kids were nasty. The Nepalese kids were tough. I wrestled with a smaller Nepalese boy whom I had some disagreement with and thought he was an easy pushover. But I was the one on the ground. His calf muscles were well developed whereas I was just a city boy. Ha, ha boys will be boys and will always fight.

Among the Indian boys Muslims, Punjabis and Parsees were friendly towards me and I never fought with them except one Punjabi boy. We got into a wrestling match and something in my brain sparked and I pulled him over and I rolled backwards and kicked him off me. He flew a few yards and he got scared of me afterwards. I never learned any martial or seen anything like what I did. It sure surprised me too. I didn't think I would knock him a few yards. I didn't understand physics. I think it is a Jujitsu (?) move that i inadvertently made.