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.