Belgium and 5G – a complicated relationship

Belgium is a country with wonderful traditions, culture, and a rich history. Known around the world for famous places like Gent, Brugge, Antwerpen and Brussels, its delicious chocolates and tasty beers. Not bad for a small country with barely 11 million citizens. There is also a Belgian tradition which is less admirable.

Its inner divide between the Flemish and Walloons, in which Brussels appears to be the center of collision behind closed doors. Deeply anchored in its federal system, this divide has significant impact on its political settings and federal administration. That it has taken 493 days to form a federal government while the pandemic was raging through the country says it all, and that was not even a record.

Achterkamertjespolitiek

Political transparency, and the accountability that comes with that, is not part of the Belgian ways. The Belgian political way of doing things can only be described by ‘Achterkamertjespolitiek’ for which its translation ‘backroom politics’ does not even truly cover its real meaning. This part of the Belgian political tradition is so important to those in power that even the onslaught caused by the pandemic did not encourage them to do the right thing and form a strong coalition that leads the country in the interest of the country when the country needed it the most. No other European country has been hit as hard by COVID-19 as Belgium is.

‘Achterkamertjespolitiek’ leads to the Belgian ‘tradition’ of controversial decisions and processes behind closed doors without accountability and public debate. The ‘ons kent ons’ nepotism within the federal government and its administrative bodies is documented in a long list of political scandals and corruption cases, of which the Augusta and Publifin cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The ‘Smeerpijp’ scandals shows how public spending behind closed doors is handled at the expense of the taxpayers.

More of the same, the Belgian way

With a newly formed Government and a pandemic raging through the country, one might expect that Belgium’s political circle would rise to the occasion and do things right this time around. Just once without ‘Achterkamertjespolitiek’ and in full transparency. Anyone who hoped for a change for the better under the ‘Vivaldi coalition’ got a cold shower within less than 2 months.

Straight from the illusive and secretive backrooms of Belgium’s VSSE and ADIV intelligence services comes a ‘High-Risk Vendor List’ for Belgium’s 5G pending rollout, that will not be published and it not up for debate. To create the illusion of transparency, there will be a public consultation on the draft law which has to be completed by December 30th, 2020. Not only a farce because the draft law lacks the specifications and content of this secret ‘High-Risk Vendor List’ but also because it is attempting to whip a critical decision-making process through the formalities over the holidays!

Reading between the lines

The draft bill itself is as vague as it can be and lacks details on criteria and specifics on security considerations despite it being drafted to determine just that. Its intention is however crystal clear – to create the legal framework to eliminate certain vendors from access to the Belgian 5G market. Without mentioning the specifics in the draft bill, it will enable banning Chinese vendors entirely.

The impact of this bill boils down to just having two vendors for the entire market and that is nothing but bad news. Bad news from a commercial perspective because it eliminates the fight for the best deal with a plurality of bidders. Bad news from a competitive perspective because it eliminates the fight for the best features. And ironically also bad news from a security perspective because it eliminates the risk mitigation by diversity in network vendors, which is what the EU explicitly recommends in its ‘5G toolbox’ to provide.

Competition is important to drive innovation. Just look at how Ericsson and Huawei have pushed each other to their limits and beyond in energy efficiency for 5G in the past years. Competition is important to drive commercial conditions. Just look at how Nokia is attempting to reshape its entire business model to be able to at least have change of competing with the top vendors. Cutting down the vendor list to just two for political reasons is not enabling the Belgian mobile providers to get the best deal for their money. And with that, not enabling the Belgian consumers to get the best technology and pricing for their money!

The way forward

Belgium deserves to return to being a striving economy within the European Union, in a strong partnership which its BENELUX neighbors The Netherlands and Luxembourg and EU neighbors France and Germany. Its mighty harbor of Antwerp at the center of goods flowing to and from the European Union. Its service sector at the core of innovation throughout the world. Once again, a small country making a big difference.

Innovation takes a key position in the way forward for Belgium, and its relatively small size compared to larger countries and more complex economies gives it the advantage of faster implementations of these innovations. Let us imagine, that the mighty harbor of Antwerp is supported by the latest technology in IoT, Artificial Intelligence and all this is connected by 5G. Let us imagine, that every student in Belgium has unrestricted access to broadband internet. Let us imagine, that Belgium’s service industry can utilize the best in AI and cloud services. Let us imagine, how this will push Belgium forward, forward beyond just ‘recovery’.

It is a wonderful picture but there is a growing concern that the ‘Achterkamertjespolitiek’ has already caught up with Belgium path to recovery and growth through innovation. Every country around the world is scrambling to implement 5G communication networks to enable and encourage innovation, and so is Belgium. Unfortunately, it appears that Belgium has chosen to do it the Belgian way, again. Instead of following the EU guidelines on Cyber Security for 5G networks, Belgium has chosen to develop its own list of ‘high risk vendors’ based on unknow criteria set by its security agencies.

The statement on Cyber Security of 5G networks by the European Commission is crystal clear: “Ensuring European sovereignty should be a major objective, in full respect of Europe’s values of openness and tolerance”. The EU Toolbox of risk mitigating measures leaves not a single doubt, that the path chosen by Belgium with this draft law is nothing but a bad idea:

“At national and EU level, a lack of diversity of suppliers increases the overall vulnerability of the 5G infrastructure, in particular if a large number of operators source their sensitive assets from a supplier presenting a high degree of risk, as described above. Dependency of one or several networks also significantly affects national and EU-wide resilience and creates single points of failure.

Moreover, the presence of a limited number of suppliers on the market can decrease their incentives to develop more secure products. It can also have a negative impact on the leverage available to national authorities and operators to demand higher security guarantees, in particular for smaller Member States or operators.”

It is time to heal!

What appears to be even more important, is that the ‘Belgian 5G Blackbox’, as the selection criteria are nicknamed, do not offer the population of Belgium a clear understanding of how the federal government will determine which vendor gets the contracts. How will the federal government of Belgium pick up the pace of 5G network rollouts to decrease the already 2 years it is behind the rest of Europe? How do investors and international partners know if Belgium gets on the fast track towards 5G (or not), when the rules are not publicly known?

It is in Belgium’s interest to end the hide-and-seek politics and put the selection criteria out in the open. When needed, have a factual public debate and when needed, adjust the framework to make sure it is in the interest of Belgium’s recovery and growth. And be compliant with EU’s frameworks on transparency, openness, fair competition, and public spending, including the ‘EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation’! It is time to heal. It is time to move forward and do the right thing. For Belgium and for the Belgians!

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