BRUSSELS, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- In most countries, for a senior statesman to suggest scrapping the nation's army would be tantamount to treason, or at least political suicide.
Not in Belgium.
The president of the Flemish Socialist Party, Johan Vande Lanotte, believes that in 10 years time the number of Belgian troops should be cut from 40,000 to 20,000, with the remaining soldiers integrated into a still-to-be-created European army at a later date. The money saved, around $1.2 billion, would be channeled into development aid, Flemish newspapers reported Monday. "That is much more important than NATO commitments," said Vande Lanotte.
Most political parties, with the exception of the Greens, ridiculed Vande Lanotte's proposal. "Before investing in development cooperation, you first have to bring peace to conflict zones," said Finance Minister Didier Reynders. Another Liberal lawmaker, Philippe Monfils said: "My first reaction is to laugh," adding: "The policy of the broken rifle risks discrediting Belgium on the international stage." Belgian Defense Minister Andre Flahaut, a fellow socialist, dismissed the idea as "not on the government's agenda."
If Vande Lanotte was a fringe politician from a radical party, it would be easier to dismiss his radical proposals. But he is leader of one of the parties in the governing coalition and until last year was budget minister and vice-premier of Belgium.
Vande Lanotte's bold plan also begs the question: If Brussels did get rid of its army, would anyone notice?
Belgium -- a prosperous country of 10 million people -- is entirely surrounded by European Union and NATO members, has no border disputes or overseas territories and faces no significant threat to its national security apart from the menace of extremist Islamist groups.
Tucked away safely on Western Europe's fringes and protected by the NATO and American umbrella, the only way Belgium can meaningfully contribute to global security is to take part in NATO, European Union and United Nations peacekeeping missions.
Nick van Haver, a spokesman for the defense minister, insists this is precisely what Belgium is doing. "We are doing all we can," he told United Press International. "We assume our responsibilities completely."
Yet a study of the number of Belgian troops in the field compared with the number of men and women in uniform appears to strengthen Vande Lanotte's argument. Belgium has 40,000 soldiers, but only 679 are currently deployed in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Congo. That means that for every soldier on the front line, there are almost 60 back home "preparing" for battle or simply administering the costs of the country's armed forces.
"If you cannot deploy your forces, what's the point of them?" asks Dr. Sven Biscop, a senior research fellow at the Belgian Royal Institute for International Relations and a professor of European security at Ghent University. "Either Belgium maintains its 40,000 troops but increases its defense budget so they can be deployed overseas or it should get rid of them and spend the money on something else."
The problem is that no one in Belgium is talking about increasing the military budget, despite the constant pleas of Donald Rumsfeld. At the recent Munich Conference on Security Policy, the U.S. defense secretary criticized 19 of NATO's 26 members that fail to spend even 2 percent of their budgets on arms. Belgium is near the bottom of this list, spending just $3 billion -- or 1.3 percent of gross domestic product -- on defense. In contrast, the United States spends $440 billion -- or 3.7 percent of every tax dollar -- on its military.
If Belgium used its scarce cash to buy state-of-the-art weaponry or fund out-of-area missions, it would not matter so much, but NATO figures show that Brussels spends three-quarters of its defense budget on pay and pensions for its troops -- over double the proportion spent by Britain and the United States.
So what should smallish European nations do to get more bang for their euros? Biscop believes countries like Belgium, which refuse to up defense budgets, have to downsize troop numbers, specialize in niche areas and team up with other capitals to achieve economies of scale. "For smaller states it is very costly and inefficient to operate some armed forces on a national level. So they must either cut certain capabilities altogether or contribute to multilateral forces."
To a certain extent, this is what Belgium is already doing. Despite its howls of protest, the government has announced plans to reduce troop numbers to 35,000 and possibly 29,000 at a later date. Vande Lanotte insists specialists, such as mine-sweepers, should be put at the disposition of a future European army. And Belgium is actively pooling defense resources with other EU countries. Along with France, Spain, Britain and Luxembourg it is purchasing 170 A400M transport aircraft and is one of the staunchest supporters of a boosted EU defense capacity.
Despite these moves, there is still a lingering feeling in some NATO circles that Belgium, with its tiny defense budget and inability to deploy more than 1,000 troops overseas, is something of a military free-rider that is happy to profit from America's largesse while criticizing many of its policies.
Even Elio di Rupo, the firebrand leader of the French-speaking Belgian socialists, believes the situation is untenable. "We have to play our part in NATO and, if tomorrow it is the European Union, then there as well," the Walloon premier said Monday. "We cannot ask to be protected against any threat, nor demand that the security of our territory be guaranteed by our partners and at the same time not contribute to it. At the very least we should show a little solidarity."