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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Belgium: the political (mis)management of linguistic diversity

29 March, 2011 - 00:00

For over 250 days Belgium has been living without a duly elected federal government and the end of this “gestation” period is nowhere in sight.

The last parliamentary elections in June 2010 revealed a societal and political fracture that was much deeper than expected between the Dutch-speaking community (Flanders) and the French-speaking community (Wallonia). For the first time in Belgium’s history, a political party, the NVA, which did not exist ten years ago, won a landslide victory in all the Flemish constituencies. In Wallonia, the election was won by the Socialist party. The problem is that the long-term objective of the NVA, a separatist party, is the independence of Flanders and the other Flemish parties want more autonomy, while the French-speaking parties want to limit the devolution of powers to the regional levels. Moreover, the economic programs of the two victorious parties are conflicting. Last but not least, there remain some sensitive linguistic problems in and around Brussels despite the constitutional provisions protecting the citizens’ linguistic rights. However, all the parties still agree not to go back to the polls but to find a negotiated solution. Talks are ongoing...


After the constitutional reform of 1993, unitary Belgium was converted into a federal state with a federal parliament, three regional parliaments (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital) and three community parliaments (the communities of Dutch-speakers, French-speakers and German-speakers). (The three official languages of Belgium – Author.) This complex double federalism (territorial federalism and community-based federalism) is a unique example in the world. It was meant to put an end to linguistic tensions between the two main communities and to guarantee the linguistic rights of Belgians, whatever their mother tongue.

The country has been divided into four language regions (three monolingual and one bilingual): the Flemish Region (about 6 million inhabitants), the Walloon Region, (about 3.3 million inhabitants), the German-speaking Region (about 70,000 inhabitants living in 9 municipalities of the Walloon Region) and the bilingual Region of Brussels-Capital (about 1 million inhabitants). (The official language is Dutch in the Flemish Region, French in the Walloon Region and German in the German-speaking Region – Author.) The 1962-63 language laws fixed the boundaries of the linguistic regions.

In Belgium, the territoriality principle inter alia requires that within each monolingual region, all communications between the public authorities and the public take place in the language of that region.

In the federal framework, competences in many policy areas were transferred from the national level to the regions and the communities. These are now invested with legislative and executive powers in many areas. The community governments have authority for person-related issues: education, culture, media and use of languages in administrative matters etc.; regional governments have authority for territory-related issues: environment, protection of nature, housing, water and energy policy, transport and road networks, and so on.


In the various regions of the country, linguistic minorities are protected through several mechanisms. In the region of Wallonia, the German-speakers have their own community parliament and government in charge of administration, school education, sport, tourism, culture, radio and television, and so on in their linguistic sub-region. In the Flemish Region, the French-speakers of six municipalities contiguous to the Brussels-Capital Region enjoy a number of linguistic prerogatives because they represent the majority of the local population; the Dutch-speakers are a minority (less than 20 percent) but have guaranteed political representation in parliament despite their small number.


The German-speaking Community is the smallest of the three. It has a population of some 70,000 inhabitants.

The parliament of the German-speaking Community consists of 25 directly elected members from the German-speaking Region. One of them also sits in the federal senate. They take the oath in the German language.

This parliament issues decrees, which are only valid in the German-speaking Region.


The 1962-63 language laws provided for “linguistic prerogatives” for the inhabitants of 27 communes with linguistically mixed populations and contiguous to a different linguistic region. They included the right to request that, in their dealings with the authorities (regarding i.e. administrative matters, education and relations between employers and employees), the language other than that of the region in which the communes are located can be used. Ever since the adoption of a constitutional amendment in 1988, the linguistic prerogatives in these 27 communes cannot be changed except by a federal law with a qualified majority.

A total of 6 of these 27 communes in the Flemish region are contiguous to the bilingual Brussels Region and have a large share, sometimes a majority, of French-speaking inhabitants. While the Walloon Government applies the original laws concerning the use of languages in administrative matters in the municipalities with facilities of the Walloon Region, the Flemish government has adopted decrees and circular letters “interpreting” the federal legislation on the facilities. Hence the tensions and the problems in the 6 municipalities near Brussels.

School education is one of the areas of conflict. In principle, Dutch-language schools accept all pupils both from the 6 municipalities with facilities and from outside. However, access to the local French-language schools is limited to the local French-speaking residents and denied to children living in the contiguous bilingual Region of Brussels-Capital.

There are also a number of conflicting issues in the cultural sphere. According to a decree of the Flemish Parliament, public libraries can only be subsidized if at least 75 percent of the books are in Dutch. The result is the establishment of private libraries with more than 25 percent of the books in French in the municipalities where the majority of the population is French-speaking. The financing of local French-language magazines by the French Community of Belgium has met with the opposition of the Flemish Government on the grounds that this is a violation of the territoriality principle. Several TV programs from France have also been eliminated by the local cable distributors.

Another source of controversy is the language to be used in communal councils where the mayor and most of the councillors are French-speaking. According to the Flemish Government, the prerogatives only apply to the administered, and only Dutch may be spoken in the meetings of the council. However, according to the French Community of Belgium citing a decision of the Court of Arbitration of March 10, 1998, the obligation to speak Dutch only concerns the mayor and his deputies, not individual councillors.


The Parliament of the bilingual Brussels-Capital Region (19 municipalities) consists of 89 directly elected members: 17 Dutch-speaking and 72 French-speaking. The Dutch-speaking minority is protected by a fixed quota of deputies despite the steadily decreasing number of Dutch-speaking voters. The 89 elected members are divided into two language groups. With regard to community matters (culture, education, tourism, health policy, and so on), they sit separately, but they sit together in a joint assembly for the management of institutions that do not exclusively belong to a specific community.

The members of the Government also sit separately based on their language group.

The Parliament issues ordinances. These govern the regional matters of Brussels. They have almost the same legal force as decrees. However, there is a control on the constitutionality of ordinances.


At the domestic level, a mechanism has been put in place to collect individual complaints against alleged violations of language legislation by the federal state, the communities, the regions, the provinces and all municipalities of Belgium: the Permanent Commission for Language Supervision (PCLS). The commission, which is an advisory body, has been mandated to investigate any alleged violation of the administrative language legislation by any administrative body of the state. The commission is divided in a Flemish and a French section, each retaining competence over their respective regions. However, for the Brussels Region and for particularly sensitive areas such as municipalities with linguistic facilities and the protection of minorities, the PCLS convenes in a joint assembly made up of both sections.


Despite all the political agreements in the last few decades and all the mechanisms put in place to give more autonomy to the linguistic communities and the regions, there remain a number of sensitive linguistic issues. Moreover, the federalization of the state, the national territory and the national community has led to further divisions of other Belgian institutions and an irresistible fragmentation process because of the lack of contacts between people on both sides of the linguistic border and because of the lack of will to learn and practice the “other” language (especially by French-speakers). The media and school education on both sides have also largely contributed to the emergence of two civil societies and two political and social cultures as it has been clearly reflected in the outcome of the last elections.

The last weakest point of Belgian federalism is, however, the fact that candidates to the federal parliament and government are elected in their own region and only by the voters from their linguistic community, not by all the Belgians, which means that they defend the political agenda of their community at the federal level and not the well-being of all Belgians. Hence the fracture that Belgium now experiences.

The achilles’ heel of Belgium is therefore the absence of a national constituency for the federal elections and it can be expected that the federal state will be replaced tomorrow by a confederal state and The Day after tomorrow by two states.

Willy Fautre is director of Human Rights Without Frontiers (Brussels). Former charge de mission at the cabinet of the Ministry of Education and at the Belgian Parliament to promote social cohesion between the linguistic communities