In an unequivocal move, the Council of Europe's Congress of Local Authorities voted yesterday (2 December) to impose a general monitoring of local democracy on the country which hosts the EU institutions over persistent linguistic disputes between Flemish and French-speaking communities in the Brussels area.

By overwhelming majority, the Council of Europe's Congress adopted a recommendation and a resolution put forward by rapporteurs Michel Guégan (France) and Dobrica Milovanovic (Serbia). Their mission in Belgium began in May after the Flemish authorities' failure to appoint three mayors in municipalities with special linguistic arrangements in the Brussels area. 

The three districts - Crainhem, Wezembeek-Oppem and Linkebeek – are situated in Flanders, but have French-speaking majorities. Three French-speaking candidates won large majorities, but the Flemish Government considers their victories flawed because the candidates sent electoral convocations in French, which it claims is illegal. 

In his opening remarks, rapporteur Michel Guégan stated that he was aware of the "extremely sensitive" political context in Belgium and he did not want to aggravate the situation in any way. He added that he had received "insulting letters and postcards" at home in Brittany. 

"We do not want to stigmatise the Flemish region or the minister of the interior […] I don't have the pretension, nor the audacity, to meddle into the Belgian institutional debate," said Guégan, adding: "There are limits to masochism." 

Legal or political conflict? 

Congress members called the linguistic feud in Belgium "political", and rejected the views of Flemish official representative Fons Borginon (representing Flemish Interior Minister Marino Keulen), who believes the controversy has a legal nature. 

Keulen himself did not attend the session for legal reasons, Borginon explained, insisting that the Council of Europe was not the place to discuss interpretations of Belgian legislation. 

"Why not postpone the debate until the legal case is settled?," asked Borginon. He added that by obliging Keulen to appoint the three mayors, the Council of Europe would oblige him to act illegally. 

Speaking on behalf of the three mayors, Damien Thiéry, the mayor-elect of Linkebeek, insisted that there is no legally binding document obliges mayors in communes in Brussels periphery to send electoral convocations in Flemish. He objected to "double standards", as in his words many Flemish candidate for mayors had not sent any convocations at all but were nominated. 

Speakers generally took the side of the mayors. French Congress member Jean-Louis Testud went as far as saying that "behind this masquerade hides a wish of separation of a region that wants to keep its wealth". 

The role of French representatives in the Belgian linguistic feud inquiry has already been criticised by the Belgian press, which considered that, due to his nationality, Michel Guégan was hardly the best choice of rapporteur. 

After the debate, the Congress recommended appointing the three mayors to the municipalities or proceeding to new elections. It also called for a review of the application of linguistic laws in municipalities with special arrangements. 

Latvia also under fire 

Another EU country was also slammed yesterday by the Council of Europe over its failure to grant so-called "non-citizens" (ethnic Russian residents of Latvia) the right to vote at local level. 

A recommendation urging Riga to grant such a right to vote was adopted following a debate held in the Chamber of Local Authorities, with the participation of Oskars Kastens, special assignments minister for the social integration of Latvia. 

"Some 16% of the population in Latvia, or 370,000 people, have the so-called 'non-citizen' status. Apart from this title which implies their exclusion, they do not possess de facto the same political rights as Latvian citizens," stressed Congress Vice-President Jean-Claude Frécon of France, presenting his report on the participation of non-citizens at local level in Latvia.