Belgium under scrutiny over linguistic feud

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The country hosting the EU institutions may soon face a monitoring procedure by the Council of Europe, according to human rights envoys from the oldest European organisation speaking in Brussels yesterday at the end of a fact-finding mission.

One of the envoys on the fact-finding mission is a Serb, whose country is currently under several monitoring procedures following years of conflicts and wars. 

Dobrica Milovanovic, deputy mayor of the Serbian city of Kragujevac, told EURACTIV he was feeling somewhat uncomfortable about his mission to Belgium because it is usually his country which is the subject of such initiatives. 

He and Michel Guégan, mayor of a small town in Bretagne, met the press after discussing with Belgian officials and politicians the case of three mayors, elected in October 2006, who have not been appointed because Flemish Interior Minister Marino Keulen refused to endorse their nominations. 

The three districts – Crainhem, Wezembeek-Oppem and Linkebeek – are situated in Flanders, but have French-speaking majorities. The 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. 

For Michel Guégan, the case reveals an unreasonable delay in that three elected local representatives have been denied the right to perform their duty, necessary for the good functioning of the respective districts. He did not venture to comment on whether the case was political or legal, but called for “more flexibility [and] more common sense”. 

Guégan explained that the present fact-finding mission by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe he is chairing will produce a report by the end of this month. Then the Congress of Local and Regional authorities will decide upon the follow up. 

“We shall see if this will be a general monitoring or a simple recommendation,” he stated. His colleague Dobrica Milovanovic also stressed “this will not be the end of our mission”. 

Minister Mario Keulen said it was “absurd” that the delegation from Strasbourg did not take Belgian linguistic legislation into account. Frieda Brepoels, a Belgian MEP from Flanders, lambasted the “arrogance” of the mission, pointing out that its members were not well prepared enough to evaluate the situation. The Belgian press also expressed doubts as to whether the Council of Europe’s appointment of a French head of delegation was a good idea. The fact that a Swedish member of the delegation cancelled its participation in the mission was also criticised.

The Council of Europe can make recommendations to its 47 member states, but cannot it cannot impose sanctions on them for non-compliance. In 1998 and 2001, the Council of Europe recommended that six Flemish districts, including Crainhem, Wezembeek-Oppem and Linkebeek, should join the majority, French-speaking Brussels region. But this call was largely ignored by the Flemish authorities. 

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