Council of Europe slams Belgium over linguistic feud

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. 

Council of Europe rapporteur Michel Guégan insisted that the European Charter of Local Self-Government takes precedence over Belgian national legislation. 

"The European Charter of Local Self-Government is our unique reference which has been guiding our work until now. Belgium signed and ratified it, this text takes precedence in this country over its national legislation,'' stressed Guégan. 

''It is not by chance that Belgium is one of the founding states of the Council of Europe, because it shares the same values of this organisation and it has been one of its most active member states for more than 50 years. It is in the spirit of this commitment that I wish for us to be working together to improve Belgian local democracy, where it is necessary," he concluded. 

Speaking to Flanders Today, Flemish Interior Minister Marino Keulen insisted that he had not appointed the three candidate mayors because they had broken the law. 

"They have systematically broken the law. They did so in 2006 when they failed to organise the elections in compliance with the language laws. They also do so repeatedly when they allow council meetings to be held in French. They are systematically refusing to obey the laws and decrees of the Flemish government and have turned opposition to the Flemish authorities into a national sport. Their non-appointment is a result of this endless conflict," said Keulen. 

The Flemish minister added that the three candidate mayors would be better off addressing a higher Belgian court rather than an international body. "If the candidate mayors do not agree with my decision, they should take the case to the Council of State [the Belgian supreme court]. By refusing to do so, they are skipping an essential step in the procedure, since legally the Council of State is the only institution that can reverse my decision," Keulen stated. 

Vlaams Belang, a party representing the Belgian Flemish community and which supports an independent Flanders, called the decision by the Council of Europe "the result of the very consisting lobbying of the French speaking community in the international bodies". Vlaams Belang also stated that the Council of Europe had undermined its legitimacy, calling on the Flemish government not to follow its "ridiculous" conclusions. 

Belgium's political institutions are complex, with most of the political power organised around the need to represent the main cultural communities. Consecutive revisions of the constitution (in 1970, 1980, 1988 and 1993) established a unique federal state with political power segregated into three levels – the federal government, the three language communities (Flemish, French and German) and the three regions (Flemish region, Walloon region and Brussels-capital region). 

A renewed effort to reform the constitution and re-balance power is currently underway. On 13 and 14 May 2008, the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities sent a fact-finding mission to Belgium to look into the situation following the failure of the Flemish interior minister to appoint three mayors in municipalities in the Flemish region (EURACTIV 15/05/08). The Congress delegation was made up of rapporteurs Michel Guégan (head of delegation; France) and Dobrica Milovanovic (Serbia). 

On 31 October, the draft resolution was adopted unanimously by the Institutional Committee of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (EURACTIV 04/11/08). The decision opened a monitoring procedure on the application of the European Charter of Local Self-Government in Belgium. 

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