EU court condemns Belgian Flanders for language bias

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The European Court of Justice has handed down a judgement against the Belgian Flemish community for infringing EU freedom of movement by only drafting workers’ contracts in Dutch.

Under the Flemish law on the use of languages, workers must complete their employment contract in Dutch. Non-compliance results in a cancellation of the contract, even if the worker comes from abroad.

The Belgian court asked the ECJ to determine if the Flemish law infringed the freedom of movement of workers within the European Union.

The EU’s highest court said in a statement on Tuesday (16 April): “The court notes that only the Dutch text is authentic in the drafting of cross-border employment contracts concluded by employers whose established place of business is located in the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. Consequently, such legislation, which is liable to have a dissuasive effect on non-Dutch-speaking employees and employers from other member states, constitutes a restriction on freedom of movement for workers.”

The judgement carries distinct political significance for Belgium, a country where political parties are deeply divided over linguistic rights between the French and Dutch-speaking communities.

Protecting the Dutch language

The Luxembourg-based court found that the Flemish community had infringed the rights of Anton Las, a Dutch national who was working for a multinational group whose registered office is in Singapore.

Not long after Las was hired as chief financial officer of PSA Antwerp, his employers terminated his contract, which was drafted in English.

The Belgian government justified the law as part of a strategy to protect and promote the Dutch language.

“The court states that such a restriction is justified only if it pursues an objective in the public interest, is appropriate to ensuring the attainment of that objective, and is strictly proportionate,” the ECJ said.

“Yet parties to a cross-border employment contract do not necessarily have knowledge of Dutch,” the court said. "In such a situation, the establishment of free and informed consent between the parties requires those parties to be able to draft their contract in a language other than the official language of that member state.”

Linguistic tensions

In Belgium tensions have arisen due to the linguistic divide between the country's two main populations, the Dutch-speaking Flemish community in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south.

Between June 2010 and December 2011, Belgium went through the worst political crisis in its history, which started with a dispute between French- and Dutch-speaking parties regarding electoral boundaries surrounding the capital, Brussels.

The crisis left Belgium without a government for 541 days.

In Belgium, tensions have arisen due to the linguistic divide between Dutch and French speakers. The country also has a small German-speaking population.

A general election held in June 2010 saw the Flemish separatist party N-VA (New Flemish Alliance) become the largest party in the North.

A political crisis ensued, which caused the country to be without a government for 541 days.

The crisis started with a row over the distribution of voting rights between the French-speaking and Flemish communities.

European Court of Justice

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