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February 3, 2023

Introduction to the Belgian institutional organization: six state reforms in a nutshell

When Romania adopted in 1866 its first constitution, the Belgian constitution was taken as an example because of its most liberal approach with as key principles a broad scope of guarantees on freedom for the citizen. The complexity of the constitution was in priority related to the rights and obligations of the individual rather than to the description of the institutional framework. In the early Belgian days institutional matters were thus simple with the first article of the constitution indicating that the state was divided into nine provinces. After a number of adaptions of the Belgian constitution, mainly providing a more refined and diversified statehood environment for the individual, including voting rights for all, constitutional reforms after the second World War were focused on the institutional re-organization of the state.
The first state reform in 1970 established three cultural communities (Flemish, French and German speaking) and three territorial regions. The cultural communities assumed responsibility for all cultural matters. Most importantly, they took over control of broadcasting and the use of the community language. The second reform in 1980 introduced under the authority of the Communities, replacing the cultural communities from 1970, the notion of matters relating to the person or the individual, such as health and youth policy. From then onwards, the three Communities were known as the Flemish Community, the French Community and the German-speaking Community. The territorial regions were re-baptized in Regions (Flemish and Walloon). Brussels Capital Region was established only later, at the occasion of the third state reform in 1988-89 which also transferred education fully to the Communities. In Flanders already in 1980 the decision was taken to merge the institutions of the Community and the Region, meaning that there would be only one Flemish Parliament for a Francophone Parliament, a Walloon and later a Brussels Parliament. From 1995 onwards, direct elections in the decentralized entities took place, allowing separate voting for each Parliament and separate negotiations for the formation of each Government.
Step by step Belgium became a federal state, a status which was officially proclaimed in 1993, providing more competences to the Regions and the Communities. The first article of the Belgian Constitution was amended to read as follows, “Belgium is a Federal State which consists of Communities and Regions”. Following the split in 1993 of the province of Brabant, Belgium counts today ten provinces. Brussels Capital Region does not belong to any province. However a governor is appointed by the Government of the Brussels Capital Region on unanimous advice of the Federal Council of Ministers. The German speaking Community is entirely embedded within the Province of Liège and is part of the Walloon Region. With the fifth state reform in 2001, more competences were transferred from the national state to the decentralized structures, including agriculture, foreign trade and competences in relation to the oversight over local authority. The Regions became responsible for twelve regional taxes, while municipal and provincial matters became a regional competence. The first municipal and provincial elections under the supervision of the Regions were held in 2006. The latest reform is the sixth state reform which was finalized in July 2011. Fully implemented, the three Regions and the three Communitees will acquire with this reform new competences, representing a budget equivalent of seventeen billion Euro. A fiscal decentralization is part of these latest reforms allowing to a certain extent the regional administration to opt for differentiated fiscal measures. The reforms which the new Belgian government sworn in on October 10, 2014, will have to implement, will also have an impact on the organization of the judiciary, in particular for the Brussels judicial district that sees its authority being limited to the Brussels Capital Region. The bicameral structure at the national level is kept but the Belgian Senate is no longer directly elected. In this sense the current Belgian Senate has become after the elections of 25th of May 2014 an Assembly of representatives of the regional Parliaments with fewer members totaling 132 senators compared to 184 before (in its previous configuration).
The sixth reform also transferred to the Regions all personal matters which were still under the responsibility of the provinces. The reduced competences of the provinces and the expansion of urban areas around the major towns as well as the further integration of the 515 municipalities, have initiated a new debate on the organization of the provinces versus the regional and the municipality authority. This debate and other current or future institutional debates are part of long lasting academic and political discussions to modernize the state, taking into consideration subsidiarity as a basic principle to provide the citizens a maximum of self-determination on the one hand and implement the decisions of the supra-national authority which is represented by the European Union on the other hand. The Belgian Constitutional Court is an important pillar in this construction as final arbiter in settling disputes on the interpretation of the legislation. Belgium is considered as an institutional laboratory, proving since the first state reform in 1970 that is able to cope, without the use of violence, with sometimes difficult issues in inter-community and inter-institutional relations.

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