Thursday, May 19, 2011

Constitution of Belgium

The Belgian Constitution. It is a complicated subject. The Constitution in effect today actually is not much the same as the original version of 1831 other than the basic framework that Belgium is a popular monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From 1831 to 1970 the Kingdom of Belgium was a “unitary state” with one government for all people, elected by all the people. However, in 1970 the Belgian Constitution began going through many changes to make the kingdom essentially a federal state. This is not uncommon in the world but it is rather uncommon for a country as small as Belgium. Germany, Canada, the United States, for example, are all federal states. However, in Belgium, rather than states, there are “regions” and “communities” which are based on local differences, not importance. In other words, being a region or a community does not give any privilege over the other, both exist on the same level in terms of government organization.

Article 1 lays out the basic form of government. Article 2 distinguishes the three communities (Flemish, French and German) and Article 3 distinguishes the three regions (Flanders, Wallonie and the Brussels capital region). Article 4 determines what languages are exclusive to these parts of the country (Dutch for Flanders, French for Wallonie, both languages for Brussels and German for the German community). Each of these have their own political establishment and the linguistic borders can only be changed by majorities in the Chamber of Deputies for each region. The regions are then divided into provinces for the management of local issues. This is all part of Title I. Title II deals with the civil rights of all Belgian citizens. In some ways though this has been superseded by the European Convention on Human Rights. Then follows the qualifications for citizenship and the rights and obligations of citizenship. Also there is special provision to account for European Union and non-EU citizens, European voting laws.

There are many more provisions dealing with rights and freedoms, also the limitations of these. There is no death penalty, there is freedom of religion, there is freedom of speech, though some Americans have asked me about Holocaust denial laws in Belgium. I did not know until looking it up but yes, we have them and it is illegal to deny, diminish or sympathize with any of the actions of Nazi Germany. There is freedom of association, freedom of assembly and the usual rights most people today take for granted in the civilized world. The next part is the one probably most people will find confusing because it deals with the delegation of power through all the different levels. There is the European Union level, the federal level, the regional level and it all can be quite complicated to understand.

This is Title III and it is the largest part of the Constitution, very much larger than all the other parts even put together. On the highest level, dealing with European Union, treaties and government agreements handle that. On the federal level it is the King, the Senate and Chamber of Deputies (of course though the King is expected to sign whatever law the government presents to him). The King has, in name, the executive power but it is the federal government together that actually wields that power instead of the King. Finally, Articles 38 and 39 of Title III detail the powers that are held by the regions and the communities and these have naturally been the subject of the most argument and controversy over the years. One area not changing much is that dealing with the King, it is just not tolerated that he have as much influence as in the past. The biggest recent change was the abolition of Salic law so that older girls can take the throne instead of only boys.

I will try to explain this, but even for me it is complicated. The communities and regions each have their own governments with power over certain areas as put in the Constitution. There is the Flemish Parliament, the Parliament of the French Community and the Parliament of the German-Speaking Community. In Flanders, the Flemish Parliament represents both the region and the community. This is not always the case though as in Wallonie there are two different bodies, the Parliament of the French Community and also the Wallonie Parliament. Not everyone in the community parliament is a member of the regional parliament but every member of the regional parliament is a member of the community parliament (keeping up?). Members often serve in more than one so that French-speaking politicians from Brussels can serve in the Brussels capital parliament and also the French community parliament. But, except for senators, one cannot serve in a community or regional parliament at the same time as serving in the federal parliament in Brussels. These are all responsible for cultural and linguistic matters within their areas (outside federal institutions) but there have been long arguments recently over these bodies being given more control over taxes, income distribution and financial things.

Finally the Constitution establishes the judicial system (Constitutional, military, labor and law courts and that stuff) and finally the local governments, which are the provinces and cities to manage their administration. Also I should mention that the German-speaking community does not have quite the same privliges of the other major communities. Their powers can be changed at the federal level without a full majority and that would be pretty impossible since the German-speaking community is so small, consisting of areas formerly of Germany that Belgium was given as compensation after the World War One.

So, is that a sufficient summary of the Belgian Constitution? Many people are probably like me, when government issues of jurisdiction and these things come up I lose interest fast for it being so boring and complicated. When I have been told it is important to understand, I don’t think so because it always seems that all the time something is being changed or at least trying to be changed with one side or the other saying this or that change is just about to happen. So, I justify my laziness saying why learn all the details now when it will just be changing again anyway? I hope I have given some helpful information but I know I cannot explain everything because much of it I do not know or don’t remember from when I was taught. When I came to United States for some education, one of the things I noticed was people carrying the U.S. Constitution in their pocket! It was a little booklet in their pocket and this was a shock to me. As I explained, this we could not do in Belgium since the Constitution would probably be the size of an encyclopedia! That is a little exaggeration but it did make an impression on me, considering especially how big America is, how small Belgium is and how the U.S. government has been around for a century longer than the Belgian government of today.


  1. It seems to me that Belgium was better off as a centralized, unitary state, what do you think?

  2. Now, I think so. In the past it sounded good to me, the current situation, but it is much more complicated, costly and I think obviously the regional tensions have only increased since federalism, not decreased as they maybe hoped back then.

  3. It does seem so terribly complicated- constitutions ought to be kept 'short and sweet'.

    Do provinces/regions/communities have the right, under the Belgian constitution, to secede unilaterally from Belgium? I mean, could Flanders, for instance, legally declare independence, without the consent of the other parts of the country?

  4. For Flanders, the community controls absolutely the region and in Wallonie there is no support for division (one little party that never has had any seats). For Flanders, I think they can if they will -understand? They are not supposed to act all on their own, but then to secede you cannot stop them. I don't remember anything about that in the Constitution but I think, in the past, that was considered a thing covered by the oath of the King to keep united the country. Naturally, today things are different.

    There must be no law against it because so many go ahead to pursue that and I think if there was a law against it there would be alot of complaining about that. However, clearly it cannot be simple, because the sharing of responsibilities is so complex and because of all the international organizations and treaties written into the national law -many think Flanders can never secede because they will never be able to cut through all that paperwork in centuries!

  5. It does seem a powerful lot of parliaments and politicians for a country that could fit in one of our cow pastures. I wonder what the ratio is of parliaments per square mile?

  6. Yes, a small country, you do not get tired of pointing this out. I agree though there are too many government bodies. It is not efficient and I think not necessary.