In 1830, Belgium was, beside a parliamentary monarchy with a written Constitution, also a unitarian State. The constitutional revisions of 1970, 1980, 1988 and 1993 spurred the development of our country into a federal State. Each community and each region has its own directly elected council and its government : they make their own laws (decrees) on a number of specific matters and also ensure their implementation.
The communities' responsibilities include, among other things, education, cultural issues (including radio and television) and personal issues (such as individual health care).
The regions' responsibilities include, among other things, those issues tied to a particular geographical area such as the economy, public works and transportation, the environment and agriculture.
For the moment, the central State retains responsibilities not explicitly alloted to the communities ant the regions. They can, however, be transferred later on, when a new article in the Constitution has enlisted the exclusive competences of the central government.
Their own elected representatives at each level
The community and regional councils are directly elected.
Until recently, the Flemish Council, the French Community Council and the Walloon Regional Council were composed of members of the federal Chamber of representatives and Senators.
Because the communities' and regions' territories overlap, most members of the regional councils are seated in a community council and vice versa.
21 out of 71 senators retained the "double mandate".
They hold two office positions : senator and member of a community council.
It involves 10 senators delegated by the Flemish Council, 10 senators delegated by the French Community Council and 1 senator by the German Community Council.
These community senators represent the communities in the Senate. This enables the Senate to play the role of meeting chamber between the different federate entities and the federal Government.
No hierarchy of laws
Because of their direct election, the community and regional councils dispose of their own democratic legitimacy.
The federate entities, however, do not have their own constitution.
Their statute is contained in the federal Constitution and in laws which usually have to be adopted by a special majority vote.(*)
This means that it is the federal Parliament which decides on the possible alteration of the community and regional structures.
This remarkable difference with other federal states can be historically explained. In Belgium, the federate entities evolved out of the central State, whilst most other federal states developed from previously independent states.
The decrees of the communities and regions have equal legal validity to federal laws, while in most other federal states a clear hierarchy is agreed upon.
In Belgium, the federal parliament can never recall a decree of a community or region.
A decree or a federal law can be partially or entirely annulled by the Court of Arbitration (**), when the community, region or federal State exceeds its authority.
The federal Parliament and the community and regional councils are mutually autonomous.
In order to prevent this broad autonomy degenerating into conflicts, a number of safeguards have been organized.
* Laws with special majority vote = for the amendment of basic legislation concerning the organization of the State, it is necessary to have a majority in each language group as well as two thirds of the votes in favor.
** The Court of Arbitration = court of justice which, among other things, determines whether or not the federal Government, a region or a community is making decisions beyond its authority.
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