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Municipalities with language facilities

The municipalities with language facilities, occasionally called municipalities with linguistic facilities or shortly municipalities with facilities (Dutch: "faciliteitengemeenten", French: "communes à facilités", German: "Fazilitäten-Gemeinde"), are municipalities in Belgium with special law provisions to protect rights of their (historic) linguistic minorities. They are so-called municipalities with a special status. The translation commune with linguistic facilities can also be found.

Basically, in these municipalities it is possible to relate with the local and federal administration, in one official language other than that of the language area within which the municipality lies.

For instance, in those municipalities, French-speakers in Flanders and Dutch-and German-speakers in Wallonia, and French-speakers in the German language area may obtain administrative documents from local public authorities or from certain federal authorities in their mother tongue. In addition, legislation on municipalities also provides for equal public funding for primary schools for the language minority, as well as information in the minority language from the national railway company. For public services and documents from intermediate authorities (such as the provincial and regional authorities), such rights do not exist (although on a voluntary basis, certain summary information is provided in the facilities' language).

History

1921-1962

There were three language areas as from the July 31, 1921, law: the Dutch-speaking Flemish area, the French-speaking Walloon area, and the bilingual area of Brussels (capital city). These language areas of 1921 had actually no institutional translation in the structure of the Belgian state, then still constitutionally divided into provinces and municipalities. Thence a French-speaking unilingual municipality could for instance be part of the West Flanders province.

The Belgian law of June 28, 1932, 'on the use of languages for administrative matters' based the language status of every Belgian municipality on the decennial census that included, since 1846, several language questions about the knowledge as well as the day-to-day practice. The criterion to belong to the Flemish or Walloon language area was the attainment of a threshold of 50%; whereas, over 30% the municipal authorities had to offer services in the minority language as well. A municipality could ask the government to change its linguistic status by a royal decree only after a census would have shown a passage over the 30% or 50% threshold.

The German- and Luxembourgish-speaking minorities in Eastern Wallonia were not mentioned in the 1921 or 1931 laws. The German-speaking minority was mostly settled in the 'Eastern Cantons', several Prussian municipalities ceded to Belgium by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and administered from 1920 to 1925 by a Belgian military High Commissioner. There was, and still is, a Luxembourgish-speaking minority in some municipalities bordering the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

The 1932 law was only implemented once, as the invasion of Belgium by Nazi Germany in 1940 prevented the organization of the decennial census, which was organized in 1947 and only applied on July 2, 1954, when an ad hoc law 'modifying the law of June 28, 1932, on the use of languages for administrative matters' transferred three previously unilingual Flemish municipalities with language facilities for the French-speaking minority (Evere, Ganshoren and Berchem-Sainte-Agathe/Sint-Agatha-Berchem) to the bilingual region of Brussels, thus and introduced language facilities for the French-speaking minority in four previously unilingual Flemish municipalities (Drogenbos, Kraainem, Wemmel and Linkebeek).

1962 onwards

In 1962-1963 four language areas were formally determined: the Dutch language area (now also corresponding with the Flemish Region), the bilingual area of Brussels-Capital, (which borders came to determine those of the present Brussels-Capital Region), the French language area and the German language (together coinciding now with Wallonia).

The situation around Brussels (in the rim municipalities, see below) differs from the situation along the border between Flanders and Wallonia, and between the German and French-speaking areas in Wallonia, where certain municipalities have had linguistic minorities since several centuries. The language border appears quite stable and peaceful, except for the municipalities of Voeren (French: Fourons) and to a much lesser extent Mouscron (Dutch: Moeskroen) and Comines-Warneton (Dutch: Komen-Waasten).

In the early 1990s, a revision of the Belgian Constitution has made it more difficult to change the language status of the concerned municipalities, by requiring that any such change should gain a majority in each of the two language groups in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Previously, an overall majority would have been enough, which could have in theory allowed a near unanimity of Flemish representatives to impose an abolition of the facilities against the unanimous French-speaking representatives. This revision of the Constitution was widely seen by French-speakers as a recognition that language facilities had a permanent status.

Actual implementation of language facilities

Currently, both Dutch- and French-speakers voice complaints about poor or absent respect by certain authorities for their linguistic rights. Both competent Belgian and European Courts are frequently solicited to arbitrate. Political discussions are often held in various competent assemblies as the Belgian Federal Parliament (which is institutionally competent in these matters), and in the regional and community parliaments assemblies. Even the Assembly of the Council of Europe became involved and sent two Swiss, then a Romanian representative to investigate the situation.

In terms of objective observations, one notes:

  • That the Flemish authorities finance French-speaking schools in the Flemish municipalities with facilities for the French-speakers (see below for a list; annual subvention nearly 10 million Euro); in contrast, the authorities of the French-speaking community do not finance Dutch-speaking schools in the Walloon municipalities with facilities for the Dutch-speakers. Both are legally required to do so, but the French Community claims the number of interested students to be below the viable threshold to maintain a school in the concerned municipalities. That threshold applies to regular French-speaking schools as well. On the other hand, the French Community has tolerated the funding of a Flemish school in Comines-Warneton by the Flemish Community, in spite of the anti-constitutionality of this extra-territorial initiative.
  • In terms of local public services and communication, it seems that the Flemish municipalities with facilities have a correct bilingual communication (e.g. their websites are bi- or even multi-lingual), whereas some Walloon municipalities with facilities appear monolingual in their general communication towards their inhabitants.
  • However, in the late 1990s, two Flemish ministers, Leo Peeters and Luc Vandenbrande, issued instructions to the administrations of the municipalities with facilities for the French-speakers to the effect that French-speakers who wanted to get a translation of a document had to request it every single time they were asking for it, even if they had explicitly made the demand to get it in French once and for all. Those instructions were in contradiction with the practice until then, which was condoned by the Permanent Commission for Language Control, a paritary body set up by the law to control the correct application of the language laws in Belgium. French speakers sued the Flemish Region to restore the previous practice. After multiple years, the Flemish Chambers of the Council of State, the highest administrative court in Belgium, supported the new instructions, in a rare case of disavowing the recommendation of its auditor. French speakers have generally considered that the ruling of the Flemish Chambers of the Council of State was politically motivated and legally not sound. The Walloon Region has not taken any formal step to restrict the use of facilities in a similar way for Dutch- or German-speakers — although it de facto already severely restricts the facilities for Flemings, e.g. the monolingual commnuication of the Walloon municipalities involved, the blocking of all funding for Dutch-speaking schools, and at least one of the four municipalities required to offer facilities for Dutch-speakers, demands similar repeated requests for documents in their language per every instance.
  • That Belgian courts are extremely reluctant to arbitrate in all matters related to the linguistic and ethnic rights of the various ethnic and language groups in Belgium.

Recent trends

Over time, Flemings have become dissatisfied by the continued and growing presence of French-speakers in the "rim" municipalities around Brussels. As a result, there is now a reaction in Flanders demanding that the current language facilities should be phased out, especially around Brussels. For the facilities in the municipalities with historic minorities on the Walloon-Flemish border, there is still a willingness to consider maintaining them on condition of reciprocity (that these facilities are also re-established in practice in the corresponding Walloon cities).

French-speakers want to maintain all current facilities in Flanders, the more militant wing wanting to extend them in scope and/or in area. French-speaking political parties especially protested against the Flemish ministerial circular letters from the socialist minister Leo Peeters (see supra). These circular letters, various additional restrictions put on the use of French in those municipalities, and the claims made by more and more Flemish politicians in favor of the abolition of the facilities has caused a radicalization of the French-speakers, many of whom now think their linguistic rights would be better protected if the "rim" municipalities would join the bilingual Brussels-Capital Region.

Lili Nabholz-Haidegger, a Swiss deputy, made a report on September 5, 2002, inviting Belgium to recognise the fact that there is a French-speaking minority in Flanders. This report was approved by the Council of Europe. However, this assembly, contrary to the Belgian and regional legislators, and to the Belgian and European judiciary, has no legal competency in these matters, only a moral one. Moreover, this recommendation is seen by some experts as on legally unstable grounds as there is no definition of national minorities (not from EU legislation, nor from any other competent international body), nor did it include any such definition that is sufficiently suitable to gain international acceptance. Before the 2002 Nabholz-Haidegger report, there had already another one from the same institution, the Domeni Columberg report, and another one afterwards, all getting to the same conclusions.

List of municipalities with facilities

Dutch-speaking municipalities with facilities for French-speakers

In Flanders there are two kinds of municipalities with facilities. Rim municipalities are situated in the Flemish rim around the Brussels-Capital Region and form part of Flemish Brabant. The other municipalities are called language border municipalities because they lie close to the border with Wallonia.

Rim municipalities

Wezembeek-Oppem and Kraainem are sometimes referred to as the "Oostrand" (literally "East rim" in English). In 2005, a survey published in Le Soir on February 14, 2005, indicated that in all six rim municipalities, the majority of the population was French-speaking (the study was unofficial, since public authorities refuse to undertake any census). More precisely, the survey claimed that the French-speaking population amounts to 55% of the population in Drogenbos, 78% in Kraainem, 79% in Linkebeek, 54% in Wemmel, 72% in Wezembeek-Oppem, and 58% in Sint-Genesius-Rode. It is, however, worth noting that Le Soir (a French-language local Brussels newspaper) supports the demands of the militant Front des Francophones, as many of its editors live in the municipalities with facilities.

Language border municipalities

French-speaking municipalities with facilities for Dutch-speakers

French-speaking municipalities with limited educational provisions for German- and Dutch-speakers

French-speaking municipalities with facilities for German-speakers

German-speaking municipalities with facilities for French-speakers

All municipalities in the German language region have French-language facilities:

See also

References

External links

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