Definitions

uni-lingual

Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde

“Brussels judicial Arrondissement” redirects here.
Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (often abbreviated as BHV) is a Belgian electoral arrondissement in the center of the country that encompasses both the officially bilingual Brussels-Capital Region, which coincides with the administrative arrondissement of Brussels-Capital, as well as the officially unilingual Dutch-speaking area around it, Halle-Vilvoorde, which in turn forms a separate administrative arrondissement. Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde is also a bilingual judicial arrondissement, unambiguously better known as the Brussels judicial Arrondissement after the location of its main courts.

The creation of the district: 1960-2000

The official status of this region stems from the 1961-1965 Lefevre-Spaak government, during which Brussels was officially limited to 19 municipalities. This was due to Flemish fear for uninterrupted growth of the by then already predominantly French-speaking agglomeration into the surrounding Flemish countryside.

Since 1921, Belgium was divided in 2 uni-lingual entities (French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders), with municipalities belonging to either one of them from 1932. A particular bilingual status was created for Brussels, Belgium's capital, located in Flanders but with a majority of French speakers. The linguistic status of municipalities also followed a dynamic scheme, depending on the decennial linguistic census:
- If a uni-lingual municipality gathered more than 30% of speakers of the other language, linguistic facilities were provided to that minority. The municipality remained constitutionally speaking part of its uni-lingual region, but its relations with citizens was effectively bilingual;
- If a linguistic minority became majority in a (most probably bilingual) municipality, the municipal council could decide to shift its belonging from one linguistic region to the other;
- If the linguistic minority of a municipality with linguistic facilities failed to maintain 30% of citizens, it lost its linguistic facilities and became again effectively uni-lingual.

This dynamic system led to Flemish uni-lingual municipalities around Brussels becoming bi-lingual, which was seem by Flemish as an attack to their cultural territory. Brussels was indeed mainly French speaking, and its rural surroundings slowly underwent urban sprawl.

Flemish politicians therefore started opposing the linguistic census. The last census, taken in 1947 but only published in 1954, resulted in 3 municipalities gaining bi-lingual status. There was no following census, as Flemish majors unconstitutionally boycotted the 1960 census, as many signs suggested that the French-speaking population in a number of municipalities had largely increased (unofficial studies estimate a majority of French-speaking population between 52% and 79%, see municipalities with language facilities).

A deal was struck in 1963: the dynamic system was abolished, bilingual Brussels would be limited to 19 municipalities, and, in the Flemish Halle and Vilvoorde areas surrounding Brussels, six municipalities with between 30% and 50% French speakers (as determined by the latest linguistic census from 1947) would be granted extended facilities (linguistical, but also political rights). The French-speaking parliamentarians tried to add these 6 municipalities to Brussels, which was fiercely resisted by the unanimous Flemish parliamentarians.

The same arrangement was made for a number of municipalities on the border between Wallonia and Flanders, where local linguistic minorities (above 30% at the census that had preceded their determining) could enjoy identical facilities.

Though officially agreed and effected, this compromise led to bitter resentment by both communities and did much to fuel the rise of extreme parties.

Current electoral arrangements

For the elections of the Chamber, the usual electoral districts are the provinces (since the general elections of 2003). In the former province of Brabant however, the old electoral arrangements still survive: the French-speaking electoral arrondissement of Nivelles (the whole province of Walloon Brabant), the Dutch-speaking electoral arrondissement of Leuven (coinciding with the eastern administrative arrondissement of the province of Flemish Brabant) and the electoral arrondissement of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, coinciding with both the administrative arrondissement Brussels-Capital and Halle-Vilvoorde (the western administrative arrondissement of the province of Flemish Brabant). For the allocation of seats between the party lists on the level of the former province of Brabant (apparentment), lists can be combined between Leuven and Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (Dutch-speaking parties do this) or between Nivelles and Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (French-speaking parties do this).

For the elections of the Senate and of the European Parliament, electors can choose between the lists competing for seats in the Dutch-speaking electoral college and for those running for seats in the French-speaking electoral college.

Electoral reform causes crisis

Around 2000, a consensus was gradually formed among Flemish parties to request the splitting of the electoral district. For the elections in 2003 new electoral districts were created based on the provinces. With regards to Brussels and the arrondissements of the province of Flemish Brabant the old districts (Leuven and B-H-V) were retained.

The purported reasons for Flemish dissatisfaction are the following: In European and national elections voters in this district can choose candidates from both communities (French and Flemish), although the Halle-Vilvoorde area solely belongs to the constitutionally-established Flemish community. Because of the amalgamated BHV electoral district, that possibility is extended to the French-speakers living in the Flemish district of Halle-Vilvoorde but not to the Dutch-speakers in the Walloon district of Nivelles. This means that people living in Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde can vote for parties and candidates from another Region and Community than the one they live in. The current BHV electoral district was therefore ruled to breach the constitutionally established borders and equality principles: between provinces, between the language areas, as well as between the Communities. The problem is not that French-speaking inhabitants of Halle-Vilvoorde can vote for French-speaking candidates who live in Halle-Vilvoorde themselves, but that they can vote for candidates and parties who belong to another constitutionally established Community and Region.

The French-speaking parties, who are embedded in the French Community and the Brussels and Walloon Regions, are radically opposed to dividing the BHV electoral district, while the Flemish parties are equally adamant in favour of a split.

Flemish demands for the area to be split are met with equally stringent demands by the Francophone community for the six special-facility communes to be officially added to Brussels proper. This Francophone demand would create a previously non-existent "corridor" between the French-speaking region of Wallonia and majority French-speaking Brussels, much to the dismay of Flemish politicians.

Constitutionality

Official rulings

In 2003, one week after the election, the Arbitration Court (Dutch: Arbitragehof, French: Cour d'Arbitrage) — now the Constitutional Court declared the new election law unconstitutional. It judged that, among other things, the definition of the electoral arrondissement Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde for national and European elections is a violation of the non-discrimination principle between the Belgians, taken in combination with articles 1 through 5 of the Constitution (especially article 4, defining the language areas).

However, it left open the precise nature of any solution and this did not demand the splitting of the electoral district, nor did it allow its maintenance like it is now.

Nevertheless, the Court declared the results of the then-complete 2003 elections (held under the unconstitutional declared law) valid, to avoid having to redo the elections.

Pending aspects

The court however did not (yet) rule on all aspects of the constitutionality. Among others, it did not rule on the fact that French-speakers now enjoy de facto rights that Flemings don't. This applies mainly on the fact that a French-Speaker from Brussels who moves into the unilingual Flemish Region can still continue to vote for his French-speaking Brussels candidates, whereas a Fleming who moves into the (equally) unilingual Walloon Region can not vote anymore for his Flemish candidates of choices living in the two regions where Dutch is an official language (Flemish Region and Brussels Region).

A minor discrimination is that French-speaking candidates from Brussels, can compete for votes in Flanders, without being subject to the entire valid legislation (only to the Belgian laws, but not to the Flemish laws applicable in Flemish region), whereas Flemish candidates always have to obey both Belgian and regional/community legislation.

Flemish Point of view

Many legal experts in Flanders, such as prof. Paul Van Orshoven and Matthias Storme, argue that there is no way out, other than splitting BHV, that will respect the entire constitution.

On the political level, Flemings argue that French-speakers who cho(o)se to live in Flanders should start respecting all Flemish institutions – legislation, parliament, government, official language and territory – and stop requesting an exceptional status (of not having to respect the Flemish institutions that are constitutionally established and internationally recognized). This implies that French-speakers respect the division of Belgium in four linguistic areas, a division that was democratically approved – with support of many French-speaking members of the Belgian parliament. The Flemings claim that they only want 'as much' respect for their institutions as is the case everywhere else in the European union.

French-speaker's point of view

Just as unanimously as the Flemish point of view, many French-speakers claim that those French-speakers who cho(o)se to live in the Flemish Region should have the right to be treated as a linguistic minority that falls under the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

This would imply, according to their point of view, that French-speakers should enjoy facilities outside the originally designated municipalities with linguistic facilities. This should also include (for voting rights) the entire Halle-Vilvoorde area. In their view, facilities should extend beyond what the Belgian constitution has established, because the municipalities situated in the corridor between the Brussels region and the Walloon region all have a francophone majority. If the BHV electoral district would be split, these citizens would lose the right to vote for francophone politicians from Brussels at the federal elections. They would then only be able to vote for politicians - both Dutch-speaking and French-speaking - from the Halle-Vilvoorde area.

Legal and political considerations

There is a lack of consensus amongst national legal authorities about this subject, as they too seem divided between French and Dutch speakers. The French-speaking Community and the Flemisch Government have a different interpretation of the language facilities enjoyed by the French-speaking population in some municipalities.

Regular supra-national recommendations from the Council of Europe express concerns that the minority of French speakers in Flanders should be recognised and protected as an official linguistic minority, as defined by the Venice Commission.

Flemish authorities have disregarded these recommendations from the Council of Europe as neglecting the special character of Flanders.

Government crisis 2004-2005

As of 2005, cabinet ministers and parties have been locked in debate over the future of this electoral district, and long overdue decisions have not yet been forthcoming.

Compromise solutions have been proposed:

  • The BHV electoral district could be joined to the neighbouring Flemish electoral district of Leuven, allowing greater numbers of Dutch speakers a vote in a combined Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde-Leuven district.
  • In return for leaving BHV in its current state, one might accomplish Flemish demands for specific powers currently under Federal jurisdiction to be conferred to the Regions.

A deadline of May 11, 2005, by which time a decision was to be reached, has expired with a compromise eluding the negotiators. A compromise worked out by Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt was explicitly opposed by only one coalition partner, namely the Flemish party Spirit. It is believed that this compromise would have entitled the French Community with the right to exercise certain, limited powers over inhabitants of the Flemish Community, in return for the splitting of BHV.

After visiting King Albert II to report the failure of the seven negotiation meetings to reach a successful conclusion, the Prime Minister requested a vote of confidence from the parliament. The Parliament supported the government on Friday 13th May 2005 and the issue was put on hold until the next general election in 2007.

Federal elections of 2007

With the federal elections of 10 June 2007 looming, the problem of the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde reemerged. Because the federal government failed to comply with a ruling of the Court of Arbitration which declared the provincial electoral districts compared to the two remaining arrondisemental ones in the former province of Brabant unconstitutional, several mayors in the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde area have threatened to refuse to compile the lists of electors.

Professor and constitutional expert Paul Van Orshoven from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven declared that the elections, held on June 10, were unconstitutional. According to Van Orshoven there are two problems:

  • As the previous election was held Sunday May 18, 2003, the final date to hold elections (four years from the previous) is Sunday, May 13, 2007
  • The Court of Arbitration gave the government the time to fix the B-H-V problem until the next elections should been scheduled, after that election results could be declared void.

As in 2003, several mayors and groupings have called for a boycott of the elections. 24 communes have refused to cooperate in the organization of the elections. In May 2007, the commune Steenokkerzeel launched a court case against the federal government for not complying with the ruling of the Court of Arbitration. The case should have started on May 25, 2007, but the case was mistakenly scheduled in a one-judge court room rather than a three-judge court room and is therefore delayed.

2007 Government formation

The problem of BHV became an important issue in the 2007 Belgian government formation. On 7 November 2007, the Flemish-speaking parties voted at the Committee on the Interior of the Chamber of Representatives for the disentanglement, while the French-speaking parties refused to vote and left the room. This situation has never previously occurred in Belgian history. All representatives of the Flemish parties voted in favor of the split of the BHV electoral district, with the exception of Tinne van der Straeten, of Groen!, the Flemish green party.

Federal elections after 2007

The newly appointed Flemish President of the Constitutional Court Marc Bossuyt has stated that future federal elections could be deemed "unconstitutional" if a legal arrangement for Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde hadn't been put in place by then. The next federal elections are scheduled for 2011.

According to Article 65 of the Belgian Constitution the Federal Parliament ends it term after 4 years which automatically leads to new federal elections within 40 days.

References

See also

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