Country introduction (SOER 2010)
Federal structure of the state and division of powers in Belgium
Belgium is a Federal State composed of 3 communities and 3 regions
Figure 1: The Regions and Communities of Belgium
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Belgium is a federal state composed of communities and regions1. After becoming independent in 1830, Belgium gradually evolved from a unitary to a federal structure. Five successive constitutional reforms (in 1970, 1980, 1988-89, 1993 and 2001) have resulted in the present-day governing structure.
The division of powers under the successive reforms evolved on the basis of two main criteria. The first, language, and, more broadly, culture, gave rise to the communities. The concept of ‘community’ refers to the people that make it up and the ties which unite them, namely language and culture. Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch and German. Modern-day Belgium is therefore composed of three communities: the Flemish, the French and the German-speaking Community. They correspond to population groupings. The French Community exercises its authority in the Walloon provinces, with the exception of the German-speaking municipalities, and in Brussels; the Flemish Community exercises its authority in the Flemish provinces and in Brussels; the German speaking Community exercises its authority in the municipalities of the German-speaking region, all of which are situated in the Province of Liege (Figure 1).
The second main thrust of the constitutional reform is rooted in history and in particular the aspiration of some for greater economic autonomy. The creation of three regions is the result of these aspirations. The three regional institutions are named after their territories, i.e. from north to south, the Flemish Region, the Brussels-Capital Region and the Walloon Region (Figure 1). Their powers have expanded during the different phases of the reform. Currently, each of the three regions has one legislative and one executive body: the regional council and the regional government. In Flanders, the community and regional institutions have merged, so there is only one Flemish council and one Flemish government.
The constitutional reform has thus created a three-tier system. The upper tier comprises the federal state, the communities and the regions, all equal under law. They intervene on an equal footing but in different areas.
The middle tier comprises the ten provinces. They act within the framework of the federal, community or regional powers and are subordinate to all higher authorities. The bottom tier of the edifice comprises the municipalities (589 in all), which are the level of power closest to the citizen. Like the provinces, they are also subordinate to the higher authorities. Depending on the area of power being exercised, they are therefore accountable to the federal government, the community or the region. They are financed and controlled primarily by the regions.
Division of powers
The federal government is responsible for key policies such as foreign affairs, defence, justice, finance, social security and an important part of public health matters and internal affairs. The communities and the regions are nonetheless responsible for establishing foreign relations for matters under their authority.
The powers of the communities concern matters related to ‘persons’: culture (theatre, libraries, audiovisual, etc.), education, use of languages and matters that can be ‘personalised’, including health policy (preventive and curative medicine) and assistance to individuals (child protection, social assistance, family assistance, reception of immigrants, etc.). The communities are also responsible for scientific research and international relations in the areas under their authority.
The regions have powers in areas related to occupation of the ‘territory’ in the broad sense. The Flemish Region, the Brussels-Capital Region and the Walloon Region are thus responsible for the economy, employment, agriculture, water policy, housing, public works, energy, transport (with the exception of the national railway, SNCB), the environment, town and country planning, rural revitalisation, nature conservation, credit, foreign trade, and provincial, municipal and inter-municipal administration. They are responsible for scientific research and international relations in the above-mentioned areas.
1 First article of the Belgian constitution