History of the Flemish Federated Entity and its Parliamentary assemblies
The government of Belgium is a complicated matter. The country is divided by a language boundary. The regions located on either side differ considerably in socio-economic and cultural aspects. The conflicts caused by this have always been resolved peacefully. Belgians are masters at finding compromises, 'the Belgian compromise' is a well-known concept.
The result of these compromises is an intricate state structure, with a federal Government and three Communities and three Regions, each of which are free to organise their administration as they wish.
How did this development come about?
When Belgium gained independence in 1830, the Constitution concentrated the power in a central government structure: the Belgian Parliament and the Belgian Government. Decades of French supremacy had resulted in a French-speaking elite and administration both in Flanders and in Brussels and Wallonia. French was spoken throughout public life.
In the 19th century the Flemish movement grew as a reaction against the dominance of French as the language of administration. It took a long time before Flemish citizens could use their language in court, had a public administration in their own language, and could attend Dutch-speaking schools.
In 1962 the language areas in Belgium were defined. Above all, Flemish citizens wanted to be able to take their own decisions from then onwards on matters in which they had had to fight to be able to use their own language, such as culture, education and welfare. They advocated separate Flemish, French and German-speaking Communities.
French-speaking citizens mainly wanted to be able to take their own decisions in matters such as the economy, the environment, town and country planning, and roads. To them it was important that Brussels, which, geographically, is an island within the Flemish Community, would have its own government. That is why they advocated a Flemish, a Walloon and a Brussels Region.
Finally, a compromise was reached: Belgium was divided into Communities as well as Regions, each of which were granted certain competences. This process is called federalisation: certain competences were gradually transferred from the central government (unitary Belgium) to the regions.
Photograph: Federal Chamber of Representatives. Until 1970 this was, together with the senate the unique legislative body for Belgium (photograph: Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers)
Between 1970 and 2014 Belgium was transformed into a federal state by means of six state reforms. These provided an answer to the Flemish citizens' striving for cultural autonomy and the Francophones' striving for economic autonomy.
With the first state reform of 1970 three cultural communities were created: a Dutch, a French and a German-speaking Community. Each Community was given its own Parliament. In Flanders this was the Dutch Culture Council. Its competences were mainly related to matters involving language and culture.
The intention was also to achieve a certain degree of economic autonomy. For this reason, the idea of creating three regions was proposed. However, no agreement was reached on the exact delimitation of competences or on the geographical boundaries. Finally, three provisional regional councils were created: a Flemish, a Walloon and a Brussels council. These could only give advice.
Photograph: Meeting of the Dutch Culture Council in 1972 ((c) Belga)
The state reform of 1980 was a decisive step in the direction of a federal state. The cultural communities of 1970 were now simply called 'Communities'. Their competences were extended from culture to so-called 'person-based matters', such as healthcare and social security. These Communities were each given their own Parliament (called the Flemish Council, the French Community Council and the German Community Council) and a Government (executive body).
In 1980 two Regions were created as well: the Flemish Region and the Walloon Region. Brussels had to wait until 1988. The Regions were each given their own responsibilities in 'location-based matters', such as the environment, town and country planning and employment. The Regions also had a Parliament (Flemish Regional Council and Walloon Regional Council) and a Government (executive body).
On the Flemish side, the Community and the Region were immediately combined into one Flemish federated entity, with one Flemish Council and one Flemish Government.
The competences of the Communities and the Regions were extended considerably with the third state reform of 1988, among other things with education. The Brussels-Capital Region also took shape.
Even so, at that moment Belgium was not yet a real federal state, as it was not yet possible to elect the members of the Parliaments of the federated entities directly, and the national Government still controlled nearly all money.
With the fourth state reform in 1993 Belgium became a full-fledged federal state. From then onwards, the first sentence of the Belgian Constitution would read: 'Belgium is a federal state composed of Communities and Regions.'
The bilingual province of Brabant was split up into Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant. The federated entities were given even more powers and more money. In addition, from then onwards, the members of the Parliaments of the federated entities would be elected directly. In 1996 the Flemish Council changed its name to Flemish Parliament.
With the fifth state reform of 2000-2001 this evolution was continued. In the Brussels Council Flemings were guaranteed representation.
Photograph: Main entrance of the Flemish Parliament Building. The Flemish Parliament meets in this buidling since 1996.
The sixth and (for now) last state reform came into force on 1 July 2014. On 11 October 2011 the political parties of the federal Government reached an agreement as a result of which more competences were transferred to the Communities and the Regions. This was the most far-reaching transfer of competences since the third state reform in 1988. This agreement received the name 'Butterfly Agreement', after the characteristic tie worn by the then prime minister, Elio Di Rupo.
Among other things, the sixth state reform also led to a reform of the Senate, a division of the electoral district of the judicial district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, a reform of the Brussels institutions and a reform of the financing of the Regions and Communities.