International Perspective


Territorial Rights in Belgium (Under the Community and Regional System)












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It's often said that Belgium is a bilingual country; more accurately, Belgium is a trilingual federal state, with French, Dutch and German as the three official languages of the federation.

Like Canada, the Belgian federal government uses more than one language (three, actually), but not Belgium's federated regions. Beyond that, the political structures of Canada and Belgium bear no resemblance at all. True, Belgium has 10 provinces (Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, West Flanders, East Flanders, Limburg, Flemish Brabant, Hainaut, Liège, Luxembourg and Namur), but they differ completely from Canada's. In Belgium, the provinces are administrative entities governed by the regions, whereas Canada's provinces are actual states with their own legislative assemblies (parliaments), public services, judiciary, etc.

Again, Belgium and Canada are both federations, but they are based on different political realities: Canada is a ten-province, three-territory federation, whereas Belgium's federation comprises three community governments and three regional governments. This political duality (regional and community) is what primarily distinguishes Belgium from Canada as a federal state.

Still, Canada and Belgium are both bilingual federal states (even trilingual in Belgium's case). And where they warrant closer comparison is in their respective search for the best way to regulate official-language on their soil.

Languages in Belgium

Belgium's constitution recognizes three linguistic communities: the Dutch-speaking Flemish, the French-speaking Francophones (including the Walloons), and the German-speaking Germanophones. Dutch speakers account for 55.7% of the population, Francophones for 31.7%, Germanophones for 0.3%, and allophones for 12.2%.

Aside from the massive use of Dutch (in Dutch: Nederlands), which is a Germanic language as English is, "Nederlandophones" speak dialects such as Flemish (Vlaams), Brabants (Brabants) and Limburgish (Limburgs), all derived from Dutch. Virtually all Flemish citizens speak their dialect at home or with friends, while keeping Dutch itself (the cultural language) for more formal exchanges. This combination of dialect and Dutch isn't haphazard or accidental: it stems from a number of unwritten conventions spawned from Flemish culture and tradition.

In short, Dutch dialects in Flanders have remained very active, but are losing pace in the Netherlands (except possibly for Limburgish and Saxon). The term Flemish (in English) or Vlaams (in Dutch) refers to the dialect, not to the Dutch language per se (Nederlands). That's why the Flemish people object to the word Vlaams being used to designate Dutch proper. The differences between Dutch spoken in Flanders and that spoken in the Netherlands are tiny, but they can be detected in pronunciation and vocabulary. The Flemish live essentially in Flanders and in Brussels; those in Wallonia are not accounted for.

Wallonia's Francophone citizens generally speak French as a mother tongue or first language, but in the province of Hainaut, some also speak Picard or Walloon; the latter, which is spoken by anywhere from 15 to 30% of Walloons, is still used in the provinces of Luxembourg, Namur and Liège, but also to the east of Hainaut and throughout Walloon Brabant. Citizens also speak Rouchi (a Picard dialect) to the west of Hainaut; Champenois, in a few Namur and Luxembourg communes; and Gaumais (Lorraine dialect) south of Luxembourg province. Like French, all of these dialects (which linguists call languages) derive from Latin. Today, no one speaks onlythese "languages," which are deemed compulsory with friends and family, but give way to French in formal communication. Note that Belgian Francophones live in Wallonia and in the Brussels-Capital Region (BCR).

Germanophones make up Belgium's third linguistic group, with over 70,000 regular speakers in the region located in the province of Liège (to the east). In addition to standard German, Germanophones speak Moselle- Franconian and Low-Franconian dialects. However, these dialects are constantly losing ground and are handed down less and less-and not at all anymore in some cases-from generation to generation. They appear to be on the road to extinction.

In addition, Belgium has four linguistic regions : French-language in the south; Dutch-language in the north; German-language in the east; and the bilingual region (French-Dutch) of Brussels in the centre.

Région linguistique française

French-language region


Dutch-language region


German-language region


Bilingual region







Unlike Belgium's provinces, Canada's are not organized by law into linguistic regions. At most, Canada's provinces have bilingual municipalities whose linguistic status is set either by a provincial law or by a municipal by-law.

Three Regions in One Federation

The Belgian federation has three administrative regions: Wallonia (south), Flanders (north) and the Brussels-Capital Region (an enclave in Flanders).

In general, regional authority is tied essentially to the economy and related issues, and to territorial management. Specific jurisdiction covers land management and urban planning, environmental protection, rural revitalization and nature preservation, housing, water-management policy, energy policy (gas and hydro networks), agricultural policy, employment, public works, public transit (except trains), and economic policy (except for central-government jurisdiction).

New powers have been added since 2001: foreign trade, supervision and financing of provinces and communes (municipalities), assistance to developing countries.

Regional powers do not extend to language management, which explains why the capital region of Brussels cannot issue language-related decrees, a power that instead belongs to Belgium's communities. Again, there is no official German region, because the German-speaking area is in Wallonia (French-speaking).

Three Communities in One Federation

Belgium also comprises three communities: the Flemish community, the French-speaking community and the German-speakingcommunity. Each of these communities has a parliament and an executive (or community government) led by a president-minister. Jurisdiction over language matters lies jointly with these communities and with the federal parliament.


French-speaking community


Flemish community


German-speaking community








Article 129 of the Belgian constitution (with reference to article 30) is clear in its imposition of two restrictions: First, communities can regulate language use only in the areas of administration, education and private-sector operations. Second, community jurisdiction is limited to each one's linguistic borders, to their unilingual instituions in Brussels and, for the Flemish community, to its "Flemish houses" abroad (a sort of embassy). The German-speaking community's powers are even more limited and apply only to schooling. In other words, Belgium's Franco-Dutch-German trilingualism isn't egalitarian, but its Franco-Dutch bilingualism is!

The federal parliament adopts laws governing the administration and the private sector, but the communities see to their application. Here, the contrast with Canada is glaring: the Canadian parliament cannot intervene in provincial legislation, except through the constitution (but even here, that course of action would require provincial approval!) In any case, the concept of linguistic communities has no legal basis in Canada, because the powers vested jointly in Belgium's regions and communities belong solely to the provinces in Canada.

The territorial jurisdiction of the French-speaking community extends only to unilingual Francophone institutions and to the administration of these institutions in both Wallonia (the Walloon region minus the German-speaking region inside) and the bilingual region of Brussels-Capital. The Flemish community oversees unilingual Dutch institutions in the Flemish region (Flanders) and in the region of Brussels. Finally, the territorial jurisdiction of the German-speaking community coves the German-language district inside the Walloon region. The German-speaking community does not have a regional council, and only since 1997 has it been able to issue language decrees, but strictly in the area of education. Administrative and private-sector matters are federal-government ruled for the German-speaking community.

Strictly speaking, Belgium does not regulate language use among citizens; however, when these citizens call on the institutions of a specific linguistic community, they must do so in the language of the institution's home community. For instance, in unilingual linguistic regions, citizens have no language choice of course, because the institutions operate in only one language. In Brussels, citizens do have a choice: French or Dutch as an administrative language, or as a language of instruction (schooling).

Belgium's communities have six major jurisdictions: language use (but taking into account federal laws); cultural affairs; education; cooperation (intercommunity and international); scientific research; finance; and human-welfare matters (health, social assistance, family services, persons with disabilities, youth services). For language issues, communities can issue "decrees," but these must also comply with federal laws.

Community representatives are also present each time an issue affecting them is discussed in a broader forum (examples: at la Francophonie for the French-speaking community; at the Dutch Language Union (Nederlandse Taalunie), an intergovernmental agency created by Flanders and the Netherlands; at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); at the European Union (EU); and at the World Trade Organization). They do not sit at the United Nations, but the notion of that happening isn't outlandish. In Canada, the provinces have free reign in language matters, but not when they involve international relations or foreign affairs, which fall under federal jurisdiction.

Belgian Federal Authority

The Belgian and Canadian federations do not at all operate in the same way: Belgium's federation applies territorial unilingualism in Wallonia, in Flanders and in the German-speaking region, but it resorts to Franco-Dutch bilingualism in the Brussels region. Specifically, the federal administration outside of Brussels works in only one language (French in Wallonia, Dutch in Flanders); Canada's federal administration is, in principal, bilingual throughout the country, not just in the national-capital region as Belgium's is. This unilingual/bilingual model isn't common in Canada.

But the Brussels-based federal civil service (Brussels-Capital) must be bilingual and thus provide services in both French and Dutch. Under article 19 of an act adopted on July 18, 1966 and governing Belgium's entire linguistic and administrative system (and specifically, language use in administrative matters), all local services in Brussels-Capital must use the same official language (Dutch or French) as the client or citizen being served. Yet, all federal-administration documents are drafted in the country's three official languages, and all three versions must match each other to a T. For example, income-tax notices sent to Wallonia's French-speaking citizens must be identical content-wise and typographically to those sent to Dutch speakers in Brussels or to German speakers in Eupen. Of course, the only difference is the language in which the document is written.

There are no bilingual documents in Belgium; indeed, even in the Brussels region, all documents are unilingual, but you can ask for them in either French or Dutch. This practice is also fairly common for Canadians living in "bilingual regions" (Montréal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Moncton, etc.)

Belgium's federal administration is organized into parallel language networks. The country's laws and regulations state that 40% of the state's civil servants must be unilingual Dutch, another 40% unilingual French, and 20% bilingual (Dutch-French) but evenly split between Flemish and Walloons. The French-language and Dutch-language networks work solely in their respective language; so, to communicate between networks, French-speaking or Dutch-speaking civil servants must call on the network of bilingual civil servants. The ministry of justice, the ministry of the interior (or domestic affairs) and the ministry of defense are actually split into two entities, one French-speaking and one Dutch-speaking.

Unilingualism in Belgium's Regions and Communities

Belgium's entire network of regional and community administrations is unilingual: French for Wallonia and the Francophone community; Dutch for the Flemish community; and German for the Germanophone community. Unilingualism is thus the prevailing practice. Though administrative unilingualism is a common thing in Canada, especially where official-minority numbers are very small, the federal government tries to provide certain services in the minority language; in addition, Canada's provinces must, under article 23 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, grant education rights to the official-language minority. This isn't the case in Belgium for citizens in Flanders or Wallonia: services are strictly in the official language of the community.

Unilingualism is again the working policy for Belgium's community governments, regional governments and federal government (outside Brussels-Capital). Still, two governments practise bilingualism: the federal government in the Brussels-Capital region, and the government of the Brussels region itself. The three community governments, again, are unilingual (French, Dutch and German). Specifically, Wallonia's is French-speaking (even in the enclosed German-language district); the Flemish region is Dutch-speaking. To complicate matters more, the governments of the Flemish community and Flemish region have amalgamated…

As in all other countries, Belgium's language system has drawbacks. First, it essentially prevents citizens of the two principal linguistic communities from using their own language in the other half of the country. Canada has shunned this approach, because it has always placed greater importance on individual rights than on territorial rights. Second, the territorial-rights model neglects the needs of any minority living in a region or territory recognized as belonging to a specific linguistic group. Third, even if the territorial separation of languages guarantees a certain linguistic peace in a given region, it leads to the assimilation of individuals who don't speak the same language.

Despite the Belgian model's imperfections, even in the areas known as "flexible" communes (municipalities where certain local services are provided in the other language) and in the bilingual Brussels-Capital region, the three-community and three-region model (based on territorial rights) has worked at various levels. One advantage of territorial rights is the security they provide to minority groups, which become majorities under that formula. What's more, the institutions established through successive constitutional reforms now give genuine decision-making powers that benefit Belgium's principal linguistic groups. Few sovereign linguistic communities of this kind exist in the world. Indeed, only community governments manage language and culture, Belgium's central government having stayed completely out of these areas. In other nations, linguistic groups with such broad prerogatives are few and far between.

Still, Belgium's linguistic peace remains fragile, especially in Brussels, where the Francophone majority rubs shoulders with the Dutch minority. Indeed, Canada's language problems seem to pale in comparison.

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