Federal Techniques for Protecting the Rights of Linguistic Minorities: The Belgian Model

  • Abstract:

    As one of the few countries in the Council of Europe, Belgium has not ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as well as the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The reason for this can be found in the fact that both major language groups – i.e. French- and Dutch-speakers – do not reach agreement on the (necessary) interpretation of the concept of “minority”. Of course, minorities are being protected. Firstly, the Constitution guarantees in general the principle of equal treatment and non-discrimination. Secondly, last four decades Belgium is evolved from a unitary to a federal State. The three (language)communities are each, on their territory, organically responsible for Cultural Affairs (including language protection measures, radio and television in the (minority) language, …), education including the choice of the language of instruction and second/third language teaching, creation and management of welfare institutions; this autonomy even implies that each community – on the aforementioned policy domains – can close treaties with other States. However, mechanisms must be developed within each community for the protection of philosophical and religious minorities, in particular in education (by means of teaching in a minority language and education of a recognized religion) or in the area of governance (insured representation of philosophical minorities in the Administration, but no quota system). Thirdly, at the federal level (national) linguistic minorities are double protected. At the institutional level the Federal Council of Ministers must include seven and seven French-speaking Flemish ministers and in the Federal Parliament a guaranteed presence of each language group is constitutionally assured. The federal Legislative can only adopt language laws (for legal procedures and the army) as well as the basic laws on the Federal State structure than with a qualified majority in each language group; for approving other laws a language group can temporarily suspend the legislative process.