Judges de-escalate heated Belgian language conflict

Stefan Graziadei, PhD student at the Faculty of Law, University of Antwerp.

With its decisions on the language facilities and the appointment of mayors in the Brussels periphery, Belgium’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, found a compromise on a very heated institutional conflict. The decisions date from June and December 2014 and are familiar to the Belgian public opinion. Unfortunately, they are largely unknown to comparative lawyers and political scientists who do not live in Belgium. The decisions deal with the Flemish government’s refusal to appoint several French-speaking mayors in the municipalities around Brussels due to breaches of the language legislation. This is a long-standing issue and was already criticized by the Council of Europe in 2008. Mayors of Dutch municipalities with facilities for French-speaking citizens refused to apply the Flemish interpretation of the language legislation, according to which French speakers have to submit a separate request for every document which they want to obtain in their own language. French speakers, on the contrary, argued that the Flemish interpretation contradicted federal law and the Belgian Constitution. In an interesting landmark decision, the Council of State cut the Gordian knot by ruling that French speakers (only) have to apply every four years in order to receive administrative documents in their language. However, the significance of this case is broader, as it touches on the delicate equilibrium between the language communities in Belgium. Political parties are often unwilling to compromise on institutional questions for strategic reasons. The decisions of the Council of State show how judges can resolve an ensuing political gridlock through imposing a mutually acceptable legal solution.

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