Council of Europe urges Belgium to resolve linguistic dispute
Belgium has been found guilty of breaching obligations under a European charter on local democracy, says envoys of council.15 May 2008
BRUSSELS - Council of Europe envoys urged Belgian authorities Wednesday to resolve a dispute over Francophone mayors in three areas on the Flemish outskirts of the Belgian capital.
A fact-finding team from the Council of Europe, a leading human rights watchdog, said Belgium has breached its obligations under a European charter on local democracy, which it has signed.
The Flemish regional authorities refused to appoint French-speaking mayors in 2007 in the affluent municipalities of Linkebeek, Wezembeek-Oppem and Kraainem, which are officially part of Flanders, but where the majority of inhabitants speak French.
Flemish officials argued some of the election papers had been sent in French even though Dutch should be used in official correspondence and at city councils.
The issue goes to the heart of the linguistic dispute that left the country without a government for months after last year's parliamentary elections. The spat over the mayors has dragged on since January 2007.
The Council of Europe team, led by Michel Guegan, a mayor of a small village in the French region of Brittany, said Francophones in the three municipalities are being deprived of their right to participate in local matters.
"This is not an acceptable situation with regard to local autonomy," Guegan said, adding that the situation was "serious."
The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, France, can make recommendations to its 47 member states, but cannot impose sanctions on them for noncompliance with rules.
Belgium, a country of 4.5 million Francophones and 6 million Dutch speakers, is bitterly divided along linguistic lines. The long-standing dispute is threatening to bring down a fragile five-party government of Prime Minister Yves Leterme two months after it came to power.
Flemish parties are pushing for a plan to strip tens of thousands of French speakers of the right to vote for Francophone parties by splitting a bilingual electoral district around Brussels.
The district is in Flanders, and Flemish parties are trying to prevent an increase of French-speaking people from moving to the area outside the Belgian capital. They insist the district should become monolingual Dutch-speaking.
In 2003, Belgium's constitutional court declared illegal the boundaries of the voting district that joins two officially Dutch-speaking areas to Brussels, Belgium's bilingual capital.
Belgian politicians, however, have persistently failed to agree on changes, with French-speaking politicians resisting reforms that would prevent the large Francophone minority in the outskirts of Brussels from voting for parties from their own linguistic group.
[AP / Expatica]