What crazy things can you get jailed for? Find out the unbelievable, strange and funny laws in Belgium – and which bizarre Belgian laws are merely myths you shouldn’t believe.
Whether you’re just visiting or living in Belgium, it’s important to be aware of local Belgian laws so you don’t end up in jail or fined for unknowingly breaking them – no how matter how bizarre of a Belgian law it appears to be.
Belgium’s reputation for weird laws has grown into legacy via media websites around the world. You can read about strange Belgian laws that make it legal to throw Brussels sprouts at tourists anywhere in the country but illegal to insinuate that someone is Swedish. Or that, under no circumstances, should you wear a red hat on Antwerp’s main shopping street (de Meir) nor should women be taller than 5 feet and 6 inches.
But these are just Belgian law myths that exist only in the minds of ‘gullible pundits’ and, worryingly, on media websites, writes law expert Jogchum Vrielink on Fans of Flanders, stating that many of Belgium’s ‘bizarre’ or ‘weird’ laws have little basis in reality or are an extreme exaggeration or out-of-context.
But the real Belgian laws are just as weird as the urban myths. Many of Belgium’s stranger laws are bizarre for being outdated, however comprehensible or important for legislators at the time. With centuries of rulers adding legislations that still exist today, some of Belgium’s laws come across as astoundingly bizarre.
Before diving into the stranger Belgian laws, Belgium can be noted on many progressive laws implemented over the years:
- Belgium was the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia in 2002, a few months after the Netherlands decriminalised it.
- Belgium was the second country in the world to legalise gay marriage in 2003, two years after the Netherlands, as well as the second country to ban forced marriage in 2006.
- Belgium was the world’s first country to ban cluster bombs.
- Belgium was the world’s first country (with Italy) to implement electronic ID cards, in March 2003, as well as the first country to issue electronic passports complying with international aviation (ICAO) recommendations. It will also be the first European country to issue e-ID’s to its population.
- Belgium is one of the rare countries that legally mandates compulsory education up to 18 years old, one of the highest ages in the world.
- It is compulsory by law to vote in Belgium, and strictly enforced, one of the few countries in the world to do so.
Unbelievable Belgian laws
1. Gambling at a home poker game is illegal in Belgium
The Belgian laws restricting ’games of chance’ mean that prohibitions apply to commercial contests, sweepstakes, lotteries organised by advertisers and even private poker games and bingo games, unless you obtain a licence from the ‘Kansspelcommissie’ or no-one wins any financial gain. On the other hand, a law since 1851 has given the Belgian National Lottery a monopoly on handling all lottery and scratch card games.
2. Belgian police are banned from night-time raids
A Belgian law prohibits police raids for eight hours each night – between 9pm and 5am – unless in specific circumstances. Some media sources claim this 1969 Belgian statute allowed the escape of one of the Paris bombers living in Belgium, who could not be pursued by police until daylight hours.
This law initially banned night police raids on private homes as a civilian consideration to safeguard family privacy – but a Belgian law that recent terrorism events have shown needs an urgent review.
3. You can drive straight into oncoming traffic
A driver who wants to turn into a road, even with a high stream of traffic, typically has right of way unless otherwise indicated with a sign. This means that if you are driving on a highway and a car approaches from a small country road to your right, you have to slow down and let them in. There were talks in recent years, however, about abolishing this rule.
For cyclists, in certain one-way streets they are allowed to ride in both directions if indicated by a traffic sign, even when car traffic is only one-way.
4. The Belgian flag is ‘unconstitutional’ by law
Today’s Belgian tricolour flag of black, yellow and red contradicts the Belgian Constitution that states the ‘Belgian Nation adopts red, yellow and black for its colours’. Belgium’s colours are based on the coat of arms of the Duchy of Brabant: a golden lion with a red tongue and claws on a black field.
The original Belgian flag did indeed go through a few shuffles after the Belgian revolution of 1830, starting out as red over yellow over black, with horizontal lines rather than today’s vertical ones, but later was rotated with a changed colour order for various reasons (one including to distance itself from the horizontal Dutch flag and align more with the vertical French one). What didn’t happen, however, was an update of the draft Constitution, leading to almost two centuries of a constitution contradiction.
5. No Dutch royals are allowed on the throne
The Dutch were banished forever from holding power or public authority in Belgium when a decree in 1830 debarred members of the House of Orange-Nassau (today’s Dutch royal family). Implemented after the rule of Dutch King William I between 1815 and 1830, some might say the Belgian revolutionaries found William’s rule to be less than satisfactory. As such, the law bans the Dutch royal family from holding the throne or any position in the public sector or standing for elections in Belgium. As the law is considered to have constitutional status, abolishing it is a difficult process.
6. Belgium allows the personal possession of cannabis
Although Belgium historically had a strict stance towards all drugs, Belgium relaxed their laws on the personal possession of cannabis in 2003. Now in Belgium it is legal to possess up to 3g of cannabis. Recent comments have hinted at stricter policies but will likely mostly affect smoking in public, while possession continues to still be technically legal.
7. The Belgian King can mobilise troops in ‘independent’ Congo
Although the Congo declared independence in 1960, the Belgian King Philippe can by law mobilise the ‘Belgian-Congo’ military and take any necessary means to protect the country in a war outbreak, or even implement proactive measures in times of peace. Naturally, this is a law that has not been invoked much in the past few decades.
8. ‘GAS’: a ban on civil and social practices
Perhaps one of the biggest – or even inexhaustible – sources of Belgium’s weird laws arise from the so-called Communal Administrative Sanctions (Gemeentelijke Administratieve Sancties, or GAS). These were a number of relatively minor laws, with fines up to EUR 250, introduced in 1999 to give local authorities power to address petty nuisances that often went unpunished. A number of municipalities used GAS to cover their ‘civic duty’, for example, restricting children’s games for safety reasons.
A large problem of these sanctions was that many municipalities simply copy-pasted old local regulations (politiereglementen) when drafting their ‘GAS Codes’. While many of the legal provisions were simple, such as vandalism, littering and noise complaints, other copied codes dated to the 19th century, containing provisions with some bizarre examples of behaviour that could be – and has been – fined in certain municipalities, for example:
- In Leuven, street musicians can be fined for playing off-key if it disturbs public order or peace.
- In Hasselt, you can receive a GAS-fine for scaring the crowd during a carnival parade; in Lokeren, you can get a fine for scaring anyone, anytime.
- Children can be fined for climbing trees in Sint-Niklaas, even in public areas.
- Cat-lovers can receive a GAS fine in Lier if they keep more than five cats in an apartment.
- You can receive a GAS fine for protesting a GAS fine, as seen in Antwerp when locals protested the law.
- In Lokeren all forms of fortune telling, dream interpretation, quackery and other related practices are banned.
- Lede only allows games in public that are designed as such; all other games require written permission from the mayor, someone to oversee safety precaution, insurance coverage of potential damages and all submitted at least eight days in advance.
- In Ieper, people risk a GAS fine if they fail to notify the municipality when street signs have become illegible.
- Arendonk’s inhabitants can be fined if they fail to inform the local authorities if they see either the oak-processionary or brown-tail caterpillars.
- Arendonk bans fishermen being further than 9.85feet (3m) from their fishing rod.
9. Dogs and oxen can be requisitioned to propel army vehicles
Several of Belgians weird laws revolve around the pursuit of advancing technology. One such law dating to 1939 concerns the military, which dictates that ‘beasts of burden (horses, oxen, dogs, etc.)’ can be requisitioned for any vehicles employed by the army. Although, perhaps that wouldn’t be useful if a drone runs out of fuel.
10. You can keep your last cow, pig, goats, sheep and chickens
To safeguard a minimal level of living conditions and means, Belgian laws provides a list of items that in principle can never be seized by a bailiff. Although a handy list, it includes some outdated elements such as livestock – specially one cow or pig, 12 goats or sheep or 24 chickens – and one month’s of livestock feed that you can keep. It is yet to be seen if this law would safeguard the chickens and pork fillets in your freezer.
11. Only the elderly, cripples, women and children can gather leftover crop
What sounds like a discriminative law today once gave rights to the most vulnerable in society. In agricultural reforms in 1866, in order to avoid abuse that the gleaning industry gave rise to, a legislator attempted to aid the needs of the poor by permitting only ‘elderly, cripples [sic], women, and children below 12 years of age’ to pick up the remains of crops left after harvesting or gleaning. Interestingly, such categories of people were given permission to glean from sunrise until sunset, but only if they did so manually; using an iron rake was penalised.
12. Wives can sell their husbands’ commercial goods
Another category of strange Belgian laws revolves around outdated gender roles. Many of these discriminatory laws and provisions have been amended or repealed, but the Belgian Code of Commerce (article 10) still allows for (only) married women to ‘peddle wares from her husband’s business’, and without herself being subject to the obligations of merchants.
13. Weird laws from mistranslations
Weird laws also arise from nothing other than mistakes made by past legislators. A common source of these mistakes has arisen from the country’s multiple languages. One such example is an oath that interpreters legally have to read in certain asylum procedures, which is a jumble of archaic terms and mistranslations from the French version. The Dutch version reads ‘Ik zweer getrouwelijk de gezegden te vertolken welke aan personen die verschillende talen spreken, moeten overgezegd worden’, which a loose attempt at translation might yield, at best, something like ‘I swear faithfully to impersonate [sic] the sayings [sic] that must be over-said [sic] to persons speaking several [sic] languages’. No doubt a punishment in itself for interpreters.
14. Recently abolished bizarre Belgian laws
Although most of the ancient laws are hardly enforced, Belgian legislators have undertaken some effort to hunt out and repeal outdated laws in past years.
Some abolished laws that were in circulation until only recent years include:
- It was forbidden for foreigners living in Belgium to have pigeons, unless special permission was obtained from the minister of justice. Although seemingly bizarre, the provision was part of a law from 1923 resulted from the potential military and intelligence use of pigeons at the time.
- Until 2005 only the Belgian government was allowed to print posters and notices using white paper and black ink, dating to a decree in the 1790s, forcing private citizens to the use of coloured paper only. The idea was to clarify the status of each notice. Attempts have been aimed to annul this law although mostly with the intention of creating a true Dutch translation, as the law was in French only.
- A law allowing penalty mitigation for wounding or killing someone in a duel was also recently repealed, although at the time of enactment in 1841 it was rather progressive. The criminal provisions were intended to cover the impunity of duellers who were often prosecuted, even if victorious, and the provisions also criminalised provoking a duel, sometimes penalised more than actually duelling, or acting as a witness during a duel.
- The government also lost the power to prohibit the sale or distribution of ‘lewd foreign publications’ in only 2009, which had seen some 1,500 titles blacklisted since the law’s implantation in 1936. The law, however, had fallen largely out of disuse since the 1970s and many of the blacklisted publications would be considered far less obscene than what is published in today’s nudity magazines and online. In an interesting contradiction, Belgium is the only country that has never imposed censorship on adult films.