Five questions to Philippe Van Parijs about Brussels’s communes and the municipal elections

Five questions to Philippe Van Parijs about Brussels’s communes and the municipal elections
The Brussels town hall may one day become the town hall of all Brusselers in a future Brussels where all communes have merged into one.

Once every six years, Belgium holds municipal elections throughout the country. On 14 October, this will happen again, including in the nineteen communes of the Region of Brussels-Capital. Foreign residents often ask why one needs these nineteen communes. Would it not be better for Brussels to form a single commune? This is a fair question. And my answer is yes. The reason is not that it is a waste of money to pay so many mayors. If Brussels had as many mayors per million residents as Flanders, it would not have 19 mayors but 56 — and even 87 if it had proportionally as many as Wallonia! The reason is rather that Brussels, like many other cities, is made up of a historical centre and a set of separate villages that gradually merged into a single agglomeration, with countless interdependencies. What is being done or not done in one of the communes has a major impact on what happens elsewhere. This is why other urban municipalities expanded dramatically to include neighbouring rural communes, as they became urbanized. Paris did it in 1795 and 1859, Vienna in 1874 and 1904, Berlin in 1920.

Brussels also had a go: in 1853 by absorbing what has now become the European Quarter, in 1864 by adding a strip connecting the city to the Bois de la Cambre on which the Avenue Louise was to be built, and above all in 1920, with the annexation of Laeken (with the royal palace), Haren (with, at the time, the airport) and Neder-Over-Heembeek (with the harbour). In 1977, a major reform reduced the number of Belgian communes from 2,359 to 596. Only the two biggest cities were not affected. Antwerp followed in 1983, though. Brussels is still waiting.

Yet the reasons that led to mergers elsewhere are just as strong in Brussels. It is not just a matter of economies of scale in the administration. It is even more a matter of better managing the interdependencies, of adopting more coherent and equitable policies and of strengthening a common Brussels identity. Like in Vienna or Berlin, the ultimate objective must be to have one large commune that is at the same time the capital of the federal state and one of its components (Länder/Regions), with one municipal council, one mayor, one police force, one welfare office and one tax regime.

Is this going to happen?

There are two ways of moving in that direction. One option, already implemented to a modest extent, consists in shifting competences from the 19 communes to the Region. Eventually, the communes would be reduced to a status similar to the sub-municipalities called arrondissements in Paris, Bezirke in Berlin, Gemeindebezirke in Vienna, districten in Antwerp.

One limit intrinsic to this option is that the constitution requires each commune to have its own welfare office, and that, moreover, the constitutional court seems determined to protect a constitutional principle of communal autonomy that may include some tax powers. A second problem with this strategy is that it shifts competences away from the only level at which non-Belgian Brusselers have a say. A third problem is that the regional assembly and, indirectly, the regional executive are elected through an idiosyncratic system involving two electoral colleges, one for (supposedly) Dutch speakers and one for (supposedly) French speakers. With a parity requirement in the regional executive, this amounts to giving a veto right to the Dutch-speaking minority in Belgium’s capital city, symmetric to the guarantees given to the French-speaking minority at the federal level. As there is no analogous veto power at the level of the communes, French-speaking parties are understandably reluctant to move much further along this path.

And the other option?

The other option consists in leaving the allocation of competences to the communes and the Region unchanged, while merging all communes into a single one. Each of Belgium’s regional parliaments has the power to modify the boundaries of its communes. Therefore, in particular, the Brussels regional parliament has the power to merge its 19 communes into one. The police, welfare office and local taxation would then be automatically unified. The Brussels City Hall on the Grand Place would become the City Hall of all Brusselers, and non-Belgians would have voting rights at the level of territory covering the whole Region. At the same time as merging the communes, one would need to create, as was done in Antwerp in 1999, districts corresponding to the old communes, including the three incorporated into Brussels in 1920.

There is one main problem however with this option. It would make Brussels bicephalous. Next to the Region’s minister-president, its government and its parliament, there would be a mayor, a municipal executive and a municipal council exercising their authority over the same territory while being subjected to different electoral rules. This cannot be a permanent solution. Merging the two sets of institutions, however, would not be easy. Firstly, Dutch-speaking and French-speaking parties would need to achieve a compromise on minority protection: somewhere between as much as on the regional level and as little as on the communal level. Secondly, it is important, but not self-evident, that non-Belgians should not lose their voting rights in case of a merger. In Berlin and Vienna, they can vote at the level of the Bezirke, but not at the level of the municipality merged with the Land. This second option may nonetheless provide the best way forward.

You mentioned as an advantage of the second formula that it confers voting rights at the level of the whole territory to non-Belgian citizens. But judging by the proportion of non-Belgians who participated in municipal elections in the past or are registered this time — about 13% of those entitled — most of them do not seem particularly interested.

This low figure can be explained in part by the procedure. How can you get a high turnout? The best way is one that registers residents automatically and obliges them to vote, next one that registers them automatically without obligation, next one that requires those wanting to vote to register without obligation, once registered. The most dissuasive formula is the one that requires people to register if they want to vote and makes voting obligatory once they are registered. The first formula applies to Belgian citizens. The last one applies to non-Belgians. No wonder, therefore, that the turnout is low among non-Belgians.

However, even if the second or third formula was used for Belgians and non-Belgians alike, we should not expect the latter to participate as much as the former. On average, Belgians are more familiar with local politics and also expect to stay longer in their commune. If non-Belgians were allowed to participate in elections spanning the whole Region, however, one can safely expect them to show more interest and participate in greater numbers, if only because the media would pay far more attention to such an election than they currently do to any of the 19 municipal elections.

In any case, the non-Belgians’ right to vote and to be eligible at that level matters, even if only few make use of it. One reason is that It makes it possible to recruit more competent and motivated citizens into local politics: Brussels needs them. A second reason is that it will foster the formation of genuine inclusive Brussels parties, irrespective of the native languages of their members: for this wish, often expressed to become reality, it needs the pressure of active Brusselers who feel no special affinity with either Flanders or Wallonia.

Is such a tendency not already perceptible in the increasing use of English in the municipal campaign?

Yes, I saw that even the Flemish nationalist party N-VA is campaigning in three languages in Brussels. And I heard of plans to organize again electoral debates in English, as happened for the first time, I believe, eighteen years ago. Such debates aimed at an international electorate are most welcome. But they would draw a far larger public if non-Belgians could participate in an election that concerned the whole of the Region rather than each of its 19 communes separately. In my recent book (Belgium, une utopie pour notre temps, Académie royale de Belgique, 2018; Belgium, een utopie voor onze tijd, Polis, 2018), I predict and recommend a more prominent role for English in Belgium, and in particular in Brussels. This is one of the many facets of this process.

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