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Calls for government reform in Brussels, including more use of English

10:27 08/06/2023

Brussels politicians are calling for major reforms in city government, including a smaller parliament, municipal mergers and more use of the English language when it comes to matters of state.

Brussels budget minister Sven Gatz (Open VLD) and federal state budget secretary Alexia Bertrand (Open VLD) are proposing a number of measures for change in the Belgian capital, Bruzz reports.

The smaller regional parliament would consist of 50 members: 40 French-speaking and just 10 who speak Dutch.

“The existing structures and relations were put in place to allow French- and Dutch-speakers to work together,” Gatz told Bruzz. “Now that pacification is a fact, things can be done more simply and with less.”

According to Bertrand, the parliament has too many members per resident of Brussels.

“Some are less active and it is certainly doable for an MP to sit on more committees,” Bertrand said. “Citizens would also feel more involved. A smaller parliament also means a revaluation of that parliament. But what is really new are mixed-language lists.”

The politicians proposed that parties not be divided by language, saying the binary division is “too absolute and no longer meets what the people of Brussels want”.

They would also like to abolish the councils and colleges of the Flemish Community Commission (VGC), the Common Community Commission (Cocom) and the French Community Commission (Cocof), saying it could all be under one body with French- and Dutch-speakers communicating openly with each other about each other’s policies for linguistically separate such as education.

“That way we can learn from each other,” said Bertrand. “In the end, it's about Brussels.”

They would also like acknowledgement of the English language, saying it is widely spoken in the capital already and therefore basic information should be available in it.

“English is already spoken [unofficially] at the counters, let's just regularise that,” Gatz said.

“For more complex matters such as building permits, you do have to choose between Dutch and French. For basic info you can also go in English. It's a modern service that suits an international city like Brussels.”

Bertrand added that it would also have a symbolic value: “Brussels is the capital of Europe, but we should not rest on our laurels.”

The municipal mergers proposed would see municipalities with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants combined with a neighbouring one.

“On the one hand, the smaller municipalities can cooperate for a number of powers, which have to do with proximity,” Bertrand explained. “On the other hand, the division of powers between municipality and region should be more efficient. Today, for example, cleanliness is split between municipality and region. That makes little sense.”

Other politicians are calling the changes proposed by the pair “radical” and had sharp criticism for some specific measures.

Ridouane Chahid, leader of the PS party in the Brussels parliament, said: "Merging the communes will not improve the daily lives of the people of Brussels. It is a scarecrow used by those who know nothing about local management or are frustrated at not being there."

Other politicians have been even blunter with their reactions to the proposed reforms.

“Apparently Gatz doubts his own added value in the Flemish Community Commission,” Benjamin Dalle (CD&V) told Bruzz, pointing out that Gatz proposes abolishing one of the commissions he himself serves on.

"The VGC has great field knowledge and, as a Brussels resident myself, I always notice how well the VGC knows Brussels. It is a strong network of associations, organisations, cultural institutions, youth initiatives...

"To involve French-speakers in this is either naive or primal stupidity. Who believes such a thing? Gatz once again shows here that defending the interests of Dutch-speakers is apparently not part of his priority package."

MP Cieltje Van Achter (N-VA) was also against the proposal.

“It goes straight against the interests of Dutch-speakers in Brussels,” Van Achter said.

“So how do you guarantee Dutch-speaking services, but also education or holiday care for children in Dutch, for example? The answer is: you don’t. Our budget is derailed and we’re wondering how Gatz is going to get it in order, but in the meantime he’s launching an election campaign.”

Arnaud Verstraete (Groen) said that the Groen party has already been offering proposals for a leaner, more efficient government in the capital.

“During this legislature, for example, we have already pushed through the decumul together with Ecolo, an important step towards a better-governed region,” Verstraete said.

“We’re also working on proposals for next steps. Simplification and respect for Dutch-speakers can go hand in hand. It's still early for campaigning, though – let us have at least one more year of solid governance with the levers we have now: still work on more places in education and childcare, more teachers and child supervisors, poverty policy…”

One proposed reform that did see some vague support was a shrinking of parliament, with other MPs agreeing that there were too many of them.

Written by Helen Lyons