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Etterbeek scraps discount for changing 'foreign-sounding' birth names

14:34 11/08/2023

The Brussels municipality of Etterbeek is doing away with a policy that offers a discount on name-change fees if someone has a "foreign-sounding" birth name.

Legally changing one’s first name has become easier since the responsibility was transferred from the federal government to the local authorities in 2018, but the fees for doing so vary from one commune to another and discounts such as Etterbeek’s have caused controversy.

“It costs €500 if you change your first name for no particular reason, but there are often discounts,” Stéphane Queeckers, head of Etterbeek's civil status department, told RTBF.

“It's even free if you change gender or don't have a first name, as is sometimes the case for people who become Belgian. Otherwise, the reduced rate applies when the first name is ridiculous, obnoxious, confusing or foreign-sounding.”

Including "foreign-sounding" under the same category as ridiculous, obnoxious or confusing - entitling the applicant to a reduced rate of just €50 - was sharply criticised by many.

“If Mohamed wants to be called Eric, he'll pay less than if Eric wants to be called Mohamed. It's not right, they should pay the same price,” said Ecolo regional MP Ahmed Mouhssin.

“I think that the first names of Juan or Mohamed have become just as Brussels as Kevin or Eric, which are also first names from elsewhere.

"By giving a discount to people with foreign-sounding first names, even if they were born in Belgium and their first name is one of the most popular in our country, we are reminding them that they are not entirely Belgian but that they are still a bit foreign, and that's hurtful."

The policy was also found to be ambiguous in terms of who makes the judgement call about a name being "foreign-sounding".

“Since there is no official list of first names, it's the registry office that determines whether the first name is foreign-sounding – it's a decision based on the experience of the official, their sensitivity,” Mouhssin said.

“Beyond that, what is a foreign-sounding first name? The name Eric has Nordic origins but is now fully considered to be a Brussels name. The same goes for the name Kevin, which has Celtic and Irish origins. Not to mention Bryan or Ryan... In my opinion, this approach should also apply to first names such as Mohamed or Fatima, which are of Arab and Muslim origin.”

It was an interview with Mouhssin in the French-language outlet L’Echo that prompted the municipality to withdraw the policy.

“When we inherited responsibility for name changes [from the federal government], we transposed the 1987 federal law and the various rate reductions it contained, but today we have to admit that it is no longer up to date,” explained civil status alderman Patrick Lenaers (MR).

"It has become outdated and we have decided to adapt it. It's up to each individual to choose and change their first name, it's part of their privacy and it's not up to us to judge this choice.

"From now on, there will be a single fee for changing your first name, whatever the reason. The price will be relatively low for the first time, and more expensive the next.

"The aim is to guarantee equal treatment for everyone. The only exceptions will be that we are keeping the fee free for people who have a sex change or who don't have a first name."

There are some limits to name changes, mainly that the new name cannot be offensive or harmful to the person. In the event of a dispute, a judge, not the local authority, will decide.

Written by Helen Lyons