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Lack of bilingualism remains issue for Brussels civil service

15:25 08/06/2024

More than 2,000 recruitments or promotions of civil servants in Brussels' municipalities and social welfare organisation CPAS last year were in breach of the region's language laws, according to a new annual report by Brussels deputy governor Jozef Ostyn.

Ostyn reviews whether civil service recruitments and promotions are in line with the Administrative Language Act, which requires all permanently and temporarily appointed civil servants to have a language certificate proving their command of Dutch and French.

Exceptions are made only for people on very short-term contracts.

Ostyn examined 3,758 cases in Brussels municipalities for 2023 and found that only 552 (less than 15%) met the criteria. A total of 2,315 recruitments or promotions were suspended.

“But appointments, despite suspensions, are almost never reversed,” Ostyn told Bruzz. “In the last legislature, not a single invalidated recruitment was overturned.”

Osytn refers to a “systematic decline” that has been going on for a decade, saying that a broad approach is needed to rectify the language issue, one that involves all relevant authorities stepping up efforts to correctly apply the administrative language laws in Brussels.

This ranges from education on employment to more simple measures such as language exams in the workplace, Ostyn said, along with implementation of an effective monitoring and sanctioning mechanism.

There is support for this from opposition parties, including the Flemish minister for Brussels, Benjamin Dalle (CD&V), who said that the next government urgently needs to “get its house in order”.

Cieltje Van Achter (N-VA) and Karl Vanlouwe (N-VA) agreed, stating: “We’ve seen the figures deteriorate in recent years and nowhere have alarm bells gone off. For the past five years, the Brussels government has paid no attention at all to appointments in violation of language laws.”

CD&V is advocating for a "twin-track policy" that would link official recognition and subsidies to bilingualism, along with additional investments in personnel.

“We need to train people and support them to learn Dutch, also in the workplace,” said Brussels MP Bianca Debaets (CD&V).

Far-right party Vlaams Belang was quick to chime in as well, calling for the supervision of the Administrative Language Act to be taken wholly out of the hands of the Brussels government.

“The situation is dramatic and a disgrace to a democratic constitutional state,” Brussels MP Dominiek Lootens-Stael (Vlaams Belang) said, with Barbara Pas (Vlaams Belang) adding that “the federal legislator must intervene urgently”.

Vlaams Belang said the power of annulment should be vested in the deputy governor in addition to suspension, a stance shared by the new Flemish-progressive party Vista, which is emerging under the umbrella of Voor U.

“Currently, the deputy governor has the power to suspend – the Brussels government can annul, but does not,” said Dirk Berckmans (Voor U).

Berckmans wants local governments to be given a year to find a solution.

“During that year, the staff concerned would be given the opportunity to take a language exam for French or Dutch,” Berckmans said.

“The aim is not to simply put people on the street, but to give them a fair chance to meet the language requirements. What the private sector can do, the public sector should also be able to do.”

But the responsible ministers in the Brussels government – Bernard Clerfayt (Defi) for local authorities and Alain Maron (Ecolo) and Elke Van den Brandt (Groen) for the Common Community Commission and CPAS – said they did not follow through with suspensions because staff shortages left them no other option.

“Sanctioning is not a taboo for us, but it is also really a question of having enough people,” Van den Brandt’s office said, adding that they want to attract more Dutch-speaking staff and promote Dutch speaking in the workplace “through classes and practice opportunities with the Huis van het Nederlands.”

Written by Helen Lyons