Speech by Magnus BERNTSSON, Sweden (R, PPE/CCE-EPP/CCE), Belgium, Part II
Check against delivery - Seul le prononcé fait foi
Indeed, the institutional and linguistic diversity of Belgium is such that we could speak for hours about this country and still not manage to cover all aspects of local self-government. Therefore, I will focus on the most important findings of our visit, and I would invite you to consult the Recommendation for all of the proposals which we have put forward to improve the degree of the Charter’s application in Belgium.
Belgium signed the Charter in 1985 and ratified it in 2004, without ratifying five of its provisions. In 2009, it signed the Additional Protocol to the Charter on the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority but has not ratified it yet. As common in federal states, the regions must first give their assent to that effect, which may slow down the process. But we hope that Belgium will accomplish all internal procedures for ratification as soon as possible.
As my co-rapporteur has already mentioned, in Belgium, local self-government affairs rest within the exclusive competence of the regions and the German speaking community. Therefore, we have divided the operational part of our recommendation into several sections, each one being addressed specifically to those territorial authorities which have the competence to implement the proposals in question.
I would now like to move on to the substance of the recommendation.
First of all, the general situation of local self-government Belgium is indeed positive. We have concluded that most of the ratified provisions of the Charter are respected in Belgium.
However, some shortcomings are still present and include those inherited from the past. For instance, my co-rapporteur has already mentioned the non-compliance of the procedure of the appointment of burgomaster in Flanders and some difficulties related to the use of languages in the communities with facilities.
Apart from this, the basic points of concern highlighted in our report pertain to local finances and the lack of consultation.
It appears that the federal level takes political and economic decisions which impact local authorities without considering their opinion. This has been the case in relation to the negotiation with the trade unions of police or firemen or when the federal government recently decided to transfer the payment of the retirement pensions of local civil servants to the municipalities for whom they had been working before retirement. As a result, not only has this pension reform produced a devastating effect on the budgets of local authorities, but it also violates the principles of adequacy and commensurability of local funding set out in Article 9.2 of the Charter.
It should be noted that Belgium has not ratified Article 9.2, which, legally speaking, precludes us from giving relevant proposals in the draft Recommendation. However, given the many grievances we heard on this issue from all local authorities during the visit, we have decided to insert our proposals on how to address it into the report. For example, we suggest matching delegated tasks with adequate funding in line with the principle of commensurability and budget neutrality. We also encourage the federal level and the regions to assume a significant share of the local financial burden caused by the transfer of the payment of the pensions of the local “civil servants”.
We hope that our proposals will be carried forward. Not because Belgium is legally obliged to do so but because it is committed to reaching our shared objective. This would ensure a sound financial basis from which local authorities could function properly and in a sustainable manner.
Furthermore, the consultation process needs improvement, not only at federal level but also in the Brussels-Capital Region. We thus recommend setting-up respective “bilateral” bodies which would comprise of representatives of various levels of government in order to strengthen multi-level consultation and bring it into conformity with the requirements of the Charter.
In addition, even though the situation in Belgium complies with Article 5 of the Charter on consultation regarding local boundary changes, we would still encourage the holding of local referenda in the affected local communities.
We invite you to adopt the draft recommendation and we stand ready to take your questions.
Thank you for your attention.