State reform in Belgium

State reform in Belgium

The term State reform in the Belgian context indicates a process towards finding constitutional and legal solutions for the problems and tensions between the different segments of the Belgian population.


Language problems

The tensions between the communities of Belgium arose around a struggle between the two main language communities of the country, Dutch and French. This resulted in extensive language legislation, that wasn't able to form a solution to the conflicts between Flanders and Wallonia, the two main regions of the country.

After World War 2, the differences between Dutch-speaking Belgians and French-speaking Belgians became clear in a number of conflicts.

In 1950, a referendum on the position of King Leopold III was held. The question asked was whether he should be allowed to return to the throne, in view of his position during World War 2. Seventy-two percent of the people in Flanders voted in favour of his return, while a majority of people in Wallonia and Brussels opposed his return. A 58% majority of Belgium favoured his return, so Leopold III returned to the throne. The result of the referendum caused riots in Wallonia and Brussels, and the government had trouble containing them. Pressure from the government forced Leopold III to abdicate.

In 1960, the catholic-liberal government of Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens introduced a number of budget cuts. French-language trade unions went on strike against the cuts and against the government. They felt that a more regionalized system was needed to take the measures that Wallonia needed. They felt that the Walloon interests were hurt by a Flemish majority in Belgium; they spoke of "un état belgo-flamand", a Belgian-Flemish state. In response to the strikes, the government announced a regionalization of socio-economic policies.

Another tension between the language communities involved the Catholic University of Leuven. The university had for long been French-speaking, but Dutch played an increasingly important role in the twentieth century. The tensions between the French-speaking scientific community and the Dutch-speaking population of the Flemish city of Leuven grew throughout the 1960s. A comment by a French-speaking social geographer of the university, who suggested that Leuven be included in the officially bilingual Brussels area, caused demonstrations from Flemish citizens and politicians; their main slogan was "Leuven Vlaams - Walen Buiten!" (Leuven Flemish, Walloons Out!) The tensions caused the collapse of the government of Prime Minister Paul Vanden Boeynants; the university was split into the Dutch-speaking Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and the French-speaking Université catholique de Louvain, united within a common governing body.


In 1970, there was a first state reform, which resulted in the establishment of three cultural communities: the Dutch Cultural Community, the French Cultural Community and the German Cultural Community. This reform was a response to the Flemish demand for cultural autonomy. The constitutional revision of 1970 also laid the foundations for the establishment of three Regions, which was a response to the demand of the Walloons and the French-speaking inhabitants of Brussels for economic autonomy. On February 18, 1970, Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens announces the end of "La Belgique de papa".

The second state reform took place in 1980, when the cultural communities became Communities. The Communities assumed the authority of the cultural communities with regard to cultural matters, and became responsible for the 'matters relating to the person', such as health and youth policy. From then on, these three Communities were known as the Flemish Community, the French Community and the German-speaking Community. Two Regions were established as well in 1980: the Flemish Region and the Walloon Region. However, in Flanders it was decided in 1980 to immediately merge the institutions of the Community and the Region. Although the creation of a Brussels Region was provided for in 1970, the Brussels-Capital Region was not established until the third state reform.

During the third state reform in 1988 and 1989, under Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, the Brussels-Capital Region was established with its own regional institutions, as well as Dutch and French institutions for community matters. The Brussels-Capital Region remained limited to 19 municipalities. Other changes included that the competencies of the Communities and Regions were expanded. One notable responsibility that was transferred to the Communities during the third state reform is education.

The fourth state reform, which took place in 1993 under Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, consolidated the previous state reforms and turned Belgium into a fully-fledged federal state. The first article of the Belgian Constitution was amended to read as follows, “Belgium is a Federal State which consists of Communities and Regions”. During the fourth state reform, the responsibilities of the Communities and the Regions were expanded again, their resources were increased and they were given more fiscal responsibilities. Other major changes included the direct election of the parliaments of the Communities and the Regions, the splitting up of the Province of Brabant into Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant, and the reformation of the Federal Parliament's bicameral system and the relations between the Federal Parliament and the Federal Government. The first direct elections for the parliaments of the Communities and the Regions took place on May 21, 1995.

However, the fourth state reform was not the end of the process of federalization. In 2001, a fifth state reform took place, under Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, with the Lambermont and the dn|Lombard Accords. During the fifth state reform, more powers were transferred to the Communities and the Regions, with regard to agriculture, fisheries, foreign trade, development cooperation, auditing of electoral expenses and the supplementary financing of the political parties. The Regions became responsible for twelve regional taxes, and local and provincial government became a matter for the Regions. The first municipal and provincial elections under the supervision of the Regions were the 2006 municipal elections. The functioning of the Brussels institutions was also amended during the fifth state reform, which resulted among other things in a guaranteed representation of the Flemish inhabitants of Brussels in the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region.

The fifth state reform is the last state reform to date. However, several Flemish political parties want a sixth state reform following the 2007 general election. Major issues that a sixth state reform would have to deal with include, among others, Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde. This possible next reform is the core of the debates for the long lasting formation of the federal government 2007.

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