The municipalities with language facilities, occasionally called municipalities with linguistic facilities or shortly municipalities with facilities (Dutch: faciliteitengemeenten (help·info), French: "communes à facilités", German: "Fazilitäten-Gemeinden"), are municipalities in Belgium with legal provisions to protect rights of their (historic) linguistic minorities. They are so-called municipalities with a special status. The term commune with linguistic facilities can also be found. In all these titles the term language facilities is difficult to interpret and has a double meaning. Facilities has its most common meaning in English of something made to provide a service, as in educational facilities (schools). The extent to which the municipalities provide services in another Belgian language is explored below. To understand why providing these facilities would be of interest, the other meaning of facilities as easings must be made. The types of facilities depend on the various degrees to which easing up on the restrictions to the use of another of the official languages by residents of the designated municipalities are made. The various degrees of easing up on language restrictions have been the topic of intense political discourse in Belgium for several decades, at least.
In these municipalities, the minority language can be used to deal with local and federal government and for teaching in some primary schools. The majority language must, however, be used for dealing with provincial and regional authorities and secondary school teaching. French-speakers in Flanders and in the German language area, as well as Dutch- and German-speakers in Wallonia, can get administrative documents from local authorities and some federal authorities in their mother tongue. Legislation in these municipalities provides for equal public funding for primary schools for the language minority as well as information in the minority language from the national railway company. For public services and documents from intermediate authorities (such as the provincial and regional authorities), such rights do not exist (although on a voluntary basis, certain summary information is provided in the facilities' language).
There were three language areas as from the July 31, 1921, law: the Dutch-speaking Flemish area, the French-speaking Walloon area, and the bilingual area of Brussels (capital city). These language areas of 1921 actually had no institutional translation in the structure of the Belgian state, then still constitutionally divided into provinces and municipalities. Thence a French-speaking unilingual municipality could for instance be part of the West Flanders province.
The Belgian law of June 28, 1932 on the use of languages for administrative matters based the language status of every Belgian municipality on the decennial census that included, since 1846, several language questions about the knowledge as well as the day-to-day practice. The criterion to belong to the Flemish or Walloon language area was the a threshold of 50%; whereas with a threshold of 30% the municipal authorities had to offer services in the minority language as well. A municipality could ask the government to change its linguistic status by a royal decree only after a census showed a passage over the 30% or 50% threshold.
The German- and Luxembourgish-speaking minorities in Eastern Wallonia were not mentioned in the 1921 or 1931 laws. The German-speaking minority was mostly settled in the 'Eastern Cantons', several Prussian municipalities ceded to Belgium by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and administered from 1920 to 1925 by a Belgian military High Commissioner. There was, and still is, a Luxembourgish-speaking minority in some municipalities bordering the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
The 1932 law was implemented only once, as the invasion of Belgium by Nazi Germany in 1940 prevented the organization of the decennial census, which was organized in 1947 and applied only on July 2, 1954, when an ad hoc law modifying the law of June 28, 1932 on the use of languages for administrative matters transferred three previously unilingual Flemish municipalities with language facilities to the French-speaking minority (Evere, Ganshoren and Berchem-Sainte-Agathe/Sint-Agatha-Berchem) to the bilingual region of Brussels, thus and introduced language facilities for the French-speaking minority in four previously unilingual Flemish municipalities (Drogenbos, Kraainem, Wemmel and Linkebeek).
In 1962-1963 four language areas were formally determined: the Dutch language area (now also corresponding with the Flemish Region), the bilingual area of Brussels-Capital, (whose borders came to determine those of the present Brussels-Capital Region), the French language area and the German language (together coinciding with Wallonia).
The situation around Brussels (in the rim municipalities, see below) differs from the situation along the border between Flanders and Wallonia, and between the German and French-speaking areas in Wallonia, where certain municipalities have had linguistic minorities for several centuries. The language border appears quite stable and peaceful, except for the municipalities of Voeren (French: Fourons) and, to a much lesser extent, Mouscron (Dutch: Moeskroen) and Comines-Warneton (Dutch: Komen-Waasten).
In the early 1990s, a revision of the Belgian Constitution made it more difficult to change the language status of the concerned municipalities by requiring that any such change had to gain a majority in each of the two language groups in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Previously, an overall majority would have been enough, which could have in theory allowed a near-unanimity of Flemish representatives to impose an abolition of the facilities against the unanimous wish of the French-speaking representatives. This revision of the Constitution was widely seen by French-speakers as a recognition that language facilities had a permanent status.
Currently, both Dutch- and French-speakers voice complaints about poor or absent respect by certain authorities for their linguistic rights. Both competent Belgian and European courts are frequently solicited to arbitrate. Political discussions are often held in various competent assemblies as the Belgian Federal Parliament (which is institutionally competent in these matters), and in the regional and community parliaments assemblies. Even the Assembly of the Council of Europe became involved and sent two Swiss, then a Romanian representative to investigate the situation.
In terms of objective observations, one notes the following:
The Flemish authorities finance French-speaking schools in the Flemish municipalities with facilities for the French-speakers (see below for a list; the finances come from a special fund from the federal government: annual subvention nearly 10 million Euro).
The authorities of the French-speaking community finance one Dutch-speaking school in the Walloon municipalities with facilities for the Dutch-speakers (in Mouscron).
Both are legally required to do so. Remark that the Flemish Community also provides for the funding of a Flemish school in Comines-Warneton.
In terms of local public services and communication, it seems that the Flemish municipalities with facilities have a correct bilingual communication (their websites are bilingual or even multi-lingual), whereas most Walloon municipalities with facilities for Flemish appear monolingual in their general communication towards their inhabitants.
In the late 1990s, two Flemish ministers, Leo Peeters and Luc Vandenbrande, issued instructions to the administrations of the municipalities with facilities for the French-speakers to the effect that French-speakers who wanted to get a translation of a document had to request it every single time they were asking for it, even if they had previously already explicitly made the demand to get it in French. Those instructions sharpened the practice until then, condoned by the Permanent Commission for Language Control, a paritary body set up by the law to control the correct application of the language laws in Belgium.
French-speakers sued the Flemish Region to restore the previous practice. After multiple years, the competent Flemish Chambers of the Council of State, the highest administrative court in Belgium, supported the new instructions, in a rare case of disavowing the recommendation of its auditor. Nationalistic French speakers have generally considered that the ruling of the Flemish Chambers of the Council of State was politically motivated and legally unsound. The Walloon Region has not taken any formal step to restrict the use of facilities in a similar way for Dutch-speakers or German-speakers: although it de facto already severely restricts the facilities for Flemish: (the unilingual communication of the Walloon municipalities involved, the blocking of all funding for Dutch-speaking schools, and at least one of the four municipalities required to offer facilities for Dutch-speakers demands similar repeated requests for documents in their language per every instance).
Belgian courts are extremely reluctant to arbitrate in all matters related to the linguistic and ethnic rights of the various ethnic and language groups in Belgium.
Over time, Flemings have become dissatisfied by the continued and growing presence of French-speakers in the "rim" municipalities around Brussels. As a result, there is now a strong and growing reaction in Flanders demanding that the current language facilities should be phased out, especially for the mainly recent 'migrants' around Brussels. For the facilities in the municipalities with historic minorities on the Walloon-Flemish border, there is still a willingness to consider maintaining them on condition of reciprocity (that these facilities are also re-established in practice in the corresponding Walloon cities).
French-speakers want to maintain all current facilities in Flanders, the more militant wing wanting to extend them in scope and/or area. French-speaking political parties, especially, protested against the Flemish ministerial circular letters from the socialist minister Leo Peeters (see supra). These circular letters, various additional restrictions put on the use of French in those municipalities, and the claims made by more and more Flemish politicians for the abolition of the facilities has caused a radicalisation of part of the French-speakers, many of whom now think their linguistic rights would be better protected if the "rim" municipalities joined the bilingual Brussels-Capital Region. Slightly more recently, a growing number of French-speakers as Philippe Van Parijs and the Brussels-based French employers oragnisation 'beci' started supporting the Flemish demand for respect of the 'principle of territoriality'.
Lili Nabholz-Haidegger, a Swiss deputy, made a report on September 5, 2002, inviting Belgium to recognise the fact that there is a French-speaking minority in Flanders. This report was approved by the Council of Europe. However, this assembly, contrary to the Belgian and regional legislators and the Belgian and European judiciary, has no legal competency in these matters, only a moral one. Moreover, this recommendation is seen by some experts as on legally unstable grounds as there is no definition of national minorities (not from EU legislation or from any other competent international body) and did not include any such definition that is sufficiently suitable to gain international acceptance. Before the 2002 Nabholz-Haidegger report, there had already another one from the same institution, the Domeni Columberg report, and another one afterwards, all getting to the same conclusions.
Worse, the Experts of Venise, legal experts working on behalf of the Council of Europe, formulated a set of four criteria for determining if 'a minority' might qualify as a 'national minority'. Two of those criteria cannot be said to be satisfied for the French-speakers in Flanders (being lack of historic and peaceful relations between the minority and the national authority from which they request recognition and a 'sufficient number'). Other legal specialist also mention the historic nature of the minority and specific areas where the minority is established in sufficient number.
In Flanders there are two kinds of municipalities with facilities. Rim municipalities are situated in the Flemish rim around the Brussels-Capital Region and form part of Flemish Brabant. The other municipalities are called language border municipalities because they lie close to the border with Wallonia.
Wezembeek-Oppem and Kraainem are sometimes referred to as the oostrand (eastern rim). A survey published in Le Soir on February 14, 2005, indicated that in all six rim municipalities, the majority of the population was French-speaking (the study was unofficial, since the public authorities refuse to undertake a census). More precisely, the survey claimed that the French-speaking population amounts to 55% of the population in Drogenbos, 78% in Kraainem, 79% in Linkebeek, 54% in Wemmel, 72% in Wezembeek-Oppem, and 58% in Sint-Genesius-Rode.
All municipalities in the German language region have French-language facilities: