Belgian system offers a lesson in devolution
Posted Thursday, June 21 2012 at 18:30
After many years of co-habiting, Alfredo finally decided to make an honest woman of my friend Claudine and asked me to be a witness at their wedding.
It is the law in Belgium that a civil marriage must first be contracted before the mayor’s representative whether or not a couple desires to wed in church, mosque or temple and so it was that the wedding party gathered at the Etterbeek city hall on a crisp Friday mid-morning in early March and entered the Mayor’s Parlour to the sound of classical music played by the resident pianist.
After some brief comments on the significance of the venue and the provenance of the works of art adorning its walls, the Alderman presiding over the wedding reminded the couple of their duties and obligations under the marriage law, asked the traditional question to which both Claudine and Alfredo replied in the affirmative and pronounced them man and wife.
The wedding party then repaired to Jean-Marie’s gastro-pub for champagne and hors d’oeuvres followed by a lavish lunch and more champagne.
Etterbeek is one of the 19 communes of the Brussels region and the administrative authority closest to the inhabitant.
The commune registers births, marriages and deaths, issues identity cards, residency permits, passports, driving licenses, certificates of good conduct and all manner of personal documentation that an individual might need.
The wide-ranging powers of the commune also include public works, social welfare, public order, housing, education and all other areas that have a direct and immediate impact on the daily life of its inhabitants.
Communes pre-date the modern Belgian state which was founded in 1830 but their reorganisation and consolidation and the creation of a federal state in 1993 has resulted in a highly devolved system of government.
The federal government remains in charge of defence, foreign affairs, finance, justice and social security while the rest is the responsibility of regional and local authorities.
The gradual ceding of everyday functions of state to the regional and community levels over the years is one of the reasons why Belgium could remain without a government for a record-breaking 541days following elections in June 2010, as functionaries continued to work and services were provided.
The commune’s budget is allocated by the regional authority on the basis of criteria such as the number of its inhabitants, the number of students, the number of job seekers receiving unemployment benefits, the level of taxation on real estate or personal income tax.
To supplement its budget, the commune levies a host of other taxes and fees for the services provided to its residents.
With a population of just over 11 million, Belgium has a total of 589 communes, with the smallest having less than 100 inhabitants.
Local elections are held every six years and I have just received mail from my commune informing me that the next polls to elect the Mayor and his Aldermen will be held in October and inviting me to perform my civic duty.
Since 2004 resident non-European nationals over the age of 18 years are automatically registered on the electoral rolls of their communes and although they may not stand, they can vote to elect the officials who carry out “the responsibilities that most closely affect the citizens: crèches, schools, the state of the streets, sports facilities, social welfare, safety…” as the flyer states.