Why doesn't Flanders ratify the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities?

Belgium has not yet ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The reason for this is that the Flemish Parliament has not yet adopted the Convention. Flanders does not have any problems with the spirit of the Convention. However, it fears that French speakers living in Flanders will invoke this Convention to enforce additional rights, whereas they cannot be considered a minority according to the Flemish Parliament.
Walloon MPs leave the Federal Chamber to protest against a Flemish initiative to split the constituency BHV.

The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities

The Minorities Convention was drawn up on the initiative of the Council of Europe, some years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because a number of states were falling apart and citizens acquired a different nationality from one day to the next as a result of that, national tensions in Central and Eastern Europe threatened to flare up.

The Council of Europe wanted to prevent this by obliging the Member States to give additional protection to national minorities. The Convention stipulates among other things that the Member States must ensure that recognised minorities have access to the media, are able to follow education in their own language and can use their own language in contacts with the authorities, in order to preserve their own culture and identity.

The Minorities Convention in Belgium

On 31 July 2001, the Belgian federal government signed the Convention within the framework of a broader agreement (the Lambermont Agreement) between the Communities. However, a number of nuances were made. These imply that the Convention must not detract from the constitutional provisions and the language laws. In order for the Minorities Convention to be ratified by Belgium, it must also be adopted by the federated state parliaments. Flanders refuses this, as a result of which the Minorities Convention has not yet been ratified by Belgium. The discussion concentrates on the question of whether the French speakers living in Flanders can be regarded as a minority as specified in the Minorities Convention.

In 1997 the Flemish Government declared it was unwilling to sign the Convention unless neither Dutch speakers nor French speakers could be regarded as a minority in our country. According to the Flemish Government, both Communities are dominant in their own language area and minorities in the other Region, but they are on an equal footing within the federal structures and within the bilingual Brussels-Capital Region.

Belgium already has mechanisms to protect minorities

However, in an additional Resolution, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly decided in 2002 that the concept of “national minority” would also refer to regional minorities. In other words, Dutch speakers in Wallonia and French speakers in Flanders.

The 2009 Flemish coalition agreement explicitly states that the majority parties will not ratify the Convention. This has nothing to do with the spirit of the Convention, but everything to do with the impact it may have on relations between the Communities in our country. The current institutional organisation and language legislation are the result of an historical compromise.

The Belgian state structure already contains several mechanisms to protect minorities, including the special majorities, the “alarm bell” procedure, the conflicts of interest, the parity-based composition of the supreme courts (Court of Cassation, Council of State and Constitutional Court) and the parity in the federal and Brussels governments.

The Minorities Convention in other countries

Apart from Belgium, Luxemburg, Iceland and Greece have not ratified the Convention either. Andorra, France, Monaco and Turkey have up till now neither signed nor ratified the Convention.

Source: Living in Translation is written by VRT journalist Michaël Van Droogenbroeck. The brochure is an initiative of the not-for-profit organisation De Rand. See also www.livingintranslation.be.

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