What does Belgium's federal parliament do?

On 25 May Belgium goes to the polls to elect new lawmakers. The federal parliament is among the bodies that are being renewed. It is also an institution that is undergoing change as a result of the sixth package of state reforms that has now passed into law.

Belgium's federal parliament is the seat of federal powers in the country. It is also Belgium's oldest legislative body. The federal parliament is located at the heart of Brussels on the country's main political artery, the Wetstraat. It is housed in a building called the Palace of the Nation that is situated on the Park of Brussels, opposite the royal palace of Brussels, with the office of the Belgian prime minister between the two.

The federal parliament consists of two houses, the upper house or senate and the lower house or chamber of representatives. As a result of recent state reforms the senate is no longer directly elected but includes senators designated by other Belgian elected bodies. .

Belgium's devolved assemblies like the Flemish parliament and the parliament of the Germanophone community will dispatch 50 of their lawmakers to the red seats of the senate to double as senators. The Flemish designate twenty-nine senators, Francophones 20 senators and they are joined by a single Germanophone senator. A further ten senators are designated by the chamber of representatives. In all, after the May 25 election, Belgium will have 60 senators - down 11 from today.

The new style senate will only meet a few times a year. Its powers are being limited and no longer include law-making. The senate is supposed to become a meeting place for Belgium's regions and communities. It is the choice place to discuss any future state reforms.

Until now federal parliamentary elections were held every 4 years. This will now only happen every five years, unless the government collapses and early elections are needed. The chamber of representatives has 150 members and at present includes 88 Flemish lawmakers and 62 Francophones. This balance could shift as a result of the poll. The splitting of the Brussels Halle Vilvoorde Constituency means one or possibly both of the two seats held by Flemings in the capital could be lost as their vote totals can no longer be topped up by rest votes from Flanders proper.

Members of the chamber of representatives make new laws and keep tabs on the federal government. Both lawmakers and the government can initiate legislation that is then discussed in the chamber of representatives. Federal laws are restricted to the fields of competence of the federal state. Taxes and the budget, social security including pensions and healthcare, employment, justice, defence, police maters, asylum and migration are all federal powers.

The recent state reforms transfer further powers to the regions and the communities. Belgium's regions are territorial entities: Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia, while the communities relate to language groups: the Flemings, Francophones and Germanophones. The powers of the federal parliament may have been cut back, but this does not mean that this assembly faces fewer challenges than before.