Doc. 8428

31 May 1999

Application of a decision of the European Court of Human Rights on the use of languages in education in Belgium

Written Question No. 379

Reply from the Committee of Ministers

adopted at the 670th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies (18 May 1999)

I.       Written Question by MM. Clerfayt, Beaufays, de Decker and Henry (Doc. 8350)

      In a judgment of 23 July 1968 in the case relating to "certain aspects of the laws on the use of languages in education in Belgium", the European Court of Human Rights held that section 7 (3) of the Act of 2 August 1963 on the use of languages for administrative matters did not comply with the requirements of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, read in conjunction with the first sentence of Article 2 of the Protocol.

      The Court held that application of that provision prevented certain children, solely on the basis of their parent's place of residence (in the case under consideration the applicants' places of residence included Alsemberg and Beersel, both monolingual municipalities (communes) in the Dutch-speaking region), from having access to the French-language schools existing in the six municipalities on the outskirts of Brussels invested with special status.

      The Court aptly relied on the following reasoning: "It … appears that the residence condition is not imposed in the interest of schools, for administrative or financial reasons: it proceeds solely, in the case of the Applicants, from considerations relating to language. Furthermore the measure in issue does not fully respect, in the case of the majority of the Applicants and their children, the relationship of proportionality between the means employed

and the aim sought. In this regard the Court, in particular, points out that the impossibility of entering official or subsidised French-language schools in the six communes "with special facilities" affects the children of the Applicants in the exercise of their right to education, all the more in that there exist no such schools in the communes in which they live."

       A specific problem lies in the fact that, more than thirty years later, Belgium has still not amended the provision which the Court deemed to be discriminatory in nature. Mr Columberg noted this state of affairs in his recent report to the Parliamentary Assembly on the situation of the French-speaking population living in the Brussels periphery.

      Paragraph 7 of Resolution 1172, adopted by the Assembly in plenary session on 25 September 1998, clearly reminded all the parties concerned that "the decisions of the different conflict resolving mechanisms … should be respected. This also applies to the decision of the European Court of Human Rights of 23 July 1968, inter alia stipulating that children of parents not resident in the six communes with linguistic facilities in the Brussels periphery should nevertheless be allowed to attend the French-speaking schools in these communes".

      Contrary to statements made by certain Flemish politicians, maintaining that the problem was solved in 1970 (Act of 30 December) by incorporating the peripheral municipalities into the monolingual Dutch-speaking region, we wish to point out that the Belgian parliament expressly established special rules on language facilities for the benefit of the populations of the above-mentioned municipalities (sections 7 and 23 to 31 of the Acts on use of languages in administrative matters).

In view of the above, would the Committee of Ministers state its position and the measures it intends to take vis--vis the Belgian government to ensure effective application of the judgment.

II.       Reply from the Committee of Ministers

The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on the merits of the Belgian linguistic case was handed down on 23 July 1968. In the Statutory Report sent to the Assembly on 3 October 1972, the Committee of Ministers indicated that, in execution of its obligations with regard to Article 54 of the Convention, it had taken note of the measures which Belgium had taken in conformity with Article 53 in the context of its constitutional reform. These measures are contained in a memorandum dated 12 April 1972, a copy of which is appended to this reply.

Since that time, the Committee has not been seized of any case concerning the measures taken by Belgium.


Memorandum by the Belgian Government

      The Belgian authorities wish to inform the Committee of Ministers of the legislative measures introduced in Belgium to remedy the violation of the European Convention on Human Rights mentioned in the above judgement; in doing so, they wish to terminate the procedure initiated under Article 54 of the Convention, whereby the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is required to supervise execution of the judgments of the Court.

      At the end of 1970 the Belgian Parliament completed, in particular by revising the Constitution, the reform of national institutions on which, assisted by the Government, it had been engaged since 1968.

      The main purposes of the new provisions are:

1) to recognise and organise within Belgium, which remains a united sovereign State, the Dutch and French cultural communities and the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels regions; the small German cultural community is also recognised and is to have its own cultural organs;

2) to guarantee that harmonious inter-community relations are safeguarded in the principal institutions where problems of common interest are debated (government, parliament, Greater Brussels authorities);

3) to furnish Greater Brussels with the institutions it needs in order to be able fully to play its role as capital of a country comprising two major cultural communities and extensively involved in European and international co-operation;

4) to guarantee in all institutions, especially cultural institutions, the rights and freedoms of ideological and philosophical minorities.

      Parliament has also been guided by these fundamental principles in adopting a number of provisions which may be seen as a logical and necessary extension of them.

One provision, for instance, lays down the distribution among the linguistic groups of Members of Parliament and members of the Greater Brussels Council; others make allowance for linguistic groups in calculating the majority required for the adoption of certain particularly important legislation; finally, a provision gives constitutional validity to the linguistic regions, the boundaries of which cannot be changed except by legislation passed by the special majority referred to above.

      Before this last constitutional provision could be enacted, it first had to be decided to which linguistic regions Brussels’ six outlying communes belonged, as the statutory texts previously in force did not afford the necessary legal safeguards.

      This was done by the Act of 23 December 1970, which explicitly placed the six districts in the Dutch-language region, at the same time maintaining in their entirety the facilities accorded by the law to the French-speaking inhabitants.

      The constitutional reform was completed on 24 December 1970. The provisions in question, which may be described as a new “compromis des Belges”, were passed by both Chambers by majorities well above the two thirds required for any revision of the Constitution.

      It was as part of this through overhaul of national institutions that Parliament, as the Belgian Government had insisted was necessary, resolved the problem raised by the judgment of 23 July 1968 of the European Court of Human Rights.

      In accordance with the legislature’s express intention, the six outlying communes covered by the judgement are now an integral part of the Dutch-language region.

      This being so and having regard to the aim pursued, in the general interest, of promoting the cultural homogeneity of the linguistic regions, it is legitimate for French-language education provided in these districts to be restricted to French-speaking children living there with their parents. The discrimination on purely residential grounds noted by the European Court has thus disappeared as a result of the constitutional reform and the new legislation.

      It must be made clear that there is nothing exceptional about the system now operating in the six Dutch-language communes on the fringe of the bilingual region.

      Several years ago, for similar reasons, the same school language facilities were made available in 65 other communes situated in one linguistic region but close to a different one. These facilities are reserved for children in those districts who speak the other language, i.e. French, Flemish or German.