The Belgian commune: democracy or demagoguery? IMPRESSION OF A BRIT There’s a lot to be said for the Belgian commune – after all, this modest but self-engrossed body is the closest you can get to the public, and it attempts to represent the standards and attitudes of the local community. At the same time, the commune tends to shape a style of life that is not representative of everyone in the community, while enforcing sanctions for petty infringements in an authoritarian way. Richard Hill T he Merriam-Webster dictionary describes a commune as “the smallest division of local government in some countries especially in Europe”. According to the Government website, there are 589 communes in Belgium, i.e. 589 opportunities to do or get things wrong! Speaking of the capital’s 19 communes in his book Brussels, André de Vries says “The city authorities wanted jurisdiction over the surrounding suburbs on the basis that the canal system and ports could not be run efficiently by several communes.” How right they were, but public sentiment in support of localism prevailed! The communes, which already existed before the creation of the Belgian state, were formally recognised in the 1831 Constitution, according to the Government website. “Their organisation is laid down in the law of 1836. (…) From the time they were set up, reference was made to ‘communal">autonomy’.” “That does not mean that the local politicians can do anything they like”, the website explains, “but they do have extensive">autonomy in the context of the powers that they exercise, under the supervision of higher authorities.” Indeed they do have the">autonomy, but how effective is the supervision? Some communes are decidedly authoritarian in their creation and application of trivial regulations. Early in 2014, one Brussels commune introduced a ‘règlement général’ imposing a fine of up to 350 euro on persons allowing weeds to grow on the pavement outside their home. And in November 2014 the burgomaster of Tournai imposed the civic obligation to apply for official permission before installing a window box on the sidewalk in front of a house. Only totalitarian states, the communes, aspire (or descend) to this level! They also have a local police force to ensure these regulations are respected… Communal officials, as many expatriates here have noted, often seem to be apologetic when telling you that what you are doing infringes these regulations… Part of their embarrassment may be due to the fact that many of these regulations are incoherent, or at least inconsistent in the way they are applied. Even day-to-day relationships with and between local administrations, including the police, can be Kafkaesque. Take the regulations relating to dogs for example (there are a lot of Belgians with little idea of how to train and discipline a dog, which contributes to the confusion). One expatriate known to me found himself embroiled in a situation where the regulations cited on the communal website conflicted with the ones actually applied by the commune! When another hapless expatriate walked unannounced into his communal offices for an identity card, he was told that he had to apply for a formal appointment. He asked how to apply, and the official said the quickest way would be by phone. So the expatriate went out to the lobby where there was a public phone and called back to the office he had just left. He got an appointment right away – much to the surprise and disgruntlement of the official when he presented himself a few seconds later… Frustrating formal procedures add to the opportunities for pettifogging bureaucrats to flout individual democratic rights. This state of anarchy is reinforced by a network of communal spies – often shopkeepers and publicans who curry favour with their friends in the communal administration (“scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine”). The result is a state of co-conspiratorial cronyism which is in complete contradiction to the founding spirit of the Belgian commune. More damaging is the fact that the communal system militates against effective concerted action on matters of real importance. This was dramatically illustrated last December when the president of the Brussels’ CPAS social assistance NGO had to appeal for intercommunal cooperation in providing shelter for the homeless people. “We are witnessing a blockage by the communal administrations,” she said with finality. ● BECI - Brussel Metropool - februari 2015 43 Pagina 44

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