Belgium Federal state

History and trends

Belgium is a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. The constitution was adopted in 1831 and has undergone six reforms since 1970.

Belgium is broadly divided along three lines. The first two are ideological in nature, hinging on religious beliefs and political opinions respectively. The third is between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

Once the language dividing line had been fixed, this sparked a movement that would eventually lead to the regionalisation – and ultimately federalisation, of Belgium. The current federal system – which remains a work in progress, to the displeasure of the Flemish population – is the result of four constitutional reforms:

  • 1970: the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels-Capital Regions were created, along with the Flemish, French and German-speaking Communities.
  • 1980: the constitution was amended again, clarifying and extending the powers of the Communities and Regions. 1988-1989: the Brussels-Capital Region was given almost identical status to the other Regions.
  • 1993: Belgium officially became a federal state, and the first direct elections for regional and community assemblies were held in 1995.


Thus, there was a series of constitutional reforms between 1970 and July 2001, due principally to the linguistic and cultural divide between the Flemish north and the Walloon south. In reality, Belgian did not become a fully-fledged federal state until 1989.

But, unlike the autonomous communities of Spain, Belgium’s regions do not have their own constitution. Moreover, they lack judicial bodies and depend on the federal level. The provinces and communes, which represent local power, are under the authority of the regions.

Community level :

Belgium’s unique “cultural communities” were created with the constitutional reform of 1970. There are three such communities: the Flemish Community, the French Community and the German-speaking Community. Each community is founded first and foremost on the concept of “language”.

The communities’ remit extends to cultural and personal matters, covering four key themes: culture, education, health and personal care, in addition to scientific research.

Regional level :

Belgium is divided into three regions: the Walloon Region (5 provinces), the Flemish Region (5 provinces, and the Brussels-Capital Region (19 municipalities, managed jointly). The regions were created to serve an ambition, in some quarters, for greater economic self-government.

Their powers, linked to the “territory” that they cover, encompass three broad themes:

  • local powers
  • management of the living environment (especially housing)
  • the economy in the broad sense, including urban and rural transport (network design and public service management).

The regions’ remit also includes scientific research.

A key act of 13 July 2001 transferred powers over the composition, organisation, remit and operation of the municipalities and provinces from the federal government to the regions. This regionalisation process triggered a dispute that has yet to be resolved by Belgium’s constitutional court. If the 2001 act remains intact, it will give the regions the power to enact the radical reforms called for by some parts of the political establishment.

Intermediary level :

Since 1 January 1993, Belgium has had 10 provinces (5 in the Walloon Region and 5 in the Flemish Region). The provinces are the legacy of a tradition of local self-government that goes back to the Middle Ages, while their current configuration dates from the French Revolution. Prior to the 1992/1993 constitutional reform, the provinces were federal state administrative divisions. They have since become more akin to regional subdivisions. The Brussels-Capital Region is different because it does not have any provinces.

Local level :

The number of municipalities was cut by three-quarters in 1997. There are now 589 municipalities across Belgium – 262 in the Walloon Region, 308 in the Flemish Region, and 19 in the Brussels-Capital Region.

Belgium has a strong tradition of inter-municipal cooperation, primarily through around 250 ad hoc associations known as “inter-municipalities”. These associations, typically created for a term of 30 years, can either be non-profit organisations, cooperatives, or public limited companies. They manage many of the tasks that fall within the municipalities’ remits. Even where their membership includes private persons, inter-municipalities are legal entities governed by public law.

1975: Merger of Belgian municipalities[1]

In the space of 30 years, Belgium (population: 11.3 million) has cut the number of municipalities from 2,739 to 589.

On Belgium’s 589 municipalities: Municipalities predated the Belgian state, which was founded in 1831. The concept of “municipal self-government” has been a guiding principle from the outset. Elected representatives enjoy a large degree of autonomy in exercising their powers under the authority of the higher level (i.e. the region):

  • The Flemish Region comprises 308 municipalities, divided across five provinces: Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, West Flanders, East Flanders and Limburg.
  • The Walloon Region comprises 262 municipalities, divided across five provinces: Walloon Brabant, Hainaut, Liège, Luxembourg and Namur.
  • There are 19 municipalities in the Brussels-Capital Region.


There have long been calls to merge Belgium’s municipalities: In 1937, the Research Centre for State Reform recommended that all municipalities with fewer than 500 citizens be compulsorily merged with a neighbouring municipality, and that the process be made optional for those with between 500 and 1,000 citizens.

The Unitary Law of 1961 simplified the merger of local governements , with the executive branch gaining the power to abolish municipalities for a period of 10 years. Consequently, the number of municipalities fell from 2,663 to 2,359 between 1961 and 1971.

The act of 23 July 1971 extended the reforms to major conurbations and introduced financial incentives and guarantees for public officials working for merged municipalities. Under the act, mergers would have to be carried out on a voluntary basis.

In 1972, the municipality merger plan (known as the Cossard plan) was published and met with fierce criticism from local elected representatives. The government stated that it was “determined to complete as many municipal mergers as possible before the 1976 municipal elections, according to comprehensive plans”.

The rapporteur to the chamber said that, for technical reasons, the smallest municipalities were no longer able to provide the public services and facilities that citizens needed and that the government should seek economies of scale to enhance public services.


  • The royal decree of 17 September 1975, ratified by the act of 30 December 1975, enshrined the reforms and set a date of entry into force of 1 January 1977.
  • In 1977, there were 596 municipalities in Belgium.
  • It took until 1983 to reach agreement on the merger of municipalities around the city of Antwerp, cutting the total number of municipalities to 589.


None of the 19 municipalities in the Brussels-Capital Region were merged because no agreement was reached. As of 2013, the negotiations were still ongoing.

The Belgian government, noting that inter-municipalities had failed because they were too complex and had introduced competition that was often harmful to the public interest, saw amalgamation as the ultimate expression of solidarity between central and outlying municipalities (cities and conurbations), and a way to better align municipal boundaries with public service delivery zones, so that citizens paid an equal share of the cost.

Merger criteria: Municipalities already forming part of a conurbation and in close proximity to one another were merged as a matter of priority. Yet affinity between municipalities was also gauged against other factors, such as communication routes, transport provision, terrain and river basins.

[1] Article by Manon Meistermann, iFRAP Foundation, 2013