authored by JD Mussel
Since 1970, Belgium has gone through no less than 6 constitutional reforms, possibly more than any other western democracy during the same period. Most importantly, these have transformed it from a unitary state into a full-fledged federation (since the 4th reform, in 1993-95). One of the results to come out of the prolonged (and record-breaking) government formation of 2010-2011 was agreement on a 7th constitutional reform, which will enter into effect after the upcoming elections in May 2014. The most well-known of the changes to be implemented is the splitting up of the Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde constituency along language lines, a measure mandated by the Constitutional Court, solving a quandary which has been a major stumbling block in government formation and reform negotiations over the last five years.
There are more parts to the constitutional reform, but the most important change is probably to Belgium’s Senate. Before 1993, the Senate was perfectly co-equal with the House of Representatives, to the point that governments needed the confidence of both houses. This did not cause much instability, as the houses had similar political compositions; the Senate was largely elected, at the same time as the House, with some members indirectly elected by provincial councils, and the last group co-opted by the first two (Additionally, some Princes were, and until next year remain, members of the Senate by right, but in practice they do not participate or vote). In 1995, the composition of the Senate was changed to 40 directly-elected, 21 elected indirectly by the new Community/Regional parliaments and 10 co-opted members, while its powers were drastically curtailed: its powers to remove a government, as well as block supply, were removed, as were its powers over a host of issues for which the House was designated as having the final say. The Senate retained its veto on constitutional amendments and other changes to state organisation, federal relations and treaties. For other matters bicameral procedure became ‘optional’ – the lower house could decide what to do.
The newest reform will change the composition of the Senate to 50 elected indirectly by the Community/Regional parliaments and 10 co-opted, removing all directly-elected members. Its powers and functions will also be hugely curtailed: it will no longer take part in regular legislation, will no longer have the power of inquiry or to ask ministers questions. The only legislative power it retains regards to the constitution and the monarchy. Instead of being a true legislative chamber, the Senate is supposed to become a forum for the Regions and Communities. The reform was a compromise between those wishing to abolish and those wanting to retain the chamber (the latter being mainly French-speaking parties, if I’m not mistaken).
The difference in political composition that is likely to result may justify a certain curtailment in the Senate’s powers, but why that should mean it abolishing its legislative role entirely, let alone taking away its powers of inquiry, is somewhat beyond me…