Westel Woodbury Willoughby.

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but they differ considerably in respect to population, which varies
from 250,000 to 1,200,000. Thus the province of Luxemburg,
whose area exceeds that of any of the others by about a third,
has the smallest population; it has neither industrial centers nor
any important city (its largest city has a bare 10,000 inhabitants),
and it is in large part covered with forests. The differences in
population have increased during the last fifty years, as much
from the great development of industry in certain provinces as
from the growth of certain great urban centers like those of Brus-
sels and Antwerp.

There are 2G30 communes in Belgium; their boundaries were
not established systematically by a single act, nor by a series of
acts of the legislative authority. Almost all grew up in the course
of centuries, and their boundaries have come into existence only
in accordance with very ancient traditions. There are great
differences among the communes, not only in respect to their
territorial extent (which varies from some hundreds to some tens
of thousands of acres), but also in respect to their population.
Some little villages have scarcely a hundred inhabitants, w^hereas
Antwerp had more than 300,000 in 1914. Some communes take

* Translated by Robert D. Leigh, assistant professor of politics, Reed College,
Portland, Oregon.

' Professor of comparative constitutional government, University of Louvain;
assistant councilor to the prime minister of Belgium.


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the name of cities, others are called villages; but that does not
make the least difference so far as the law is concerned, nor in
respect to the administrative regime to which they are subject.
Today there is no longer the shadow of a privilege, special right,
or peculiar obligation which attaches to the title of city. Many
communes have the title of city by force of tradition, because
that title was given to them f ormeriy when cities were invested
with peculiar privileges; others have assumed that title recently,
because their population has increased so much and become so
congested that they no longer have the appearance of a village
at all.

The organization of local government in Belgium is based on
principles very diflferent, one might even say quite opposed, to
those that control local government in America.

The first principle is that of the complete and absolute uni-
formity of institutions and legal regulations. The provincial
organization was regulated by the law of April 30, 1836; the com-
munal organization by the law of March 30, 1836. These two
laws have undergone numerous modifications since that time,
but all the new acts of the le^slative authority have respected
this principle of uniformity. Thus all the provinces are equally
subject to the same system; one probably would not find in the
entire body of the Belgian laws a single provision which would
apply only to one particular province, or even one that would
not apply equally to all the provinces. The case is the same, in
principle, with respect to the communes: the same institutions
exist, the same legal regulations apply to the largest cities and
to the smallest villages; there is no city that enjoys a special
charter; there is not even one special system of local govern-
ment for the cities and another for the rural communes.

One exception to this rule of uniformity can be pointed out, one
of but little importance: the communes which have less than
5000 inhabitants are subject to the supervision of an official
of the central government, whereas the largest communes are
subject only to the supervision of the provincial authorities.
But although no article of the constitution forbids, the Belgian

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parliament has never made a law imposing upon one particular
commune a special rule for the organization of its local adminis-
tration. At most one can cite some recent laws which have
created a fifth alderman (Schevin) in certain large cities; the legis-
^ lators of 1836, who did not foresee the considerable growth of the
great cities, limited the number of aldermen to four and this
number became obviously insufficient in four or five cities. The
Belgian people are so imbued with this idea of uniformity in legis-
lation — ^which they consider a result of the principle of equality
— that no one even thinks of the possibility of particular laws or
special charters. Indeed, the prejudice is so strongly rooted
that statesmen and administrators up to the present tim^ have
encountered an irresistible opposition when they ask that the
great cities and the industrial centers be granted a form of local
government slightly different from that of 1836, which is especially
suited to the rtiral communes.

In America local authorities are kept within the bounds of
their powers and in conformity to the laws, on the one hand by
the legislature, which determines in minute detail all their powers,
functions and duties, and on the other hand by the courts of
justice, which can annul their acts and overcome their resistance;
but they are independent of the governor and of the other officers
of the state. In Belgium, on the contrary, the legislature is
satisfied with laying down in the law only general principles and
fundamental regulations; the courts of justice have neither the
power of annulment in respect to legislative acts nor the power
of injunction, and they are even strictly forbidden to adjudge
administrative acts. The entire control of the acts of local
authorities is in the hands of a central executive power, follow-
ing the principle of hierarchy, on which the entire administrative
organization of European states is based. Provincial authorities
administer provincial affairs, but under the supervision and
control of the central government; the communal authorities
administer communal affairs under the supervision and control,
first of the provincial authorities and secondly of the central
government. This means that certain especially important or
dangerous acts of the local authority are valid only when they

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have been approved by the superior authority; all other acts for
which the law has not specially required such approval are valid
without it; but the higher authority may annul, not modify,
these latter acts, if they violate a legal regulation, if they go
beyond the powers of the authority belonging to them, or if they
are injurious to the general interest of the state.

The lines of division between the powers and functions of the
central government and the rights and functions of the local
authorities are not so clearly drawn that each can act quite sepa-
rately in its own sphere without finding itself in frequent contact
with the other. On the contrary, in Belgium the central govern-
ment and the local authorities are, of necessity, constantly imping-
ing on each other, in the first place because of the hierarchic control
just described, in the second place because the law has also set
up local authorities as subordinate agents of the central govern-
ment, has called on them to cooperate in the execution of the
laws and administration of general affairs, and has delegated to
them powers and functions in the administrative services of the
nation. Belgian provincial and communal authorities have thus
a double duty: on the one hand they administer the local affairs
of the province and of the commune under the supervision and
under a certain legally limited control of the central govern-
ment; and on the other hand they take part in administration of
the general affairs of the nation under the absolute orders and
control of the central government. And in practice it is some-
times very difficult to distinguish in which capacity they are
acting. Naturally, when a local authority acts as an agent of
the central government, the latter has power not only to give
or refuse its approval to certain acts determined by the law, or
to annul acts that are illegal or contrary to the general interest,
but it can give orders to which the local authority owes outright
obedience; it can not only annul every such act which displeases
it, without even giving a reason for doing so, but it can amend it,
modify it, or itself promulgate a decision contrary or altogether

However, it can be said that the local authorities in Belgium
enjoy a very large degree of autonomy. In this respect Belgium

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cannot at all be compared with France; it is unquestionably the
most decentralized country of all on the European continent.
The mere explanation of the legal organization of local govern-
ment might give an incorrect impression. The traditions of local
self-government are so strong in Belgium, public opinion there
is so jealous of "communal liberties," that the central govern-
ment, far from giving a broad interpretation to the powers of
supervision and control which the law allows it, has not always
dared even to make use of its incontestable rights, or has used
them only with extreme caution. On the contrary, it has left
the local authorities the greatest liberty in the exercise of their
functions, has even allowed them to extend these functions to
the farthest limits that the text of the laws permits, perhaps in
some cases even to pass beyond those limits. Custom and tradi-
tion, even more than law, guarantee the authority and the vitality
of the local authorities.


In the province there are three distinct authorities, the provin-
cial council, the permanent deputation, and the governor. The
provincial council is the representative assembly of the inhabit-
ants of the province; the number of councilors varies from 44 to
93 according to the province. They are* elected for eight years,
formerly by plural, manhood suffrage, each person possessing,
according to certain conditions determined by law, one, two or
three votes. This system was abolished by the last parliament,
and was replaced by manhood suffrage, equal for all. The vote is
taken by scruiin de liste (block vote) ; if a number of candidates
equal to the number of councilors to be chosen has not obtained
an absolute majority on the first ballot, they proceed to a second
election, eight days afterwards, for the seats remaining to be
filled. This system will also soon be abolished and there will be.
substituted for it a system of proportional representation.

The permanent deputation is composed, according to law, of
six members elected for eight years by the provinical council and
necessarily chosen from its own members. It is presided over by

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the governor, who is also a member ex officio and possesses all the
powers of discussion and decision. This makes it possible to
say that in reality it is composed of seven members: the governor
and the six elected deputies. The governor is the representative
of the central government; he is chosen and may be freely recalled,
without reason or pretext, by the Crown. The governors of the
provinces are usually chosen from the politicians rather than
from the professional administrators; they resign automatically
if the central government passes from one party to another.

The provincial council holds only one regular session each year,
the duration of which is limited usually to two weeks and cannot
in any case exceed four weeks. Occasionally there are special
sessions, but these last only a day or two at most. The provincial
council, if we except some special and inconsiderable powers,
has, in efifect, no other task than that of provincial legislation;
it has to vote the taxes and the appropriations, the annual budget,
and the loans, to decide upon the construction of the provincial
establishment, to regulate provincial interests. The law neither
defines nor enumerates what the provincial interests are, but,
as a matter of fact, they are not very numerous, nor of great
importance. The provincial councils have very little to occupy,
their attention, aside from the building and maintenance of rural
roads; the improvement of the breeds of horses and cattle; the
building and organization of certain charitable institutions, for
example those for the deaf mutes, the blind, the crippled, the
tuberculous; the creation and administration of certain special
schools, notably professional schools. This explains how the
provincial councils can dispatch all the business they have to
take care of, in so short a time, and shows how unimportant is
the rdle they play in the political life of Belgium.

The permanent deputation, on the contrary, meets at least
once a week, often several times a week in the most populous
provinces. Its members receive a salary and allowances which
permit them to live suitably; for it must be realized that they
cannot practice any other profession, but must devote practically
all their time to the exercise of their functions. These functions
are, in fact, far from being limited to the administration of pro-

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vincial aflfairs. The law has intrusted to them, first, the very
unportant and absorbing task of supervising and controlling the
activity of the communal authorities; they have to give or refuse
their approval to numerous acts of the communal authorities
and to inspect them with a view to preventing violations of the
laws or acts injurious to general interest.

Furthermore, numerous provisions of special statutes confer
upon them very diverse powers in the administration of the
afifairs of state; there is no type of administrative service, even
the technical services, which does not have frequent recourse to
the collaboration or advice of the permanent deputation. The
services which the permanent deputies render to the state are
so important that the central government has assumed the com-
plete payment of their salaries; thus these provincial officers,
chosen by the provincial council, whom the central government
can neither dismiss nor suspend, are paid exclusively by the treas-
ury of the state.

The law gives to the governor, alone, the duty of seeing to the
execution of the decisions of the provincial council, as well as
to that of the laws and royal ordinances within the province.
Nevertheless the permanent deputation may be described as a
true administrative council; for the governor is, for practically
all his acts, obliged at least to consider their advice, or even to
assure himself of their cooperation. There are many acts, con-
sidered a part of the executive function, which must be decided
by the deputation and which the governor afterwards must put
into execution. Thus the permanent deputation alone can dis-
pose of the landed property of the province, and order that a
warrant of payment be given; the governor has no choice but to
sign the warrant in accordance with the order of the deputation.
But all the powers and all the functions belong only to the deputa-
tion as a whole; each member by himself, save, of course, the
governor, cannot perform the smallest act. Even for the simplest
deliberation and study of data there does not exist among the
deputies a division of functions analogous to that which exists
anaong ministers in the government, nor even like that which,
it will be seen, appears among the aldermen in the communal

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In the commune there are also three distinct authorities: the
communal council, the aldermanic college, and the burgomaster.
The communal council is the body which represents all the in-
habitants of the commune. It is composed of seven members
only, in the little communes which have less than 1000 inhabitants;
the number of communal councilors increases with the popula-
tion, but never exceeds 39 in the largest cities. They are elected
for six years — one-half every three years — formerly by plural
male suffrage, with a maximum of four votes to an elector, but
this system has just been abolished by act of parliament, and
will be replaced by universal suffrage, pure and simple. The vote
is taken by scrutin de listen with a system of qualified proportional
representation. That is to say, all the candidates who have
obtained an absolute majority of votes are declared elected. If
after this there remain seats to fill, they do not proceed to a
second balloting as for the provincial council, but the remaining
seats are apportioned among the dififerent lists of candidates pro-
portionately to the number of votes which they have received.
Here also proportional representation without restriction will
probably soon be applied.

The aldermanic college {colUge des ichevins) is composed of
the burgomaster and of two to five aldermen; there are at least
two aldermen in the smallest villages, there are not more than
five in the largest cities. The burgomaster is appointed by the
Crown but he must be chosen from the members of the communal
coimcil. So he seems much less the delegate of the central govern-
ment than the representative of the inhabitants of the commune
who have first elected him. In fact very often the government
does not in reality have the function of choosing the burgomaster;
almost always there is in the communal council a man whose
nomination forces itself upon the government by reason of services
which he has rendered, of his popularity in the commune, of his
prestige and authority among his colleagues of the communal
council. When there is no such man already designated for the
function of burgomaster, the government always takes great

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care to choose the councilor who will enjoy the confidence of the
people and the council. It has even acquired the habit of con-
sulting officially the communal councilors, or requesting them to
present to it a candidate, and, ejtcept for very special reasons,
it hastens to name him.

Aldermen are elected by the communal council from its mem-
bers. Their mandate, like that of the burgomaster, has the
same duration as that of the communal council; namely, for
six years. On the subject of these functions of local government
the Belgians have ideas and traditions very diflferent from those
of the Americans. They do not believe at all in the advantage
of frequent changes ; thus the burgomaster, who, like the communal
council, has to be reelected, is always renominated unless he has
committed grave faults in his administration, or unless the major-
ity of the new council is opposed to his renomination. It is
not uncommon to see a commune directed by the same burgo-
master for twenty or thirty years.

The communal council does not have sessions regularly fixed
by law. It assembles whenever the functions assigned to it
require a meeting. Naturally the number of sessions varies
considerably according to the importance of the commime;
they are frequent in the large cities, while four or five sessions a
year are sufficient in the small villages. The communal council
can sit only when it is convoked by the aldermanic college; but
the latter is obliged to convoke it whenever so requested by at
least one-third of the communal councilors.

In the political and administrative life of Belgium the communal
council enjoys a part much more active and important than the
provincial council. To be sure, their principal duty is the regula-
tion of all which is of communal interest, just as the provincial
council must regulate everything of provincial interest, and the
law has not taken any greater care to define and enimaerate the
communal interests than it has provincial interests. But as a
matter of fact the communal interests far surpass the provincial
interests in number and importance. The communal sphere of
interests includes the building, maintenance and administration
of streets, public squares, boulevards and public highways, like-

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wise public gardens and parks; everything connected with public
health; the maintenance and administration of primary schools;
all that has to do with public benefaction, asylums, hospitals,
poor relief; the cemeteries; the development and administration
of the properties of the commune — forests, lands and buildmgs;
the administration of markets, fairs and slaughter houses; the
police and the maintenance of good order; and the furnishing to
the inhabitants of certain commodities which involve a monopoly
— drinking water, gas, electricity, tramways.

In regard to these utilities the communal councils can either
grant the monopoly of operation to private companies or operate
them themselves directly as a conunune. These developments
in administration were established in Belgium a long time before
the modern socialistic tendencies began to spread. Thus, nearly
everywhere the distribution of water has from the start been
developed as a part of public administration; only two or three
cities can be cited where it is carried on by private companies..
Brussels has for a long time had communal operation of gas,
and its example has been imitated by numerous conununes whose
administrations were not at all socialistic. Even the distri-
bution of electricity has, in a certain number of cities, been
established and developed directly by the communal adminis-
tration. The tramways, on the other hand, are generally granted
to private companies; Li^ge is the only city which up to the
present has communal tramways.

The communal council, to begin with, exercises, in matters of
conmiunal interest, all the powers which appertain to parlia-
ment in matters of general interest. It passes all the regulations
relative to the communal business and establishment, decides
upon the creation and organization of the communal administra-
tive services, votes the taxes and appropriations, the annual
budget, and the loans and pubUc works to be paid for out of the
communal treasury. But it also has to discuss and decide upon
a multitude of purely administrative matters, which are usually
considered as, by their nature, coming within the province of the
executive power. It must decide on all alienations, exchanges,
or purchases of real estate in the name of the commune, on the

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acceptance of gifts and bequests made to the commune, on the
changes in the possession of communal property, on the alienation
of credits, obligations and legal actions pertaining to the commune,
and on the choice, suspension and dismissal of all the official
agents and employees of the commune. The council can, how-
ever, delegate the nomination of employees and subordinate
agents to the aldermanic college.

If we leave out of account these powers thus reserved by law
to the communal council, the executive functions in the commune
belong to the college of aldermen. They belong to the college
entirely as a body; each of its members, even the burgomaster,
has no powers by himself. To be sure, in the large cities, in
order to expedite business, the direction and control of diflferent
communal services are apportioned among the burgomaster and
the different aldermen. But each one individually can only
direct the deliberations of officials, control the execution given
by the agents to the decisions of the council and of the college,
prepare and propose solutions, present reports and plans; all
decisions come from the aldermanic college itself. This is the
characteristic that most distinguishes the Belgian from the French
system. In France all the powers and functions of administra-
• tive regulation, in the commune, belong to the mayor alone;
he does not have to deliberate with the aldermen every time on
all the decisions he makes; he can simply delegate functions to
the ad joints who assist him, to whom he can always give orders
and from whom he can always withdraw the power delegated.

Nothing has contributed more to safeguarding the autonomy of
the Belgian communes against the encroachments of the central
government than this collegiate organization of executive power
in the commune. One man alone has not always the necessary
energy and force to resist the pressure of a superior authority;
not only will he resist better when he feels himself encouraged and

Online LibraryWestel Woodbury WilloughbyThe American political science review → online text (page 41 of 77)