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  • Foto van schrijverMira Kaloshi

Navigating Local Autonomy: 19 Communes And The Complex Interplay of Mayoral Power in Brussels

Beyond the waffles, chocolates, and a little pissing man, there’s a complex interplay of mayoral power and regional governance that has shaped the Belgian capital’s destiny. To truly appreciate the dynamics at play, a quick jaunt through Brussels’ history is in order.

In 1830, Belgium’s declaration of independence marked a turning point. Brussels — not the Brussels-Capital Region we know today, a much smaller Brussels — became its capital, witnessing significant industrial growth during the 19th century, driving urban expansion and population growth. This growth led to efforts to involve neighboring communes in governance from 1830 to WWI.

  • In 1874, ‘The Conference of Mayors’ (important!) was founded and led by Jules Anspach, to facilitate cross-border cooperation. This marked a crucial step towards greater collaboration in urban planning, public amenities, and infrastructure.

  • The conference laid the groundwork for ongoing efforts to tackle Brussels’ challenges. Eventually, it contributed to the establishment of the Brussels-Capital Region, where the City of Brussels and its neighbors cooperate to address regional issues.

  • Eventually, 19 communes became a part of the Brussels-Capital region.

  • But did you know the Brussels Parliament was only established in 1989, more than a century after Belgium’s independence? It is made up of 72 French-speaking and 17 Dutch-speaking members, elected on separate French-speaking and Dutch-speaking lists.

If your family members wonder if you’ll be having any kids soon tell them it’ll take you as long as it took the Brussels Parliament to arrive

A birth after a long pregnancy.. this is how the launch of the Brussels Parliament is described on their website. In 1970, Article 107quater of the Belgian Constitution underwent an amendment, dividing Belgium into three regions: the Flemish Region, the Walloon Region, and the Brussels Region. By 1974, the first two regions were officially established, each receiving their own political institutions through a special law in 1980.

Notably, the Brussels Region was initially excluded. Given the unique circumstances in Brussels, it wasn’t until December 1988 that the legislative chambers reached an agreement on the required institutional balances. The approved text would later become the “Special Law of January 12, 1989, regarding the Brussels Institutions.”

As a result, the regional parliament (show off at the next family quiz) now oversees various matters including Spatial Planning and Urban Development, Agricultural Policy, Housing, Economy, Energy Policy, Subsidiary Administrations, Employment Policy, Public Works, Mobility, Traffic Safety, Transport, Animal Welfare, Scientific Research, and International Relations.

Who holds the real power in Brussels, the region or the communes?

The Brussels Parliament is a transparent legal body vested with authority over various matters to facilitate regional decision-making, preventing conflicts among the communes. The Conference of Mayors, is not a legal body, but convenes every two weeks, bringing together all Brussels mayors for… wait for it.. that exact same purpose.

Case: taxing charging stations

A Brussels regional plan aims to deploy 11,000 electric vehicle charging stations in public spaces and parking lots by 2035. The Conference of Mayors is expected to agree on a common tax regulation with an identical amount across the 19 communes. To address challenges in public space management due to the increased presence of charging stations, a rotation tariff is planned to optimise their usage, with implementation expected in 2024. Simultaneously, discussions involve the possibility of taxing electric charging station operators, with concerns about potential disparate taxation leading to varied charging prices across the Brussels region. The proposed solution is an annual flat-rate tax per charging point based on consumption, calculated at one cent per kilowatt-hour, subject to approval by the mayors.

Why has this now become a local matter and not a regional one?

Simply put, the communes are unwilling to allow the region to take the lead and coordinate this specific tax matter. This has to do with the fact the rotation tariff is intended to maximise the efficient use of charging stations and limit their impact on public space. Communes often bear the responsibility for managing public space within their borders, including the placement and regulation of charging infrastructure.

Additionally, communes frequently have specific local needs and receive direct feedback from their residents. In case of complaints regarding the installation of charging stations, municipalities may decide to impose charges on operators to address potential negative effects.

The many hats of the Brussels mayors

And so, this is where ‘The Conference of Mayors’ comes into play. The mayors are expected to represent their local interest, but most importantly they’re there to agree and influence the regional agenda. The conference has played various roles in the past, acting as an advisory board for the Brussels region and lobbying for additional funding for the communes. For instance, it successfully secured extra financial resources for Brussels communes after the 2002 police reform.

In this conference, mayors discuss supra-municipal issues and take concrete steps in private. Unlike parliamentary commissions and plainaries or communal councils, the conference is not open to the public. Consequently, it has often faced criticism from citizens for its lack of transparency. Critics argue that while dialogue among the 19 communes is necessary, it is unacceptable for these discussions to be shielded from the public eye.

Citizens have the right to know how decisions are made and the impact they have on their daily lives.

In this article of Bruzz, former mayor of Vorst Marc-Jean Ghyssels, and a former member of the Conference of Mayors, denies the conference’s ability to make joint decisions. He emphasises that the conference does not engage in formal voting but rather allows mayors to submit questions about specific issues they face such as parking regulations, tax and illegal dumping.

Voting power

As Brussels communes increasingly face challenges, it’s important for the voters to understand this interplay between the regional government and the local mandataries, especially since more people in Belgium are allowed to vote locally than regionally.

Regional election candidates face the challenge of garnering public interest in regional matters, whereas local candidates enjoy closer proximity to voters, giving them a distinct advantage. Local officials are well aware of this dynamic and leverage it to their benefit. However, it is crucial not to underestimate the significance of the regional role. The region retains the actual decision-making authority at the regional level, along with control over financial resources as it is still the Brussels parliament who is responsible for determining how financial resources are distributed among various areas of governance and public services within the region, a task that falls outside the purview of The Conference of Mayors.

Despite criticisms leveled at The Conference of Mayors, it continues to operate in a manner consistent with its historical practices. Moving forward, striking a balance between necessary closed-door discussions and transparency will be vital for the mayors. This balance is essential to maintain the public’s trust and engagement in shaping the sustainable future of the Brussels region as the conference progresses.

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