The Hon. Luc Van den Brande (Former Prime Minister of Flanders)

09.11.2009 - Interview conducted by Hugh Garnett

Mr. Van den Brande is known for his commitment to the notion of subsidiarity in the European Union and, in 2008, he became President of the Committee of the Regions. As President he aims “to involve regional and local authorities in the European decision-making process and…encourage greater participation from our fellow citizens.” Before taking up his position as President, Mr. Van den Brande worked in a number of other European committees and assemblies including the Assembly of European Regions (Vice-President, 1994-1996; President, 1996-2000), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, (“PACE”, 2001- ; Vice-President, 2003-2004), and the Assembly of the Union of Western Europe (2001-).

Prior to his involvement in European politics he was heavily involved in Belgian politics and has worked in a number of government positions, including the notable Minister-President of Flanders between 1992 and 1999. At World Without Walls he spoke to ICD News about matters including the EU, the role of the Committee of the Regions and cultural diplomacy in Belgium.

As former Minister President of Flanders what is the view of the Committee off the Regions in Flanders? Is there support for this and does Flanders want it to have more power?

It is evident that there is support in Flanders for the Committee of the Regions, because we are in the heart of Europe. Europe is not just the two square kilometres of Brussels, but it is all people from the high north to the deep south. The fact that there has to be empowering of the Committee of the Regions is evident, but we have to realise that the union's story is step by step. We are the youngest institution of the union, only 15 years old. I make the comparison to the first European parliament, it was a gathering of representatives from the six founding states which developed step by step, and now with the Lisbon Treaty it is important to notice that co-decision making is in place. In the next phase there has to be more empowerment for the Committee of the Regions to build up Europe in partnership. The partnership idea is essential between local, regional, state and European level.

As Belgium is a divided nation, are there strong cultural diplomacy initiatives in Belgium. Are there still walls between the Flemish and Walloon communities?

When you are saying Belgium is a divided country, may I say it in an Italian way, it is a kind of institutional lasagne. There are several layers and part of our history is, referring to the middle ages, that the basic rights of the citizens are in our belforts and towers of the cities. But we have to face- something that is rather unique for Europe- the conflict of the tension between two totally different cultural communities. It’s not just about language because language cannot divide people. What we have to do is to see how to overcome what I would call not the 'division' but tensions between the two parts. For the Flemings they see it as better for everyone if Wallonia recovers economically. This is important as when you are neighbours it is essential that everything is going well. It always takes time. We have a lot of discussion and negotiation and since 1830 onwards that has always been in a peaceful and democratic way. Everyone accepts when there is a majority, in the north or in the south, because of our institutional architecture, majority voting is in both parts of the country. But there are still some walls and I am absolutely in favour to have, not only good but full understanding, exchange of young people and exchange of students. However I think it is important to notice that from both sides we have to walk in the direction of the other. Democracy, by essence, is how to see reality with the eyes of the other.

What do you see as the future of Brussels, a francophone city in Flanders? There are already problems around the suburbs in language communities, how can this be resolved?

Well I think that we have to acknowledge what the harsher position of other minorities can be. Here I have to refer to the Framework Convention on National Minorities in the Council of Europe. Due to external situations, due to wars, due to readjustment from these, for example when there are two million Hungarians living in Romania and not necessarily out of will. In Belgium it is different, everybody who is living in the surroundings of Brussels are doing so in a voluntary way. They are not obliged to do it. They knew in advance that for whatever reasons that there are four linguistic zones in Belgium. As is the case in Switzerland, when you are moving from one Canton to another you know in advance the official language is the language of that Canton. But one shouldn't misunderstand, it is very clear that there is the full freedom of speech, it is a basic consequence of the constitutions of the 19th century to go for basic freedoms and rights for everybody. So when people want to speak French at home they can, and when they are going for their local administration they can have official papers in their language.

So there are still tensions we have to overcome, we have to discuss it; we have to do it in a democratic way. My point is that we are no longer in the 19th century and I know that there are some people - but it is a real minority - that want to go for an independent movement of Flanders. I don't agree with this, it does not fit in with the European Union, where we are together. However there has to be a new repetition of responsibilities between local, regional, state and European levels. That is the concept of the multilateral government that we have to apply also in Belgium. So not just state reform on state level but also inside our regions we have to be open, we have to be flexible and we have to be friendly to our neighbours.

Mr. Van den Brande, thank you very much.