Latest update: 2012
The Kingdom of Belgium was formed in 1830 as a unitary state. There have long been tensions between the Flemish and French language communities and, from the mid-twentieth century on, e​conomic differences between the regions of Flanders and Wallonia. Brussels, physically surrounded by Flanders, is bilingual. The federalisation process which began in 1970 has gone through several successive state reforms: in 1970, 1980, 1988-89, 1993 and 2001. This process created a complex federal state in which certain competences overlap. In this context the autonomy of local authorities differs depending on the region.

Belgium is a federal state composed of three regions and three (language) communities. Below the regions, there are provinces and municipalities.

The legislative power is exercised by the Federal Parliament (composed of two assemblies: the Chamber of the Representatives and the Senate) The upper house of the Federal Parliament, the Senate, is elected on the basis of a system providing for the representation of regions and communities (Art. 67 of the Constitution). It has no veto powers over federal legislation.
The three Communities are:
  • The Flemish Community (Vlaamse Gemeenschap);
  • The French Community (Communauté française), and
  • The German Community (Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft). 

The three Regions are:

  • The Flemish Region (Vlaanderen);
  • The Walloon Region (Région Wallone), and
  • The Brussels Capital Region (Région Bruxelles Capital – Brussel Hoofdstedelijk Gewest).

The territories of regions and communities overlap. Both communities have competences in Brussels, and the German-speaking Community is contained within Wallonia. The institutions of the Flemish Region and Flemish Community were merged after 1980. 

There are therefore five legislatures:

  • The Flemish Parliament has 124 directly elected members, 118 designated by proportional representation from party lists in multi-member constituencies in the Flemish Region, and six members elected from Brussels who participate only in Community matters.
  • The Walloon Parliament has 75 members directly elected by proportional representation from party lists in multi-member constituencies.
  • The Brussels Region Parliament has 89 members, elected by proportional representation from separate Flemish and French-speaking party lists in multimember constituencies 72 French and 17 Flemish. Within this parliament, there are separate French and Flemish Commissions.
  • The French Community Parliament has 94 members indirectly elected, including the 75 members of the Walloon Parliament and 19 chosen from the Brussels Region Parliament.
  • The German-speaking Community Parliament has 25 members elected by proportional representation from party lists. 

All of the parliaments are elected for a five-year term.

Each region and community has a government elected by the Parliament and which in turn elects a president (known as minister-president in Flanders). In Brussels, the government has five members, two from each language group and the president, who can be from either group.

Provincial level

There are ten provinces, now contained within the respective Flemish and Walloon regions. The Brussels Region directly exercises provincial competences. 

Provinces have a dual function:

  • Firstly, they are autonomous political communities (decentralisation), responsible for all matters within the provincial interest,
  • But they are also subordinate authorities responsible for implementing decisions taken by other levels (deconcentration). 

However, even in the context of decentralisation, the province is tested in the exercise of its powers.

More generally, and this constitutes the lion's share of the activity of the provincial institution, the province leads (in the existing legislative and regulatory framework) policies it funds through its own fiscal autonomy.
Municipal level
There are 589 municipalities (commune – gemeente – Gemeinde): 
  • Wallonia contains 262 municipalities, including 9 German-speaking municipalities;
  • Brussels contains 19 municipalities, and
  • ​Flanders contains 308 municipalities.

The Federal State is responsible for the obligations of Belgium and its federalised institutions toward the EU and NATO.

The Federal powers also cover everything that does not expressly come under the Communities or Regions. However, the Federal State has no authority over the competences assigned to the federated entities. Since 1988, the supervision of local authorities was transferred to the regional governments. 

The distribution of competences between the regions and communities and the federal level is subject to judicial control. The federal Court of Arbitration can annul legislation that contravenes the division of powers. The Council of State advises on the constitutionality of legislation and can rule administrative acts unconstitutional.

Revenue excluding borrowing for the sub-national public sector as a whole in 2005 amounted to EUR 63.3 billion. Federated entities and local governments received almost EUR 49.5 billion in non-consolidated revenue excluding borrowing. The lion’s share of this revenue goes to the federated entities (69%), while municipalities represent 27% and provinces 4%.

The structure of this revenue has significantly changed over the past ten years. The 1989 Special Financing Act (amended by the Special Act of 13 July 2001) was especially instrumental as it dealt with the refinancing of communities and the extension of fiscal competences for regions, giving them much greater fiscal autonomy. In turn, the federated entities modified the financing modes for the municipalities and provinces on their respective territories, leading to different regulation by region.

Tax revenue is now the major source of financing for municipalities and provinces, and to an even greater degree for communities and regions, for which it represents more than 90% of their resources.
The 6th State Reform has been proposed and was presented before the Parliament at the end of 2011 (the so-called Butterfly Agreement). On 29 March 2012 the committee for the implementation of institutional reforms reached an agreement on the proposed legal texts concerning the first part of the 6th State Reform. Proposals will be introduced in the House of Representatives relating to: the judicial district of BHV and to the improvements of the voting arrangements of Belgians abroad. Proposals will be tabled in the Senate concerning: the division of the BHV electoral district, the fair financing of Brussels-Capital, the new procedure on the mayors of six surrounding municipalities, the metropolitan community and political renewal. 
The aim is to vote on the first part of the 6th State Reform in the shortest possible time, after obtaining the opinion of the State Council.
With this agreement on the legal texts, achieving the implementation of the reform is on track.
Asymmetry will also increase in Flanders as an internal state reform is being planned which in particular foresees diminishing the role of the Provinces.
General division of powers
National level
The legislative power is exercised by the Federal Parliament (2 assemblies: the Chamber of the Representatives and the Senate) in the following areas:
  • Defence;
  • The legal system;
  • Finance;
  • Social security;
  • Public health*;
  • Monetary policy;
  • International relations*;
  • Economic policy*;
  • Energy*;
  • External trade*;
  • Agriculture*;
  • Employment*;
  • Transport*;
  • Use of languages*;
  • Taxation*, and
  • Aid to developing countries*. 

* shared responsibilities 

Regional level

Responsibilities of the communities 

The three communities have legislative power and may issue community decrees which have the force of law. There is no hierarchical relationship between the communities and the federal authority. The responsibilities of the Communities include:
  • Use of languages*;
  • Culture (theatre, libraries, the media, including radio and TV);
  • Education and training*;
  • Person–related matters: health policy (sanitary education and preventive medicine) and assistance to individuals (social welfare, aid to families, protection of youth, immigrant assistance services);
  • Scientific research in relation to community competencies, and
  • International relation powers in all matters entrusted to the communities

* shared responsibilities

Responsibilities of the regions: 
There are three regions (the Flemish Region, the Brussels-Capital Region and the Walloon Region)
During the second reform of the state in 1980, the Flemish and the Walloon Regions were given their Parliament and Government. The Brussels-Capital Region, on the other hand, was only granted its institutions during the third reform of the State in 1988-89.
The Regions have legislative and executive organs: these are known as the Regional Parliament and the Regional Government.
However in Flanders, the Community and Regional institutions were merged. So in Flanders, there is one parliament and one government.
The Walloon Region exercises regional competencies over both linguistic regions. However, the Region has transferred some of those competencies to the German-speaking Community for the German-speaking linguistic region. Additionally, the Walloon Region exercises some transferred community competencies, only in the French-speaking Region. Thus this study will not enter into details for this sub-division of competences at variable geometry.
Note: in Brussels
In the bilingual region of Brussels-Capital, there are 3 Community Commissions which share in the exercising of Community competencies: the French Community Commission (COCOF), the Flemish Community Commission (VGC) and the Common Community Commission (COCOM). This study will not enter into detail for this sub-division in the exercise of those competences.
Regions have legislative powers in fields that are connected with their region or territory in the widest meaning of the term. Therefore, the regions may issue regional decrees which have the force of law. There is no hierarchical relationship between the regions and the federal authority. Their powers cover:
  • Urban policy and spatial planning;
  • Environment* and water policy;
  • Nature conservation;
  • Public works (infrastructure);
  • Transport*;
  • External trade*;
  • Agriculture and Fisheries*;
  • Energy*;
  • Public housing;
  • Economic policy*;
  • Employment*;
  • Taxation*;
  • Supervision of municipal and provincial law;
  • Scientific research in relation to regional competencies, and
  • International relation powers in all matters entrusted to the regions and the import, export and transit of arms.

* shared responsibilities 

Local level

Since the fourth State reform, there have been ten provinces.
Indeed, in the fourth State reform, the province of Brabant was abolished and replaced by two new provinces: Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant.
The part in the Walloon Region became the province of Walloon Brabant, the part in the Flemish Region became Flemish Brabant.
The territory of the Brussels-Capital Region remains and falls outside the scope of the division of the country into provinces. The powers over community affairs that belonged in that region to the Provincial Council and the Permanent Deputation of the old province of Brabant were exercised from then on by the Flemish Community Commission, the French Community Commission and the Joint Community Commission.
The powers over regional or federal affairs that belonged in that region to the Provincial Council and the Permanent Deputation of the old province of Brabant, are exercised by the Brussels-Capital Region.
This division has been a reality since 1 January 1995. Since that date, Brussels has not been subject to provincial authority.
The fifth State reform (the so-called Lambermont Agreement) transferred many powers to the Regions. They are now directly responsible for implementation; however, the federal legislation continues to exist as long as the Regions have not adopted their own decrees in this respect.
Administrative responsibilities of the provinces
There are ten provinces, plus the Brussels-Capital Region Community Commissions, which are responsible for: 
  • Implementing all federal, community and regional regulations;
  • General provincial affairs;
  • The maintenance of infrastructure;
  • Urban planning, and
  • Launching initiatives in education, culture, sport, preventive medicine and social policy.

Administrative responsibilities of the communes

There are 589 communes, which are competent for:

  • Maintenance of public order;
  • Organisation of elections;
  • Public registry office;
  • Planning permission;
  • Maintenance of road infrastructure;
  • Social welfare, and
  • General municipal affairs. 
One Belgian particularity is the “communes à facilités’’. These municipalities must provide administrative facilities for their inhabitants who speak another language than the official one. The creation of "administrative facilities" is a consequence of the language laws that regulate the use of languages in Belgium. Outside the nineteen municipalities of the bilingual region of Brussels, all municipalities must employ in their actions and in their relations with their citizens, the official language of the linguistic region (French, Dutch or German). This causes problem for the municipalities inhabited by a minority (or even a majority) of people who use another language. Facilities have been granted to residents of some municipalities that enable them to obtain the deeds, information, certificates and other paperwork in a language other than the common one, and use that language in their dealings with the town. There are twenty-seven municipalities with facilities in total.
In addition, in some of those municipalities, the rules guarantee the political rights of both linguistic components of the population to prevent municipalities from taking decisions that could be harmful to a part of the population.​​​