The Senate (Dutch:
|This article is part of a series on the|
politics and government of
|55th legislature (2019-2024)|
50 Community and Regional senators
10 co-opted senators
Length of term
|26 May 2019|
|Palace of the Nation, Brussels|
After the Belgian Revolution, the National Congress decided about the Belgian Constitution and the state structure. A bicameral Parliament was chosen over a unicameral one, due to fears of more democratic and progressive decisions in the Chamber of Representatives, as was seen in France. Thus the Senate served as a more conservative and elite body. To be eligible, one had to pay 1000 francs, which meant that at that time, only about 4000 persons could be elected.
In the past, French was the sole language of government in Belgium, and it was not until 1913 that Dutch was used in Parliament, by the liberal senator Emmanuel De Cloedt, which the French-speaking pro-Catholic newspaper La Libre Belgique described as séparatisme parlementaire ("parliamentary separatism").
The Flemish nationalist party New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) (which became the largest party in 2010), among other Flemish parties, said in 2010 that they wanted to abolish the Senate. The French-speaking parties, however, want to retain it. During the 2010–2011 Belgian government formation, it has been decided that the Senate would no longer be directly elected and instead become a meeting place for members of the various regional parliaments.
Prior to the Belgian federal election of May 21, 1995, there were 184 elected senators. The fourth state reform, which took place in 1993, revised the Belgian Constitution, reduced the number of senators to 71 and replaced the provincial senators, who were appointed by the Provincial Councils, with Community senators. The change took effect following the May 21, 1995 federal election. Of the total of 71 elected senators, 40 were elected directly, 21 appointed by the community parliaments and 10 senators were co-opted. The overall distribution of seats between parties was however determined by the results of the direct election. The sixth state reform, taking effect on the May 25, 2014 election, reduced the number of senators from 71 to 60 and abolished the direct election.
||51 (1831) – 101 (1946) – 106 (from 1949 to 1991)|
(half the number of representatives, which depended on population until 1949)
|40 (25 NL + 15 FR)||—|
||38 electoral arrondissements
(two-round majority system)
|21 electoral arrondissements
|1 Dutch + 1 French electoral college|
||—||26 (1894) – 27 (1919)|
(depending on provinces' populations)
|40 (1921) – 52 (1991)|
(depending on provinces' populations)
||—||20 (1921) – 26 (1991)|
(half the number of provincial senators)
|10 (6 NL + 4 FR)|
||—||21 (10 NL + 10 FR + 1 DE)||50 (29 NL + 20 FR + 1 DE)|
|Total number of senators
* plus senators by right, if any
|51–76 *||102–120 *||153–184 *||71 *||60|
Current categories of senators
Community and regional senators
Starting with the elections of 25 May 2014, 50 senators are appointed by and from the community and regional parliaments:
- 29 senators appointed by the Flemish Parliament from the Flemish Parliament or from the Dutch language group of the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region
- 10 senators appointed by and from the Parliament of the French Community (which itself is composed of all members of the Parliament of Wallonia and several members of the French language group of the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region)
- 8 senators appointed by and from the Parliament of Wallonia
- 2 senators appointed by and from the French-language group of the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region
- 1 senator appointed by and from the Parliament of the German-speaking Community
Previously, a total of 21 were appointed by and from the Community parliaments: 10 by the Flemish Parliament, 10 by the Parliament of the French Community and one by the Parliament of the German-speaking Community.
The German-speaking senator is chosen by plurality; the other Senate seats are distributed based on the results for the Chamber of Representatives election. Previously they were distributed using the results of the direct election between the parties that have at least one directly elected senator, insofar as they had enough seats in, respectively, the Flemish Parliament or the Parliament of the French Community.
These Community senators hold a double mandate. They are appointed to the Senate for a term of 4 years, but as the Community parliaments are renewed every 5 years, it is possible that regional elections take place during these 4 years. In this event, the Community senators who are not re-elected to their Community parliament are replaced by a member belonging to the same fraction, insofar as that fraction has enough seats left in the Flemish Parliament or the Parliament of the French Community, as the case may be, following the regional elections to replace those Community senators.
In order to ensure that the Senate can continue to exercise its functions when the Community parliaments are dissolved, the Community senators remain in office until the parliament of their Community either confirms their mandate or appoints new Community senators.
Ten senators are co-opted, meaning they are elected by their peers: six by the Dutch-language group and four by the French-language group. These seats are distributed proportionally between parties based on the results of the direct election of the Chamber of Representatives. In 1893, the co-opted members were included in the Constitution as a new category of senators. It was intended to allow the senators to elect a number of experts or members of representative organisations to join them to enhance the quality of debate and legislation; however, political parties soon started using it as a means of rewarding loyal members that weren't elected.
Former categories of senators
Directly elected senators
Until the elections of 25 May 2014, the Senate contained 40 directly elected members. To elect these members, the electorate was divided into two electoral colleges: a Dutch and a French electoral college. Unlike for European Parliament elections there was no German-speaking electoral college, instead the members of the German-speaking Community were a part of the French electoral college. Even though there were two electoral colleges, there were three constituencies for Senate elections: a Flemish constituency, a Wallonian constituency and the constituency of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, which comprised the Brussels-Capital Region and the surrounding part of the Flemish Region.
The voters in the Flemish constituency belonged to the Dutch electoral college and the voters in the Walloon constituency (which also includes the people living in the German-speaking Community) belonged to the French electoral college, whereas the voters in Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde could choose for which electoral college they wanted to vote: they had the lists of both electoral colleges on one ballot. In each electoral college, the seats were divided by proportional representation, using the D'Hondt method.
Of the total of 40 directly elected senators, 25 were elected by the Dutch electoral college and 15 by the French electoral college. These numbers were fixed by Article 67 of the Belgian Constitution and roughly reflect the ratio of Dutch-speakers to French-speakers by population. The directly elected senators were always elected on the same day as the members of the Chamber of Representatives, for a term of 4 years, except if the Chambers are dissolved earlier. The last federal election that had directly elected senators took place on Sunday June 13, 2010.
Between 1894 and 1991, a number of senators were elected by each provincial council of the nine provinces. The number was dependent on a province's population, and increased along with the increase in a province's population.
Senators by right
Before the sixth state reform, the children of the King, older than 18, or if there were none, the Belgian descendants of the main branch of the Royal house, were entitled to be senators by right by taking the oath of office. Senators by right over the age of 21 were in theory entitled to vote, but in practice they did not cast their vote. They were not counted towards the required quorum, therefore, to pass a valid vote, 36 of the 71 senators had to be present.
Until Prince Philippe became King in July 2013, there were three senators by right (Prince Philippe, Princess Astrid and Prince Laurent). When the function of senators by right was abolished in 2014 as part of the sixth state reform, there were no senators by right, as King Philippe's children were under the age of 18.
Article 69 of the Belgian Constitution sets forth four qualifications for senators: each senator must be at least 18 years old, must possess the Belgian nationality, must have the full enjoyment of civil and political rights, and must be resident in Belgium. Originally, the minimum age to be elected senator was 40; this was reduced to 21 years old in 1993 and eventually to 18 years old in 2014. A senator can only enter into office after having taken the constitutional oath of office, in either of the three official languages in Belgium: Dutch, French or German. They may also choose to take the oath in more than one language. The oath of office is as follows: "I swear to observe the Constitution". (Dutch: Ik zweer de Grondwet na te leven, French: Je jure d'observer la Constitution, German: Ich schwöre, die Verfassung zu befolgen)
Certain offices are incompatible with the office of senator. A member of the Senate may not also be a member of the Chamber of Representatives at the same time and representatives must give up their seats in the Chamber of Representatives in order to join the Senate.
Another important incompatibility is based on the separation of powers. A senator who is appointed as a minister ceases to sit in the Senate and is replaced for as long as they are a minister, but if that individual resigns as a minister, they may return to the Senate, in accordance with Article 50 of the Belgian Constitution. A senator cannot also be a civil servant or a member of the judiciary at the same time, however, a civil servant who is elected to the Senate is entitled to political leave and doesn't have to resign as a civil servant. It is also not possible to be a member of the Federal Parliament and a Member of the European Parliament at the same time.
The Senate does not systematically check whether any of these (or other) incompatibilities apply to its members, however, newly elected senators are informed of the most important incompatibilities at the start of their mandate and it is up to them to verify whether they are in compliance with the regulations regarding incompatibilities and, if not, to determine which office they will abandon.
With the exception of the senator appointed by the Parliament of the German-speaking Community, all senators are divided into two language groups: a Dutch language group and a French language group. The Dutch language group consists of members appointed by the Flemish Parliament, members appointed by the Dutch language group of the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region, and the members co-opted by the two aforementioned groups. The French language group consists of members appointed by the Parliament of the French Community, members appointed by the Parliament of Wallonia, members appointed by the French language group of the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region, and the members co-opted by the three aforementioned groups. There are 35 senators in the Dutch language group and 24 in the French language group.
Article 67 of the Belgian Constitution also determines that at least one of the senators in the Dutch language group must be resident in the Brussels-Capital Region on the date of their election, as well as six of the senators in the French language group.
The presiding officer of the Senate, known as the President of the Senate, is elected by the Senate at the beginning of each parliamentary term. The President of the Senate is assisted by three Vice-Presidents, who are also elected at the beginning of each parliamentary term. The President of the Senate is customarily a member of a majority party with a great deal of political experience, while the First Vice-President is a member of the other language group.
The President of the Senate presides over the plenary assembly of the Senate, guides and controls debates in the assembly, and is responsible for ensuring the democratic functioning of the Senate, for the maintenance of order and security in the assembly and for enforcing the Rules of the Senate. To this end, they have extensive powers. They also represent the Senate at both the national (to the other institutions) and the international level. Additionally, they chair the Bureau, which determines the order of business, supervises the administrative services of the Senate, and leads the Senate's activities.
The President of the Senate, together with the President of the Chamber of Representatives, ranks immediately behind the King in the order of precedence. The elder of the two takes the second place in the order of precedence. The Presidents of the Senate and the Chamber rank above the Prime Minister.
The Bureau of the Senate is composed of the President, the three Vice-Presidents, the floor leaders of the fractions that are represented in the standing committees and the Quaestors. Currently, the only fraction whose floor leader is not a member of the Bureau is the Ecolo Fraction, which has only two members. The Bureau leads the day-to-day activities of the Senate and convenes at least once a week in order to manage the work of the Senate. The Bureau determines the legislative agenda and the order of business in the plenary assembly and the committees, decides upon the lists of speakers, and manages the internal affairs of the Senate. A member of the Federal Government is usually invited to attend the discussions about the legislative agenda. The Bureau also assists the President in the conduct of parliamentary business. In addition, the Bureau also appoints and dismisses the staff of the Senate on the advice of the College of Quaestors.
The Senate has a College of Quaestors, which consists of three senators who are in charge of Senate housekeeping. These senators, who are known as Quaestors, are responsible for the financial management of the Senate, they have to make sure that the necessary equipment and facilities are available and they advise the Bureau on matters relating to the administration of the services of the Senate, such as human resources and logistics. The Quaestors are also members of the Bureau. The Colleges of Quaestors of the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives meet regularly to settle common problems concerning the library, buildings, security, catering, etc.
The Senate is also served by a number of civil servants. The Senate's chief administrative officer is the Clerk (or Secretary-General) of the Senate, who is appointed by the assembly and heads the Senate's legislative and administrative services.
Since the elections of 21 May 1995, there has been a breakdown of powers between the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, which resulted in the Senate having fewer competences than the Chamber of Representatives. Prior to that, the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate did the same parliamentary work on an equal footing.
In certain matters both the Chamber and the Senate still have equal power, which means that both Chambers must pass exactly the same version of the bill. These include constitutional revisions, laws requiring a qualified majority (the so-called "community laws"), laws on the basic structure of the Belgian State, laws approving agreements of cooperation between the Federal State, the Communities and the Regions, laws on the approval of international treaties, and laws on the organisation of the judiciary, the Council of State, and the Constitutional Court of Belgium. Additionally, all bills concerning international treaties are introduced in the Senate first before moving on to the Chamber.
For all other legislation, the Chamber of Representatives takes precedence over the Senate. However, the Senate may still intervene as a chamber of consideration and reflection as it has the opportunity to, within specific time limits, examine the texts adopted by the Chamber and, if there is a reason to do so, make amendments. The Chamber may subsequently adopt or reject the amendments proposed by the Senate or make new proposals. Whatever the case, the Chamber has the final word on all "ordinary legislation". The Senate may also submit a bill it has adopted to the Chamber which can approve, reject or amend it, in this case the Chamber also has the final word.
In accordance with Article 143 of the Belgian Constitution, the Federal State, the Communities and the Regions have to observe federal loyalty. However, that does not prevent conflicts of interest. By virtue of its composition, the Senate is the assembly within which the conflicts of interest between the Federal State, the Communities and the Regions may be resolved. The Senate may decide on such conflicts by giving reasoned advice, but such decisions are not binding. In addition, the Senate has also been entrusted with the responsibility for examining how the division of competences between the various components of the federal level can be made more homogeneous.
The Senate uses committees for a variety of purposes. The Senate has several standing committees, each of which has responsibility for a particular area of government (for example justice or social affairs). These standing committees examine and consider bills and legislative proposals, and may for this purpose hold hearings. A standing committee comprises 17 senators, members are appointed using proportional representation. The chairpersons of the standing committees are also divided among the parties in accordance with the same principle of proportional representation. As a result, some standing committees are chaired by members of the opposition. There are currently seven standing committees within the Senate, one of which is charged with monitoring the Permanent Oversight Committee on the Intelligence Services. The Senate can also set up special committees, advisory committees or workgroups to examine a particular bill or a specific issue (such as the workgroup on bioethics). The meetings of the committees are generally open to the public.
The Federal Parliament also includes joint committees, which include members of both the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives, such as the Parliamentary Consultation Committee, which is tasked with resolving certain problems relating to legislative procedures. One of the main problems in this respect concerns the determination of the legislative procedure to be followed. Other issues concern the time limits to "evoke" and review certain bills. There are others joint committees, such as the Federal Advisory Committee on European Affairs. In the latter, there are not only senators and representatives, but also Belgian Members of the European Parliament.
The Senate, just like the Chamber of Representatives, has the right to conduct parliamentary inquiries pursuant to article 56 of the Belgian Constitution, which provides that "Each Chamber has the right of inquiry". Committees of inquiry were rarely set up until 20 years ago, and have been used increasingly in the recent past. In practice, the Senate uses the right of inquiry by creating a parliamentary committee of inquiry composed of a number of senators. This committee can summon and hear witnesses. A parliamentary committee of inquiry can also conduct searches and seize documents. Committee meetings at which witnesses or experts are heard are public unless the committee decides otherwise. Normally, the committee is obliged to report in a given time to the plenary assembly. It can for instance suggest amending existing legislation. The plenary assembly votes on motions submitted in the committee's report.
List of standing committees
- Foreign Relations and Defence
- Institutional Affairs
- Finances and Economic Affairs
- Interior and Administrative Affairs
- Social Affairs
|Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams||Dutch||4||1||5|
|Open Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten||Dutch||4||1||5|
|Socialistische Partij Anders||Dutch||3||1||4|
|Centre démocrate humaniste||French||2||0||2|
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- (Dutch) Flahaut en Pieters Kamer- en Senaatsvoorzitter
- (Dutch) Danny Pieters (N-VA) nieuwe voorzitter van 'af te schaffen Senaat'
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- "Managing Bodies". The Belgian Senate. Retrieved 2006-11-19.
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- "Control over Police and Intelligence Services". The Belgian Senate. Retrieved 2006-11-20.
- "Right of Inquiry". The Belgian Senate. Retrieved 2006-11-20.