Brussels hopelessly late with civic integration

17 December 2015
Brussels hopelessly late with civic integration

Brussels member of parliament Liesbet Dhaene regrets that the Brussels Civic integration Flanders has a policy for civic integration. This is a guided and targeted form of social integration for people of foreign origin. The intention is that the newcomers are provided with a valuable place in society by including them instead of excluding them. Civic integration, which includes language lessons and civic integration courses, was brought about by the participation of the N-VA in the Flemish Government since 2004 and the appointment of a Minister for Civic Integration. civic integration policy still has a long way to go. "Brussels Prime Minister Vervoort minimizing the importance of civic integration is not due to being divorced from reality, but purely to political self-preservation," is her analysis.

"The need for civic integration? It wouldn't have stopped radicalisation!" Brussels Prime Minister Rudi Vervoort's statement was characterised by journalist Tine Peeters as "an opinion which, especially to Flemish ears sounded particularly outlandish."


True! In light of the current asylum crisis, minimizing the importance of civic integration is not only bizarre, but demonstrates a detachment from reality. But the Brussels civic integration policy still has a long way to go...

Flanders and French-speaking Belgium have completely opposite views on civic integration. In Flanders, newcomers have been obliged to follow a civic integration programme for the past ten years. Apart from knowledge of the language, the focus is also on respecting Western moral values, such as equality between men and women, separation of church and state, and freedom of expression. The Walloon region contrastingly, has invested little in civic integration and adopted a laisser faire policy. Only in 2013, ten years after Flanders, were steps taken towards a mandatory reception programme. Newcomers were only pointed to language courses or following a course on citizenship, if it appeared "necessary" to that particular reception agency.

Walloon dictate

In 2004, Flanders had already established the Brussels reception agency for integration (BON), offering a Flemish civic integration programme in Brussels, even though it was voluntary. BON was the only player in Brussels for more than ten years. In Brussels, civic integration is, after all, a complex story. Only the Brussels Common Community Commission (COCOM) can make civic integration mandatory. The Flemish Community Commission (VGC) and the French Community Commission (COCOF) establish the reception bureaus offering civic integration programmes. But neither Brussels nor COCOF were in a hurry. Only in 2014, one year after Wallonia, did Brussels decide to adopt a mandatory version of the programme, based on the Walloon course. But it went extremely slowly: when I informed after the state of affairs in June 2015, Brussels Minister Pascal Smet (sp.a) answered that "the COCOF still had to work some of the kinks out".

The COCOF was still working the kinks out when all of Europe was confronted with a sudden and historically unprecedented explosion in the number of asylum applications. Additionally, the terror threat revealed the importance of protecting our society's values. Of course, civic integration is not a miracle treatment, but it is clear that we must prevent newcomers from being left to their own devices, where they become isolated in their own cliques, without any encouragement to actively focus on Belgian society. A few months ago Wallonia responded to the Flemish example by making mandatory a fully-fledged four-part integration programme. Laurette Onkelinx, chairperson of the Brussels PS, gave the green light from Wallonia to also start a mandatory civic integration programme in Brussels, even though it was limited to three parts, namely reception, language and citizenship. A few months later, Brussels communicated that reception, language and citizenship would become mandatory parts of the Brussels civic integration programme. Consultation with Flanders had still not taken place at that point. Once again Brussels slavishly follows Walloon dictate. The available expertise and know-how in Flanders is ignored.

Why are Brussels and COCOF still so reluctant? The reason is mainly of a financial nature. Establishing and financing reception bureaus is expensive and the financial situation of COCOF is completely abysmal. In the meantime COCOF has promised to establish two reception bureaus in Brussels. But whether this is enough to fully handle the influx remains to be seen. Brussels comes to the rescue by providing an amount of about nine million euros to the COCOF. As a result, the Flemish Community Commission (VGC) has a right to just over two million euros from Brussels (80/20 rule). In that way, Vervoort can also prove to public opinion that he is truly investing in civic integration in Brussels.

Political self-preservation

But whether it is a sufficient answer to the current flow of asylum seekers is highly dubious. After all, COCOF does not invest all of that amount in reception bureaus, but uses the lion's share to straighten out its abysmal financial situation. Flanders, having financed civic integration programmes in Brussels for more than ten years, doesn't receive a single penny. After all, it is not Flanders, but the Flemish Community Commission (VCG) that receives the two million. The VGC also distributes those resources globally over all policy domains, without putting extra effort into the 'Ethnic-Cultural minorities' domain.

What is the conclusion of this story? Newcomers in Brussels are still not obliged to follow a civic integration programme. The Brussels civic integration policy has yet to be incorporated into legislative drafting and presented to parliament. In addition, only a small part of all funds which are supposedly freed up for civic integration is actually used for that purpose. That Prime Minister Vervoort minimises the importance of civic integration is therefore not due to a detachment from reality, but purely to political self-preservation.


Opinion piece by Brussels member of parliament Liesbet Dhaene, published on 17 December in La Libre Belgique. The original  French version can be read here.

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