THE BELGIAN SENATE
I - COMPOSITION
71 of which :
- 40 are elected by direct suffrage (25 Flemish-speaking and 15 French-speaking senators) ;
- 21 are elected internally by community councils of which they remain members after admission in the Senate: ten by the Flemish Council, ten by the French-speaking Council and one by the German-speaking Council;
- 10 are co-opted (by the first two colleges: six are appointed by all other Flemish-speaking senators and four by French-speaking senators. The Belgian Constitution guarantees minimum representation within the Senate for the inhabitants of Brussels. At least one Flemish-speaking and six French-speaking senators must reside in the bilingual region of the Brussels, the capital, at the time of election).
De jure members: specific members of the royal family; the children of the King or, in the absence of such, the Belgian descendants of the branch of the royal family called upon to reign.
II - ELECTORAL SYSTEM
A - SUFFRAGE
1) Direct suffrage
- Proportional representation (preferential votes possible within the same list). Seats for the three categories are divided within each language group among the various lists on the basis of their electoral number. The effect of this system is to bind the community councils; in allocating community senator seats, councils must take account of the results from federal parliamentary elections even though the position differs from their own position.
- Belgium is divided into three plurinominal constituencies (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde) and into two electoral colleges (French and Flemish-speaking) for the first two constituencies. Electors from the Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde constituency select the college to which they wish to belong.
2) The proportion of community senators and co-opted senators is determined by the result of the elections for senators elected by direct suffrage, except in the case of the German-speaking community senator, who is elected on a majority basis.
B - Term of office : four years.
C - Last renewed : 18 May 2003.
D - Age of eligibility : 21 years.
E - The Senate decides on the validity of election of its members.
III - SESSION CALENDAR
A - ORDINARY SESSION
One session per year, starting on the second Tuesday of October.
Minimum session term is forty days.
The session is closed (which, in fact, occurs only on the event of the opening of the following session) by a proclamation by the king who can adjourn the chambers. Adjournment cannot, however, exceed one month, nor be renewed in the same session without approval from the chambers.
During the period of parliamentary vacancy, chambers are adjourned until subsequent convocation. In this case, the President of the assembly has the authority to convene the assembly in plenary session.
B - EXTRAORDINARY SESSIONS
Upon convocation by the King.
In practice, there are extraordinary sessions only after Parliament has been dissolved. When the King dissolves chambers, the act of dissolution must also stipulate a convocation of the chambers within two months. When chambers are dissolved by right after a declaration of a constitutional amendment, the King must convene the new chambers within the same time period.
IV - RELATIONS WITH THE OTHER CHAMBER AND EXECUTIVE
A - LEGISLATIVE POWER
Equal bicameralism for basic institutional legislation -for the structures of the State and its institutions- draft acts may be submitted equally to the Senate or the Chamber.
Restricted jurisdiction applied to the Senate for `ordinary' legislation.
1) Legislative initiative
Is exercised by the Senate concurrently with the king and the Chamber of Representatives.
2) Right of amendment
Accorded to the Senate and to the Chamber of Representatives.
3) Legislative procedure
a) Procedure regarding ordinary legislation
This applies to all statutes other than those requiring approval from both assemblies or those which fall within the sole purview of the Chamber of Representatives, i.e., those regard respectively the budget and State accounts, naturalization acts, civil and criminal liability of members of the federal Government and those which set the number of members of the armed forces (all of which are known as `monocameral laws', which with the exception of liability issues are acts passed by the Chamber of Representatives that are deemed laws in form but do not have any normative contents).
Draft laws by the Government are always submitted to the Chamber of Representatives.
Draft acts adopted by the Chamber are then sent to the Senate. If 15 at least 15 senators submit a request within 15 days (known as the `right of evocation'), the senate will consider the draft law. The Senate may amend the draft law within 60 days and return it to the Chamber for further deliberation.
Should the Senate reject the draft law, the returned statute is still considered not amended.
The number of returns between the chambers is limited. The Chamber of Representatives has the final world and decides whether to adopt amendments proposed by the Senate.
However, should the Chamber adopt the new amendments, the Senate may still reconsider the draft law and, if desired, submit further amendments. In this case, the Chamber of Representatives still has the final word.
The parliamentary co-operative commission may extend or shorten the timeframes given above. The commission arbitrates in the event of disagreement on the selected procedure.
It should be noted that most statutes, whether `ordinary' or `bicameral' in nature, are first considered by a commission.
b) Issues falling within the purview of total bicameralism
The issues falling within the purview of total bicameralism may be categorized very succinctly as follows :
1) Basic institutional rules :
- the Constitution and the laws to be adopted with a special majority ;
- some ordinary laws considered sufficiently important by the constituent to be reviewed using the total bicameral procedure. This applies to most of the federal State structures as well as to how Parliament operates ;
- matters that must be regulated by both assemblies under the terms of the Constitution. To avoid any ambiguity, these have also been integrated in the list of bicameral matters. This applies primarily to the role played by chambers regarding the monarchy.
2) Laws assenting to international and supranational treaties. The Senate also has equal jurisdiction with the Chamber for laws granting the exercise of specific powers to international public law institutions and for laws authorising the temporary replacement of community and regional organs by federal power by in the event that they do not comply with international requirements.
3) Laws assenting to co-operation agreements signed by the federal state, communities and regions.
4) Laws concerning the Council of State, the Court of Arbitration and the organisation of the judiciary.
5) Laws concerning the nationality.
c) Suspension of procedure ("warning bell procedure")
Except for budgets and laws requiring a special majority, a reasoned motion may be signed by at least three-quarters of members of a language group. Introduced after the submission of the report and before the final vote in open session, this motion may state that the provisions of a draft law or proposal might seriously harm relations between communities.
In this case, parliamentary procedure is suspended and the motion is referred to the Council of Ministers which must publish a reasoned opinion within 30 days and request that the Chamber issues its opinion regarding either the draft or the amended proposal where applicable.
This procedure may be applied only once by the members of a given language group for any single draft or proposal.
This procedure has only a very minor interest in practice and, in fact, has been applied only once.
B - ACCOUNTABILITY
1) Right of enquiry
The Senate may order commissions of enquiry which with their chairpersons exercise the same powers as an investigating magistrate.
Right to send received petitions to ministers who are required to provide explanations on their contents each time the chamber so requests.
The Senate may raise written and oral questions with the Government along with requests for explanations, i.e., detailed questions that may result in a debate.
An oral question session is held each Thursday at 3 p.m.
4) International issues
All treaties enter into effect only after approval by the chambers.
Draft acts to ratify treaties by considered firstly by the Senate.
C - DISSOLUTION
Right exercised by the king to dissolve the Chamber of Representatives. Dissolution of the Chamber results in dissolution of the Senate.
V - SPECIFIC MEASURES
A - CONSTITUTIVE POWER
The Senate (and the king and the Chamber of Representatives) may instigate a revision of the Constitution.
Both chambers are then automatically dissolved.
The newly elected chambers enact statutes with the king's approval regarding the points to be amended. Two-thirds of the members of each chamber must be present. The requisite majority is two-thirds of votes cast.
B - SETTLEMENT OF CONFLICTS BETWEEN THE VARIOUS COMPONENTS OF THE FEDERAL STATE
When a legislative assembly considers that authority may be seriously undermined by a draft law or proposal submitted to the other assembly, there is a possibility of referring to the Senate to settle the conflict through co-operation means.
Should the Senate fail to settle the issue, the matter is referred to a governmental level co-operation committee.
C - WITH REGARD TO THE MONARCHY
1) Should there be no direct male issue, the king may appoint his successor with the assent of both chambers.
2) The chambers meet in congress to ensure a regency and guardianship.
3) Chambers issue their approval for :
- the appointment of the king as the head of another State ;
- authorization for eligibility of the heir apparent who cannot marry without the king's approval.
D - NOMINATIONS
The King appoints the members of the Council of State and of the Arbitration Court from two lists proposed, one by these courts, the other one by the Senate in turn with the Chamber of Representatives.