Council of Ministers
The Council of Ministers has a maximum of 15 members. With the possible exception of the prime minister, the Council of Ministers has equal numbers of French- and Dutch-speaking ministers.
The state secretaries do not form part of the Council of Ministers. Formally speaking, state secretaries only attend Council of Ministers meetings to discuss issues for which they are responsible or which are of particular concern to them. Officially, therefore, they are not members of the Council of Ministers. However, in practice it has become common for state secretaries to attend the whole Council of Ministers meeting. The distinction that used to be drawn between the Council of Ministers (ministers only) and the Council of Government (ministers and state secretaries) has ceased to apply.
Only ministers, state secretaries and the secretary of the Council of Ministers attend meetings. In very exceptional cases, a specialist or technical expert may attend a meeting. Normally, these individuals must leave the meeting room when the matter in question has finished being discussed.
The secretary of the Council of Ministers is present during meetings. He or she is a key figure who liaises with the Secretariat to request additional documents or information. At the end of the Council meeting, he or she forwards the decisions to the Secretariat, which transcribes them in the form of notifications.
During meetings, ministers sit around a large oval table. They each have their designated place, which the prime minster chooses, based mainly on order of precedence. In Council meetings, it is customary for ministers to speak in their native language.
What does the Council of Ministers discuss?
The Council of Ministers is one of the main epicentres of Belgian politics. It deliberates and takes decisions on general policy issues and is the forum in which the political cohesion of the governing coalition is tested each week.
The Council of Ministers must deliberate on:
- all draft royal decrees which the Constitution or a law requires to be discussed by the Council of Ministers;
- draft resolutions intended to:
- either authorise an overspend on the approved budget;
- or request a provisional endorsement from the Court of Audit;
- or impose the Court of Audit endorsement;
- any application to annul a decree or ordinance which the Council of Ministers wishes to bring before the Constitutional Court.
The Council of Ministers must also discuss issues for which the government is responsible:
- draft bills
- draft cooperation agreements to which the State is a party
- draft bills approving cooperation agreements
- draft royal or ministerial decrees that have major political or budgetary implications
- draft circulars with budgetary implications
- any issue that could compromise government solidarity.
The Council of Ministers also nominates members of the government to represent the government at official ceremonies, manages the internal working of the government and decides on the honours to be awarded under the National Orders system.
Any matter or current event that galvanises national public opinion or is important to Belgium’s relations with other countries is also discussed in the Council of Ministers.
How does the Council of Ministers reach decisions?
The Council of Ministers takes decisions collectively and by consensus. In other words, it does not vote on them. The members of the government debate the issue until they reach a consensus; they are then all equally and jointly accountable to the outside world for their decision. Discussions take place behind closed doors and ministerial ethics demand the utmost discretion.
The prime minister ends the discussions when there is consensus on a decision that the whole government can endorse. A member of the government cannot openly voice reservations about a decision that has been taken collectively. This particularly applies to draft bills and draft royal decrees, which require the signature of the head of state. Government solidarity ensures the cohesion within coalition governments that is customary in Belgium.
If no consensus is reached, the matter is put on hold. Normally, a working group comprising representatives of the ministers’ policy-making bodies then examines the dossier with a view to paving the way for a consensus through proposals and counter-proposals.
What is the mandate of the Council of Ministers?
The Council of Ministers has its origins in customs and traditions and is not mentioned in the Constitution. When forming a government, the new prime minister gives each minister and state secretary a collection of guidelines relating to:
- ministerial ethics;
- the working of the government;
- the working of the Council of Ministers.
The guidelines also indicate the days and times of meetings, the matters to be submitted to the Council, the procedure for doing this, and so on. Normally, the Council of Ministers meets once a week, on Friday mornings at 10 o’clock. Meetings are held at 16 rue de la Loi, Brussels, which houses the prime minister’s secretariat and policy departments and the Chancellery of the Prime Minister.
Preparing for Council of Ministers meetings
When members of the government wish to add an item to the Council of Ministers agenda, they submit a request to the Council secretary or Secretariat. The associated dossier contains:
- an introductory note in French and Dutch ending in a clear and specific proposal for a decision;
- the document to be discussed by the Council of Ministers, e.g. draft bill or draft royal decree, together with the explanatory memorandum or the report to the King, as appropriate;
- additional documents such as:
- opinion of the Council of State;
- opinion of the Inspectorate of Finance;
- EIDDD/DOEB test assessing the sustainability of the proposed measures;
- Kafka test, designed to eliminate unnecessary red tape.
The Council Secretariat ensures that:
- previous Council of Ministers decisions and connections with existing dossiers are indicated;
- the dossier is properly and fully compiled;
- the original note signed by the minister is present in the dossier. If the proposal has been put forward by a state secretary, it must be countersigned by the supervising minister;
- in the case of issues for which several members of the government are responsible, the proposals were consulted on at the time of drafting to ensure that they reflect all of their views;
- the advisory bodies have been consulted;
- the opinion of the Inspectorate of Finance and the agreement of the member of the government responsible for the budget or the civil service have been obtained;
- prior consultation of the community and regional governments, trade unions and other institutions, which is a statutory requirement in many cases, has taken place.
The agenda of Council of Ministers meetings
Assuming there are no substantive objections, the matter is added to the draft agenda and sent to members of the government and all other interested parties, such as the Cabinet of the King, the heads of federal public services, etc.
This draft agenda is examined by the Council secretary and the Secretariat on the Tuesday, purely from a budgetary, technical and legal/administrative perspective. The draft agenda is then submitted to the prime minister for a more political examination.
The agenda and documents are confidential; ministers and state secretaries must ensure that they remain so.
The “Any other business” item on the agenda is reserved for any announcements that the prime minister or another member of the government wishes to make to the Council of Ministers. When members of the government wish to make an announcement, they submit a text known as a “speaking note” to the Secretariat in advance. Members of the government may only make unplanned announcements if it is in the general interest to do so.
Notifications from the meeting
Council of Ministers decisions are generally summarised in short documents known as “notifications”. These are written by the Council Secretariat and signed by the secretary.
The notifications are then sent to the members of the government, who have the right to contest them. The finalised notifications are also sent to the speakers of the Chamber and Senate. Notifications also serve as minutes, since no minutes are taken of the actual discussions during Council of Ministers meetings.
Reports of meetings were compiled from 1918 onwards, but as they were not official documents they were not kept. They were intended to inform the head of state about the content of Council discussions. From the period of the 1914-1918 war, only a few notes and memoranda survive.
Official dossiers from Council of Ministers meetings have been kept at 16 rue de la Loi since September 1944. E-premier, the government document database, contains all documents and decisions since 1989. The prime minister’s dossiers are his personal property but most former prime ministers have donated their personal archives to the National Archives of Belgium. Almost all personal archives relating to the Council of Ministers and the reports of meetings since 1920 are therefore housed at the National Archives of Belgium.
Under current law, archives can only be made public after 100 years. However, the Cabinet of the King, the Chancellery and the National Archives of Belgium have agreed to make the reports of Council of Ministers meetings public after 50 years, in 10-year batches. This means that reports up to and including 1949 were made public in 2000. Reports of Council of Ministers meetings can be viewed online at the website of the National Archives of Belgium.
Over the years, it has become customary to issue press releases about Council decisions after each Council of Ministers meeting. The Directorate-General for External Communication is responsible for these press releases: it produces them, distributes them to a mailing list and publishes them on the website www.presscenter.org.
On Friday afternoons, after Council of Ministers meetings, the prime minister usually gives a press conference at which he, either alone or with other ministers, discusses the decisions taken. Journalists attending the press conference are given a press pack.
A little history…
The Council of Ministers has its origins in the early 19th century Council of Ministers of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. At that time, ministers were only accountable to the King (William I) and not to the States-General (the then Parliament). The King therefore had to deliberate regularly with his ministers about matters of state.
In the first years after Belgian independence, the Council of Ministers was a meeting of ministers chaired by the King. Belgium’s first king, Leopold I (1835-1865), saw ministers as his own personal employees, each of whom was accountable to him. However, towards the end of his reign he chaired fewer and fewer Council of Ministers meetings. His successor, Leopold II (1865-1909), accepted the move towards political accountability of the Government towards Parliament, as opposed to the King. Thus the Council of Ministers gradually transformed into an autonomous body. Nonetheless, Leopold II continued to chair Council of Ministers meetings when important matters were under discussion. As issues grew more complex and Council of Ministers decisions began to have more direct political repercussions, it became increasingly difficult for the King to chair the Council. In addition, the reign of Leopold II saw a major reform of the electoral system, with the result that the confidence of Parliament came to assume more importance than the confidence of the King.
This trend continued under Albert I (1909-1934), although it should be noted that Albert I chaired the Council of Ministers throughout the 1914-1918 war. Following the introduction of full universal suffrage, Belgium had two post-war coalition governments. Consequently, the Head of Cabinet (now known as the Prime Minister) began to assume a key role as the head of the government and the coordinator of government activities.
By the time King Leopold III (1934-1951) came to the throne, it had become unusual for the King to chair the Council of Ministers. Leopold III only did so on three occasions. Prince Charles (1944-1950) presided over several Council of Ministers meetings during his regency, in order to familiarise himself with some of the major social issues of the day, although he did not take part in discussions. King Baudouin (1950-1951-1993) chaired the Council of Ministers twice, on 3 December 1951 and 13 November 1957. To date, King Albert II (1993-...) has not expressed the wish either to chair or to attend a Council of Ministers meeting.
In response to social change, the King gradually had to cede his role as chair of the Council of Ministers to the Head of Cabinet. The latter was almost always the government formateur and later became known as the Prime Minister. However, the King officially retained the right to preside over the Council of Ministers. This is why the prime minister in Belgium is not known as the “minister-president”, as is the case in the Netherlands.