Belgium - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Belgium: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Belgium (French Belgique; Dutch België), constitutional monarchy in northwestern Europe. Belgium is one of the smallest and most densely populated European countries. It is also the most urbanized; 97 percent of its people live in urban areas. Together with Netherlands and Luxembourg, Belgium forms the Low, or Benelux, Countries. The country’s name comes from the Belgae, a Celtic people who lived in the region and were conquered by Roman general Julius Caesar in 57 BC. Its capital and largest city is Brussels.

Belgium is situated between France and the plains of northern Europe, and it borders the North Sea. Because of its geographic position as a crossroads of Europe, Belgium has been a major commercial center since the Middle Ages. The North Sea has been the country’s outlet for trade with the rest of the world. Belgium’s geographic location has also given it strategic importance, and many battles have been fought for control of the area. Belgium became an independent country in 1830.

Belgium is divided into three regions—Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels. In Flanders, which consists of the provinces to the north and west of Brussels, most of the people speak Dutch (Flemish) and are known as Flemings. In Wallonia, the provinces south and east of Brussels, most of the people speak French and are known as Walloons. The population of the Brussels region comes from both language groups. Each region has a great deal of autonomy (self-rule), but friction between Flemings and Walloons continues to the present day.


Belgium is roughly triangular in shape. It is bounded on the north by Netherlands and the North Sea, on the east by Germany and Luxembourg, and on the south and southwest by France. Belgium has an area of 30,528 sq km (11,787 sq mi), which makes it slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. The country is about 280 km (about 175 mi) long, measured in a southeast-northwest direction, and about 145 km (about 90 mi) wide.

Natural Regions in Belgium

Belgium has three main geographic regions: the coastal plain, the central plateau, and the Ardennes highlands.

Belgium’s coastline, in the northwest, stretches 66 km (41 mi) along the North Sea. A low coastal plain extends inland 16 to 48 km (10 to 30 mi). Nearest the North Sea is a low-lying area consisting mainly of sand dunes and polders. The polders, sections of land reclaimed from the sea and protected by dikes, were developed between the 13th and 15th centuries. Lying farther inland is a flat pastureland drained by canals. The coastal plain’s elevation ranges from sea level to about 20 m (65 ft).

The central plateau is a gently rolling, slightly elevated area. Irrigated by many waterways, it contains a number of wide, fertile valleys with a rich, alluvial soil. Caves, grottoes, and ravines are found in parts of this area.

The Ardennes highlands, a densely wooded plateau, extends across southeastern Belgium and into northeastern France. Located here is Botrange, the highest peak in Belgium, with an elevation of 694 m (2,277 ft). The average elevation of the Ardennes highlands is 460 m (1,500 ft). The area is generally rocky and poorly suited to agriculture.

Rivers of Belgium

The chief rivers are the Schelde (known as the Escaut in French) and the Maas (most commonly known by its French name, Meuse). The Schelde and Meuse and their tributaries run slowly through the central plateau to the sea in a generally southwest to northeast direction. Both rise in France and are for the most part navigable throughout Belgium. On the Schelde, the principal waterway of Belgium, are the ports of Antwerp and Ghent. Although the Schelde flows through Belgium, the river meets the sea in Netherlands. The chief tributaries of the Schelde are the Leie (Lys), Dender (Dendre), Zenne (Senne), and Rupel rivers. The Sambre and Ourthe rivers are the main tributaries of the Meuse.

Climate in Belgium

Belgium generally has a temperate climate, with winters that are not excessively cold and with cool, rainy summers. The climate near the sea is humid and mild. Farther inland, away from the moderating maritime influences, a marked increase in the range of temperature occurs. In the Ardennes highlands hot summers alternate with cold winters. Heavy rains are confined almost exclusively to the highlands. Fog and drizzle are common, and April and November are particularly rainy months.

In Brussels, located at the center of the nation, the average temperatures range from -0° to 5°C (32° to 41°F) in January and from 13° to 22°C (55° to 72°F) in July. In Oostende, on the coast, the average range is 1° to 5°C (34° to 42°F) in January and 14° to 20°C (56° to 69°F) in July. Rainfall in Brussels is uniformly spread throughout the year, with a yearly average of 820 mm (32 in); annual precipitation in Oostende averages 580 mm (23 in).

Natural Resources of Belgium

The natural resources of Belgium are almost entirely mineral. Coal was mined in abundance for many years, but supplies have been exhausted and the last mine closed in the early 1990s. Copper, lead, and zinc are still extracted and refined in Belgium.

Plants and Animals in Belgium

Small animals, primarily fox, badger, pheasant, squirrel, weasel, marten, and hedgehog, are found in Belgium. Deer and wild boar are present in the Ardennes highlands. Abundant plants include the hyacinth, strawberry, goldenrod, periwinkle, foxglove (see Digitalis), wild arum, and lily of the valley. Forest trees include oak, beech, elm, and stands of pine that have been planted as part of reforestation programs.

Environmental Issues in Belgium

Belgium is heavily industrialized and experiences many of the environmental problems common to other industrialized nations. The country is a significant producer of greenhouse gases and industrial emissions that cause acid rain. Belgium’s air quality has improved, however, and industrial emissions have steadily decreased since the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) Sulphur Protocols were implemented, beginning in the 1970s.

European Union (EU) directives aimed at improving Belgium’s environmental conditions concern water treatment and water quality, both significant issues in such an industrial center. Before these directives were issued, the Meuse River, a major source of drinking water, had become polluted from steel production wastes. Other rivers were polluted with animal wastes and fertilizers. However, Belgium failed to meet EU targets set for the early 2000s for protecting its rivers from farm pollution and for preventing water pollution in its ports.

Some areas of Belgium’s coastal lands were reclaimed and developed from the 13th to the 15th century. With only concrete dikes separating them from the sea, these lands are especially threatened by flooding. The EU predicted that flooding was likely to worsen as a result of global warming.

Only 2.6 percent (1997) of Belgium’s land is protected in parks and other reserves. This is a small amount when compared with neighboring countries such as France (11.7 percent), Netherlands (6.7 percent), and Germany (27 percent).

Belgium is party to international agreements concerning air and water pollution, biodiversity, ozone layer protection and climate control, endangered species, hazardous wastes, and wetlands.


The name Belgae was originally applied to a Celtic (see Celts) people in Gaul who were conquered by the Romans in the 1st century BC. Later, Germanic elements mingled with the Romanized Celtic strain. In the course of history, the Franks, the Burgundians, the Spaniards, the Austrians, and the French have introduced new elements into the population.

Today the people of Belgium are primarily of two ethnic groups, the Flemings (Germanic origin) and the Walloons (Celtic origin, probably with an admixture of Alpine elements). The most distinguishing characteristic of these two groups is language. The Flemings speak Dutch (often referred to by its historic regional name, Flemish), and the Walloons speak French. The predominantly Flemish provinces are in the northern half of Belgium, called Flanders, and the predominantly Walloon provinces are in the southern half, called Wallonia. The capital of Brussels, an enclave within the Flanders region, is mixed. In 1993 these three ethnolinguistic areas became official federal regions.

Friction between Flemings and Walloons has been a stubborn social and political problem since Belgium gained independence in 1830. French became the official language of government after the Revolution of 1830, which was directed against Netherlands. In the following decades Belgian cultural life was influenced mainly by France. But this dominance, along with Walloon social and economic domination, aroused a spirit of nationalism among the Flemings. They agitated for the equality of their language with French. A series of laws in the 1920s and 1930s achieved this goal.

Antagonism between the two groups increased after World War II (1939-1945). The Belgian constitution was revised in 1971 and 1980 to provide Flemings with a greater degree of cultural and political autonomy. Today, Flemings continue to outnumber Walloons in Belgium.

The population of Belgium is 10,414,336 (2009 estimate). Nearly 60 percent live in the Flanders region. The overall population density, one of the highest in Europe, is 344 persons per sq km (891 per sq mi). The largest concentrations were in the Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, and Ghent (Gent) industrial areas, as well as in the narrow industrial region between Mons and Charleroi. In recent decades the Limbourg city region has increased in population because of industrial expansion in that area. Almost 10 percent of all Belgians live in Brussels, which is also home to vast numbers of foreign guest workers. Some 97 percent of the population is classified as urban.

Principal Cities of Belgium

Belgium is highly urbanized. The chief cities and their 2007 populations are Brussels (145,917), Antwerp (466,203), Ghent (235,143), Charleroi (201,550), and Liège (188,907).

The larger cities of Belgium are generally fascinating combinations of old and new, where ancient guild halls, churches, and houses contrast with modern office buildings, apartment houses, and factories. Brussels, the capital, is famous for its beauty, boulevards, restaurants, and stores. The Grand-Place, a square in the center of Brussels, is surrounded by fine examples of medieval and Renaissance architecture, recalling the opulent splendors of an earlier time. Antwerp, a Flemish city, first developed as a major port in the 15th century and remains today one of the busiest ports in Europe. Ghent was a center of the Flemish lace and textile industries and a commercial port during the Middle Ages. The old part of the town, with its many waterways and bridges and medieval and Renaissance buildings, attracts thousands of tourists each year. Charleroi grew up near large coal deposits. Today, Charleroi and Liège are industrial centers.

Languages spoken in Belgium

A law passed in 1963 established three official languages within Belgium: Dutch was recognized as the official language in the north, French in the south, and German along the eastern border. In the city and suburbs of Brussels, both French and Dutch are officially recognized, although French speakers are the larger group. In the country as a whole, strictly Dutch speakers make up about 56 percent, and French speakers 32 percent of the population. Only 1 percent of the people speak German, while some 11 percent speak more than one language. In 1971 a constitutional change was enacted giving political recognition to these three linguistic communities, providing cultural autonomy for them, and also revising the administrative status of Brussels.

Religion in Belgium

About 80 percent of the Belgian population is Roman Catholic. Religious liberty is guaranteed, and part of the stipend for the ministers of all faiths is paid by the government. Other religions practiced within the country include Islam, a number of Protestant denominations, and Judaism.

Education in Belgium

Although educational freedom was provided by the constitution of 1831, the first law for public elementary education was not passed until 1842. In 1914 compulsory attendance was enacted for children between the ages of 6 and 14; compulsory schooling now extends to age 18. Since 1959 the education system has included state secular schools and private Roman Catholic schools. A number of children attend private schools, most of them under the control of the Catholic Church. Educational controversies involving language and religion that arose in Belgium in the 19th century have continued to the present day. Almost the entire adult population is literate.

The oldest and most prestigious Belgian university dates from the Middle Ages: The Catholic University of Leuven was founded under religious auspices in 1425. Since 1970 it has been divided into independent French- and Dutch-speaking universities, as has the Free University of Brussels. The latter university opened in 1834 under an enactment by the newly formed Belgian government. The universities of Ghent and Liège were founded in 1817 during the period of Dutch rule. Ghent has a Dutch-speaking faculty, Liège a French-speaking one. In 1965 state universities opened in the cities of Mons and Antwerp; French is the language of instruction at Mons, and Dutch is used at Antwerp.

Royal academies of fine arts and royal conservatories of music are maintained in Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, Liège, and Mons. A state agricultural institute is maintained in Gembloux and a technical institute in Mons.

Libraries and Museums

General and specialized libraries are located in all the principal cities. The main reference collection is the Belgian National Library (1837) in Brussels, with some 5 million volumes. Large libraries are maintained by the universities of Ghent, Liège, and Leuven.

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels include the Museum of Ancient Art, with collections of paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and the Museum of Modern Art, with works from the 19th century to the present. The Brussels house of Belgian architect Victor Horta, now a museum, exemplifies the turn-of-the-century art nouveau style. The Royal Institute for Natural Sciences in Brussels has an extensive paleontology collection.

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp is noted for its collection of paintings by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. The Rubens House in Antwerp is also a museum. Museums in Brugge and Ghent have collections of early Flemish art, and Brugge has a museum devoted to the paintings of Hans Memling.


The National Theater (1945) in Brussels is supported by state subsidies. Belgium has contributed to both Flemish and French literature. Among the outstanding authors of the country are Philippe de Comines and Jean Froissart, who wrote in French during the Middle Ages. The works of Charles de Coster and Émile Verhaeren, both of whom wrote in French, and of Hendrik Conscience, who developed the Flemish novel, were popular during the 19th century. Poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, who wrote in French, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1911. See Flemish Literature; French Literature. Important Belgian writers of the later 20th century include the novelist, poet, and playwright Hugo Claus and novelists Françoise Mallet-Joris and Amélie Nothomb.


During the 15th and 16th centuries, northern Europe was one of the centers of the Renaissance. Flemish painters Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder were among the outstanding artists of this period. Dominant in the 17th century were Rubens and Sir Anthony van Dyck, who are regarded by many as two of the greatest Flemish painters. Among 20th-century painters and graphic artists of international fame are James Ensor, Paul Delvaux, and René Magritte. Belgian architect Victor Horta was one of the originators of the art nouveau style of architecture, which had an important influence on European architects of the 20th century. Modern Belgian architecture is represented by the designs of Henry van de Velde.

Recreation in Belgium

Cycling is a popular recreational activity and competitive sport in Belgium. The country’s relatively flat terrain is well-suited to cycling, and trails and tracks abound. Belgium’s Eddie Merckx is considered one of the greatest cyclists of all times. Hiking, fishing, and canoeing are popular in the Ardennes in warmer months, with skiing and tobogganing drawing visitors to the region in the winter.

Belgium’s national sport is soccer, and its team is called the Diables Rouges (Red Devils). Tennis gained in popularity as two Belgian women players, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, established themselves as stars in the early 2000s.

Fairs and festivals play an important part in Belgian life. Fairs, usually known by the Flemish name of kermesse, are held in nearly all the cities and towns of the country during the summer months. On a larger scale, ten world’s fairs have been held in Belgium, the most recent in 1958. There are also many local festivals, often associated with religious observances. One of the most famous festivals is the three-day carnival at Binche, near Mons, held just before Lent. During the carnival, noisemaking and dancing are led by “Gilles,” men dressed in high, plumed hats and bright costumes. Another famous pageant is the Procession of the Holy Blood, held in Brugge in May. December 6 commemorates Saint Nicholas’s Day, an important children’s holiday.


Although the service economy has grown rapidly in Belgium, the country remains heavily industrialized, importing raw materials that are processed mainly for export. With about three-quarters of exports going to other European Union (EU) countries, Belgium’s economy is dependent upon its neighbors and the nation is a strong proponent of integrating European economies.

In the early 1980s and early 1990s a growing budget deficit, combined with high unemployment rates, hindered Belgium’s overall economic growth. To reduce its deficit, the government initiated an austerity program in the 1980s that cut spending while raising taxes, as well as beginning a program to transfer some state-owned enterprises to the private sector. By the early 2000s the government presented balanced budgets, and the economy was growing at a faster rate than the EU average. However, Belgium’s public debt remained huge, and unemployment remained high. The budget in 2006 anticipated revenues of $162.2 billion and expenditures of $163.1 billion. Gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007 totaled $452.8 billion. GDP is a measure of the total value of goods and services a country produces. Service industries account for 75 percent of Belgium’s GDP and employ 73 percent of the workers. Trade and transport rank among the country’s leading service industries.

Brussels is the headquarters of the European Union and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and therefore home to many diplomats and foreign residents. Many firms and governments maintain offices in Brussels for access to European Community decision-makers, and the capital’s real estate, hotel, restaurant, and entertainment industries bring in sizable foreign earnings.

Agriculture of Belgium

Belgium has favorable conditions for agriculture: moderate temperatures, evenly distributed precipitation, and a long growing season. For centuries much of Belgium, especially the Flanders plain, was an area of intensive cultivation. Today, about 28 percent of the country is under cultivation. Farming engages only 2 percent of the total labor force, but it produces sufficient quantities to make Belgium a net food exporter. About two-thirds of the farms are intensively cultivated units of less than 10 hectares (25 acres).

In 2007 the leading crops were sugar beets (5.7 million metric tons), potatoes (2.9 million), wheat (1.5 million), and barley (365,049). Other important crops included fruits, tomatoes, and flax. Livestock and dairy farming are major agricultural industries. In 2007 the livestock population of Belgium numbered some 6.3 million pigs, 2.6 million cattle, 155,515 sheep, and 43,250 horses.

Forestry and Fishing in Belgium

Forests cover 22 percent of the area of Belgium, and wooded areas are used primarily for recreational purposes. In recent years, stands of conifers have been planted, and forestry activity has increased; however, timber is still imported for the country’s paper industry.

The main fishing port of Belgium is Oostende. The fishing fleet exploits the North Atlantic Ocean fisheries from the North Sea to Iceland. The total annual catch in 2007 amounted to 24,219 metric tons; most of it consisted of plaice, sole, and cod.

Mining in Belgium

Belgium has very limited mineral resources. Coal was the chief mining product for much of the 20th century, but deposits were severely depleted by the 1950s. In the 1980s many of the mines were closed, and the last remaining coal mine was shut down in 1992. Coal and oil must now be imported for steelmaking and other industries.

Manufacturing in Belgium

Belgium was the first country on the European continent to industrialize, following the lead of Britain in the industrial revolution. It remains one of the most highly industrialized countries of Europe, largely because of its geographical location and transport facilities. Industrial production increased steadily after World War II (1939-1945) but began to decline in the 1970s, when recession and obsolescence began seriously to erode many traditional sectors. Wallonia, which had been the center of the country’s traditional industries, was hit hard, while newer, lighter industries such as electronics developed in Flanders. In 2004 manufacturing accounted for only 17 percent of total economic activity.

Belgium is still a major producer of iron and steel, although production has fallen since the 1970s. About 11 million metric tons of crude steel were produced annually in the early 2000s. Belgium also has an old and important nonferrous metal industry. It was, for example, Europe’s largest zinc producer into the 1990s, although several European countries have since surpassed Belgium in zinc production. Belgium also furnishes metallurgical, chemical, and other industries with copper, lead, tin, and uranium. The availability of steel and nonferrous metals has encouraged the manufacture of heavy equipment, especially at Liège, Antwerp, and Brussels. Products include machine tools, railroad cars, diesel engines, pumps, and other industrial equipment.

The Belgian chemical industry began to develop in the 20th century and has become the country’s second largest manufacturing industry. Like other heavy industries, it was stimulated by the availability of coal, which was used both for energy and as the raw material for such coal derivatives as benzol and tar. In the second half of the 20th century, petrochemicals, plastics, and pharmaceuticals gained in importance as coal mining declined. Antwerp has become a major petrochemical center.

The textile industry, dating from the Middle Ages, produces cottons, woolens, linens, and synthetic textiles. With the exception of flax, all raw materials are imported. But as world competition increased in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, textiles were produced more cheaply elsewhere. As a result, Belgium’s textile industry suffered; many plants closed or relocated, and textile production declined. Traditional Belgian handicrafts industries, such as lacemaking and tapestries, began their decline much earlier, but some still operate to cater to tourists. Brussels and Brugge were long noted for the manufacture of lace and damask.

Antwerp is the leading diamond-cutting center in the world. It replaced Amsterdam in that role after World War II and today produces about 70 percent of the world’s finished diamonds.

Energy in Belgium

Belgium’s 7 nuclear power plants are the main source of electricity, supplying 56 percent of the country’s electric power. With the decline of the coal-mining industry, Belgium has been forced to rely on imported coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Since the 1980s environmental concerns about nuclear power (see Nuclear Energy) have led to greater reliance on renewable energy sources, such as solar power, biomass, and geothermal technologies; a gas-powered generator was also constructed. Legislation approved in 2003 calls for Belgium to close its seven nuclear reactors between 2015 and 2025. This means that Belgium will have to find a replacement for about two-fifths of its energy supply. Total electric power production was 80 billion kilowatt-hours in 2006.

Currency and Banking of Belgium

The monetary unit of Belgium is the single currency of the European Union (EU), the euro (0.70 euros equal U.S. $1; 2007 average). Belgium is among 12 EU member states to adopt the euro. The euro was introduced on January 1, 1999, for electronic transfers and accounting purposes only, and Belgium’s national currency, the Belgian franc, was used for other purposes. On January 1, 2002, euro-denominated coins and bills went into circulation, and the Belgian franc ceased to be legal tender.

As a participant in the single currency, Belgium must follow economic policies established by the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB is located in Frankfurt, Germany, and is responsible for all EU monetary policies, which include setting interest rates and regulating the money supply. On January 1, 1999, control over Belgian monetary policy was transferred from the Belgian central bank, the National Bank of Belgium, to the ECB. The National Bank of Belgium joined the national banks of the other EU countries that adopted the euro as part of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB).

Foreign Trade in Belgium

Belgium is a major trading country. It is located on the trade route from major European industrial areas to the North Sea. Additionally, it needs raw materials to supply its factories and markets to absorb its excess production. Belgium has historically tried to follow a policy of free trade, but the need for protection led it to join with Luxembourg in a customs and currency union in 1922. In 1948 a customs union was established between the two countries and Netherlands. It was extended in 1958 into an agreement for full economic integration. In 1960 the Benelux Economic Union became operative, establishing free movement of labor, capital, and services between the three countries. Belgium strongly supported further European economic integration in the EU.

In 2007 Belgium’s exports were valued at $428 billion. Principal commodities were automobiles and other vehicles, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, food and food products, nonferrous metals, iron and steel, diamonds, and petroleum products. Annual imports in 2007 had a value of $410 billion. Principal commodities were machinery, chemicals, food products, petroleum and petroleum products, vehicles, rough diamonds, and clothing and accessories. Belgium’s major trading partners were Germany, France, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Italy.

Belgium became a member of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951. Six years later, Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed two treaties creating the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). In 1967 the ECSC, the EEC, and Euratom merged to form the European Community, now the European Union, with headquarters in Brussels.

Transportation in Belgium

As a center of trade, Belgium has an excellent transportation system, composed of waterways, railroad networks, and highways. The chief access to the sea for Belgian shipping is via the Schelde and Meuse estuaries, which lie within the territory of Netherlands. Antwerp, on the Schelde River, although some 84 km (52 mi) from the sea, is one of the busiest ports in Europe. Antwerp is also the transit harbor for the Rhineland and northern France. Because of their slow currents and regular flow, the rivers of Belgium are generally navigable and provide easy communication between regions. The Belgian rivers are connected by an important system of canals. The aggregate length of canals and navigable rivers totals about 1,520 km (about 940 mi).

Supplementing the waterways is a system of 150,567 km (93,558 mi) of roads. There are 3,374 km (2,097 mi) of railroad track, which are state owned. Belgium has one of the world’s densest railroad systems. Sabena was the Belgian national airline until it filed for bankruptcy in 2001. SN Brussels Airline succeeded Sabena the following year.

Communications in Belgium

French- and Dutch-language broadcast services are provided by the government, with costs defrayed through annual license fees on receiving sets; commercial broadcasting is also permitted. Each of the language communities regulates its own broadcasts. Many foreign broadcasts are also received. Some 29 daily newspapers are published. Newspapers appear in the Dutch, French, and German languages.

Tourism of Belgium

Tourists come to Belgium to enjoy its picturesque cities, some of which date to the Middle Ages; its artistic treasures; and its food. Brugge (Bruges) has a medieval center and well-preserved houses along a system of canals. Ghent’s medieval core is arranged around several open squares. Visitors to Brussels flock to the Grand-Place, with its ornate Renaissance and baroque buildings, and to the city’s many museums. Antwerp, Belgium’s chief port, also has a historic center. Oostende is the most popular beach resort in Belgium, and the Ardennes region is popular with outdoor enthusiasts. Among the artistic treasures are works by Flemish painters Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, and Peter Paul Rubens. Belgium’s fine cuisine attracts gourmets. Many of the national specialties are based on seafood, including eel dishes and mussels cooked in white wine, or on foods cooked in beer. Belgian chocolates are internationally famous.


Belgium is a constitutional, representative, and hereditary monarchy. Succession to the throne is determined by primogeniture. The present ruler is King Albert II, who came to the throne in 1993. The Belgian constitution was promulgated in 1831 and revised in 1893, 1921, 1970, 1971, 1980, 1989, 1993, and 2001. The reforms of the 1970s and afterward gradually transformed Belgium into a federal state, giving the majority of essential governmental powers to the three regions: Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels.

Executive of Belgium

Executive power is vested in the king, who appoints the prime minister, cabinet ministers, and judges. The king is commander in chief of the armed forces and, with the approval of parliament, has the power to declare war and conclude treaties. The rights of the king, according to the constitution, include convening and dissolving parliament, conferring titles of nobility, and granting pardons. All royal acts, however, must be countersigned by a minister, who in turn assumes responsibility for those acts before parliament. Inasmuch as the ministers are responsible to parliament, the king must choose a cabinet that represents a majority in parliament. Cabinets are generally multiparty coalitions.

Legislature of Belgium

Under constitutional changes that took effect with the parliamentary elections of 1995, both houses of the Belgian parliament were reduced in size. The Senate was scaled back from 184 members to 71, while the Chamber of Representatives dropped from 212 members to 150. All members of the Chamber of Representatives are directly elected, while the Senate’s membership is elected through a combination of direct and indirect methods. All citizens more than 18 years of age are required to vote in parliamentary elections and may be fined for not doing so.

Political Parties of Belgium

The three major political alliances, each consisting of Dutch- and French-speaking units, are the Christian Democrat parties (1945), the Socialist parties (1885), and the Liberal parties, including the Flemish Liberals and Democrats-Citizens’ Party (Dutch, 1961) and the Liberal Reformation Party (French, 1979). There are many minor parties.

Local Government of Belgium

Belgium is divided into the three federal regions of Brussels (population, 2007 estimate, 1,031,215), Flanders (6,117,440), and Wallonia (3,435,879). These regions are further subdivided into the ten provinces of Antwerpen, Flemish Brabant, Walloon Brabant, East Flanders, Hainaut, Liège, Limbourg, Luxembourg, Namur, and West Flanders, and into nearly 600 communes (administrative districts).

Belgium has devised a two-tiered system of regional government to address political and cultural differences. Each of the three federal regions elects its own council, which is responsible for territorial matters such as planning, transportation, water, energy, municipalities, and regional development. In 2001 the regions were given greater authority over taxation and expenditure. There are also independent language councils for the Dutch-, French-, and German-speaking communities. These councils are in charge of education, health care, and communications (such as broadcasting) for the communities.

Each of the ten provinces has a council of 50 to 90 members who are chosen by direct vote. The provinces are subdivided into administrative districts, often based in cities and towns, called communes. Each commune is administered by a burgomaster appointed by the king. The town council, directly elected to six-year terms, advises the king on this appointment. The council elects an executive body called the board of aldermen. Local government on all levels possesses a large degree of autonomy, a tradition that originated in feudal times.

Judiciary in Belgium

The Belgian constitution provides for an independent judiciary with powers equal to those of the executive and legislative departments. The highest tribunals are the five courts of appeal, which sit at Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, Liège, and Mons; the five labor courts; and the Supreme Court of Justice. Cases are referred to the courts of appeal by the courts of assize, which review both civil and criminal matters. In the assize courts 12 jurors decide all cases by majority vote. A special court was established in 1989 to resolve constitutional conflicts arising from the transfer of power from the central government to regional authorities.

Defense of Belgium

Belgium is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which has its headquarters in Brussels. Recruitment in Belgium’s armed forces is made by voluntary enlistment. Military training methods and equipment are coordinated with those of Netherlands under an agreement of 1948. The Belgian armed forces, which include a navy, army, and air force, stood at 39,690 in 2006. Large force reductions took place during the 1990s.


Although the modern country of Belgium was founded in 1830, the history of the peoples and the territory of the southern Low Countries reaches back to the Roman period. Around 50 BC Roman general Julius Caesar named the territory of the Belgae he had conquered Gallia Belgica (Belgian Gaul). The Roman region of Gallia Belgica included modern Belgium, northern France, Netherlands, and part of Switzerland.

Rome’s successor in western Europe was the kingdom of the Franks, which originated in Belgian Gaul and expanded into Germany, eventually extending from the Pyrenees eastward across the Alps and southward as far as Rome itself. The Franks were led by Charlemagne, who united all of western Europe through conquest during his reign from 768 to 814. When the Frankish realm was partitioned in 843, Belgium was incorporated in the duchy of Lorraine, which was part of Francia Orientalis (the East Frankish Kingdom, or Germany). In the extreme west of this realm arose the county of Flanders, which was a fief of the kings of France.

The Middle Ages, and especially the 12th and 13th centuries, were a period of intensive commercial development throughout the southern Low Countries. The merchant class rose to great prosperity, and cities flourished. In Flanders the cloth trade was the basis of the wealth and growing independence of such cities as Brugge, Ghent, and Ypres. Liège grew rich on the profits of its iron forges and arms manufacture. Wealthy merchants and powerful guilds vied with each other in endowing public works such as the belfries, guildhalls, and churches that are still the pride of many Belgian cities.

The most important of the medieval states in what is now Belgium was Flanders. In the early Middle Ages the counts of Flanders succeeded in establishing themselves as independent rulers, although the king of France was the theoretical overlord of the region. At the end of the 13th century Flanders was annexed by King Philip IV of France. French rule was welcomed by some of the Flemish nobility but was bitterly resented by the merchants and craftsmen in the cities. In 1302 the craftsmen of Brugge massacred the French garrison of the city. In the same year an army of Flemish townsmen inflicted a crushing defeat on the French in the Battle of Courtrai. It is sometimes called the Battle of the Spurs because the Flemings collected the spurs of the dead French knights as trophies. However, the French later gained control over Flanders. During the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, the Flemings rebelled under the leadership of Ghent and allied themselves with England, but in 1382 were decisively defeated.

In 1384 Flanders was united with Burgundy, and by the mid-15th century the dukes of Burgundy ruled the greater part of the Belgian and Dutch Netherlands. Flanders continued to enjoy great prosperity, and the great age of Flemish art began. While owing allegiance to the French crown, Burgundy’s aim was to found a powerful state between France and Germany. This effort was disrupted by the death in 1477 of the last Burgundian ruler, Charles the Bold.

Habsburg Rule

By the marriage in 1477 of Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold, to the German prince Maximilian (later Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I), all of the rich Burgundian realm except the duchy itself passed to the control of the Habsburg family. Maximilian’s grandson, Charles, inherited Netherlands (which included present-day Belgium) in 1506. Charles ascended the throne of Spain in 1516 and later became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1549 he decreed that Netherlands be formally joined to the possessions of Spain.

Philip II of Spain, Charles’s successor, tried to suppress Protestantism and forbade all trade between his subjects and the outside world. Many of the inhabitants of the northern Low Countries had converted to Protestantism during the Reformation, and religious feeling intensified with Roman Catholic Spain. Philip’s policies provoked a rebellion in Netherlands that began in 1566. This upheaval was partly a religious and economic struggle and partly an attempt to preserve local traditions of self-government. Spanish armies were defeated, but the strife between the predominantly Catholic south and the Protestant north continued. In 1581 seven northern provinces (Gelderland, Friesland, Holland, Groningen, Overijssel, Utrecht, and Zeeland) declared their independence as the United Provinces of The Netherlands, while the southern provinces (Belgium) remained loyal to Spain.

Philip II continued to pursue reconquest of the north without success. In 1609, with neither side capable of a decisive victory, Philip III of Spain signed a 12-year truce with the rebels. By the time this accord expired, the Thirty Years’ War was raging, and the Spanish Netherlands was once again a battleground. In 1635 the Dutch and the French joined forces to divide the Spanish Netherlands, but still could not dislodge the Spaniards. A succession of Franco-Dutch victories finally forced the Spanish king, Philip IV, to accept a separate peace with the Dutch in 1648. The south, present-day Belgium and Luxembourg, remained a Spanish domain. By the Treaty of Münster, the Dutch gained some territory on their southern border, notably Maastricht, and Spain agreed to close off shipping from the Schelde River, which flowed through Dutch territory but which was Antwerp’s sole outlet to the sea. The great port city, a center of commerce, thus entered a period of decline.

France, with a growing coalition of European powers, continued the war with Spain. Throughout his long reign the French king, Louis XIV, refused to abandon his quest for the Spanish Netherlands. By the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, France gained several frontier areas, and through subsequent conquests won possession of additional towns. The Spanish Netherlands became an important pawn in the next major European conflict, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). A settlement concluded at Utrecht (see Peace of Utrecht) in 1713 gave France part of Flanders, including Dunkerque and Lille. The bulk of the territory, however, came under the control of the Habsburg rulers of Austria, with a stipulation that its fortresses on the French border be garrisoned by the Dutch. Until the end of the 18th century the area was generally known as the Austrian Netherlands.

During the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744, the country was occupied by the French, but it was restored to Austria by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. Except for this invasion, Belgium’s Austrian era was initially peaceful. This tranquility was disrupted in 1781 when the Austrian emperor, Joseph II, decided to raze the border fortresses and reopen the Schelde estuary. The Dutch mounted an effective blockade and again closed the river to trade. Then, in 1787, as part of his effort to centralize the administration of the far-flung Habsburg domains, Joseph abolished provincial autonomy in the Austrian Netherlands. The loss of local control led to a general uprising, which coincided with the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789-1799). Most of the Austrian garrisons were forced to capitulate, and on January 11, 1790, a Belgian republic was proclaimed.

Quarrels between social and religious factions shook the new state from the outset, and within a year of Joseph’s death in 1790, his successor as Austrian emperor, Leopold II, reestablished control. A conciliatory and enlightened ruler, he revoked his predecessor’s decrees, but the new regime won little popular support. After Leopold was succeeded by Francis II in 1792, Austria became embroiled in war with the revolutionary government of France. Belgium was twice occupied by the French army, and the country was formally ceded to France by the Treaty of Campo Formio in 1797.

French and Dutch Rule

The regime installed by the French was generally unpopular, but Belgium profited from French rule. It expanded in area after France conquered the prosperous city of Liège and annexed it to Belgian territory. Economically, after the French opened the Schelde River to shipping, Antwerp’s trade revived. New markets were also opened for local industry.

In 1814 the country was occupied by armies of the nations ranged against Napoleon Bonaparte. The next year the Battle of Waterloo, the last great battle of the Napoleonic Wars, was fought on Belgian soil.

In 1815 the Congress of Vienna assembled to redraw the map of Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat. The peace settlement adopted at the Congress again united Belgium and Netherlands, this time under a Dutch king, William I. Catholic Belgium, however, did not want a Protestant ruler, even though the country prospered under the Dutch. The outbreak of a revolution in France in July 1830 (see July Revolution) inspired a Belgian uprising in August. Dutch troops were driven from Brussels, and on October 4 a coalition of the normally antagonistic Catholics and Liberals proclaimed Belgian independence. The great powers—Austria, France, Britain, Prussia, and Russia—accepted Belgian independence, and the Dutch were unable to overcome such a formidable group.

Independence and Neutrality

The Belgians drew up a constitution providing for a bicameral legislature elected by male property owners and a king whose executive acts had to be countersigned by a responsible minister. They chose as their monarch Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He was a model constitutional monarch whose political skills enabled him to wield considerable power at home, and to become an influential figure among Europe’s rulers. The Dutch finally agreed to recognize Belgium in 1839 and a peace treaty was signed. In the settlement, half of Luxembourg became a Belgian province, while the Dutch were awarded nominal control of the remainder of the Grand Duchy, as well as Limbourg east of the Meuse River. In its most important provision, the European powers confirmed Belgium as an “independent and perpetually neutral state” (Neutrality).

Even after the internal alliance of Catholics and anticlerical Liberals disintegrated, Belgian constitutionalism survived. The economic decline that followed the separation from Dutch markets was halted by Europe’s first national program of railway construction, which connected all major Belgian towns by 1840. Belgium was the first country in continental Europe to industrialize, and had become politically and economically viable by 1865, when Leopold I died and was succeeded by his son.

Under Leopold II, Belgium faced many domestic problems. Liberals and Catholics fought over control of education, finally agreeing to let local governments decide whether or not to subsidize parochial schools. By the 1880s industrialization and population density—the greatest in Europe—had produced appalling living conditions in the cities. As the rural labor force shrank and the number of people engaged in industry tripled, the government enacted legislation to improve housing and working conditions. The workers, who still could not vote, began organizing to obtain political equality. An 1893 general strike forced parliament to institute universal adult male suffrage, modified to give more than one vote to university graduates, men over age 50, and property owners.

Another domestic problem was the lack of a common language. The country’s inhabitants were divided between Dutch-speaking Flemings in Antwerp, East and West Flanders, and Limbourg, and French-speaking Walloons in the remaining provinces; the province of Brabant, which included Brussels, contained speakers of both languages. Flemings outnumbered Walloons, but French was the language of the upper classes who controlled much of Belgium’s wealth. Thus, Walloon interests were disproportionately represented in the government, and only the small segment of the Flemish who were bilingual could participate equally. The passage of a law granting universal manhood suffrage (voting rights) began to redress this imbalance and forced the government to accord equality to both languages when transacting official business.

Early in his reign Leopold II personally financed an expedition up the Congo River in Africa and acquired personal control of the vast Congo basin. At the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884 and 1885 he was recognized as sovereign of the Congo Free State, as the land was called. The Congo Free State supplied Belgium with incalculable wealth in raw materials. After 1900, however, reports of mistreatment of the native Africans outraged Belgian public opinion and led to legislation in 1908 transferring control of this royal enterprise to the state. From 1908 until independence in 1960, it was known as the Belgian Congo.

As the outbreak of war seemed imminent in Europe, Belgium’s neutral status caused a domestic controversy over the military budget. Advocates of preparedness opposed those who believed that the nation’s neutrality rendered most armaments unnecessary. In 1909, when Albert I ascended the throne, he warned that the army was not strong enough to defend the country. The Catholic-led government used an electoral victory in 1912 to increase draft quotas, over the opposition of Liberals and Socialists.

World War I

On August 4, 1914, one week after World War I began, German troops crossed the frontier into Belgium, ignoring its neutral status. The government resisted invasion and appealed to France, Britain, and Russia for aid. The Belgian army put up a heroic defense against overpowering forces; for four years its troops held on to a sliver of Belgian territory between the Yser River and the French border. The Germans, meanwhile, carried on a ruthless occupation of Belgium, confiscating property and deporting civilians. Although they attempted to capitalize on language divisions by establishing separate Flemish and Walloon administrations, only a small minority of Flemings collaborated with the invaders. A million Belgians fled the country. As the war dragged on, more than 80,000 soldiers and civilians died.

The major Allied offensive that began on September 28, 1918, liberated the entire Belgian coast and led the Germans to agree to an armistice and to withdrawal on the Allies’ terms. The shooting war was finally over. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany ceded Eupen-et-Malmédy, and Moresnet to Belgium, adding 989.3 sq km (382 sq mi) and some 64,500 inhabitants to the kingdom.

After the war Belgium was faced with the task of rebuilding the devastated areas. Although the damage was enormous, the country made a remarkable recovery. Another consequence of World War I for Belgium was the discrediting of the policy of neutrality. Belgium effectively renounced its neutrality in 1920 by signing a military alliance with France. In 1925 it became a party to the Locarno treaties, in which Britain, France, Germany, and Italy guaranteed the boundaries of Belgium and affirmed its right to form defensive treaties. Ruanda-Urundi was created from part of a former German colony in East Africa in 1923 and placed under Belgian control by the League of Nations.

World War II

In 1936, after France failed to oppose German remilitarization of the Rhineland, Belgium again returned to neutrality with the understanding that Britain and France would assist in its defense against foreign aggression. Nevertheless, Belgium was attacked for a second time by Germany on May 10, 1940, early in World War II. Without warning or ultimatum, Belgian airfields, railroad stations, and communications centers were bombed by German planes, and German armored units rolled across the border. The army and the French and British troops that came to Belgium’s aid were overwhelmed by the superior might of the invading forces.

By May 26, 1940, the Allies had been pushed into a narrow beachhead around Dunkerque, France, near the Belgian border. King Leopold III surrendered his remaining forces unconditionally on May 28 and was taken prisoner. The Belgian cabinet, which had fled to Paris, refused to acknowledge defeat, declaring the king’s surrender “illegal and unconstitutional.” On May 30 the ministers voted to divest the king of all powers and of the right to rule, a decision supported by the Belgian parliament. After the fall of France, the Belgian government moved to London; it returned to Brussels on September 8, 1944. Later that month parliament elected Leopold’s brother, Prince Charles, as regent.

Postwar Belgium

Although Belgium was in better economic condition after World War II than after World War I, it was politically disorganized because of a conflict between the Christian Democrat parties and a coalition of Liberals, Socialists, and Communists. Intensifying the political struggle was the question concerning King Leopold, who had remained in Austria awaiting determination of his future. Despite pressure from the Christian Democrat parties (now strengthened by the enfranchisement of women), which favored the return of the king, the Belgian parliament in the summer of 1945 extended indefinitely the regency of Prince Charles, virtually exiling the king because of his alleged defeatism in 1940.

While the struggle for political control continued, Belgium regained much of its former position as one of the world’s great trading nations. Industrial areas in the south were modernized, and Antwerp’s port facilities were expanded. Rich uranium deposits from the Congo, which were of particular value in the nuclear age, added to Belgium’s postwar prosperity.

Royal Controversy

On March 12, 1950, after more than a year of successive governmental crises brought on by the controversy over the king, the Belgian electorate went to the polls in an advisory plebiscite on the question of Leopold’s return. A slight majority of the voters favored the return of the king from exile, but his attempt to resume power led to strikes, demonstrations, and riots. Leopold agreed to abdicate in 1951, when his son reached the age of 21. Baudouin was proclaimed king the day after Leopold’s abdication.

European Cooperation

The 1950s were marked by the concentrated effort of European leaders to effect a political and economic union of the Western European nations. Taking an active role in this movement, Belgium, along with France, West Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, and Netherlands, became a charter member of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1952. The efforts of Belgian Foreign Minister Paul Henri Spaak were instrumental in the founding in 1957 of the European Economic Community (EEC). Brussels became the seat of its governing commission and much of its bureaucracy, reflecting the key role that Spaak played in shaping the new European order. In 1967 the ECSC, the EEC, and Euratom merged to form the European Community, now called the European Union.

Crises of Empire and Nation

In 1960 uprisings in the Belgian Congo forced Belgium to withdraw from its African empire. On June 30, 1960, King Baudouin proclaimed the independence of the colony (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC). In 1962 the Belgian-administered UN trust territory of Ruanda-Urundi achieved independence as two states, Rwanda and Burundi. The Belgian Congo was a source of great wealth for Belgium, especially for a few large companies, in which the Belgian government also had substantial shares. The loss of the Congo caused economic hardship in Belgium.

To strengthen the economy, the Belgian government instituted an austerity program in the early 1960s. The Socialists called for a general strike and violence erupted, particularly in the Walloon south. Although the strike was called off, the crisis had sharpened the differences between Flemings and Walloons. Socialist leaders proposed that the unitary state of Belgium be replaced by a loose federation of three regions—Flanders, Wallonia, and the area around Brussels.

New laws in 1962 and 1963 established official language frontiers, but the problem was not that easily solved. Both Flemish and Walloon workers protested discrimination in employment, and disturbances broke out at the universities of Brussels and Leuven, which eventually split into separate Dutch-speaking and French-speaking institutions. Although during the 1960s the Christian Social and Socialist parties remained the major contenders for power, both Flemish and Walloon federalists continued to make gains in the general elections, principally at the expense of the Liberal Party. Eventually separate Flemish and Walloon ministries were created for education, culture, and economic development. Finally, in 1971, the constitution was revised to prepare the way for regional autonomy in most economic and cultural affairs.

Despite this reversal of a long-standing policy of centralization, the federalist parties opposed the revisions on the grounds that they did not go far enough. Moreover, repeated efforts to transfer actual legislative authority to regional bodies were blocked by disagreements about the geographical extent of the Brussels region. In 1980 agreement was finally reached on the question of autonomy for Flanders and Wallonia.

During the 1980s the Christian Democrat parties formed the cabinets, usually under the leadership of Wilfried Martens. In January 1989 parliament passed a devolution bill designed to transfer power from the central government to the three ethnolinguistic federal regions. Implementation of this law moved slowly, and the 1991 elections resulted in a reduced plurality for the Christian Democrats. Martens resigned as party leader, and his successor, Jean-Luc Dehaene, formed a new center-left government.

European Integration

Belgium moved to support increased economic and political cooperation in Europe by ratifying the Treaty on European Union, or the Maastricht Treaty, in the fall of 1992. In May 1993 Belgium approved the devolution process and it became a federal state with three regions—Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels—in July of that year. King Baudouin died on July 31, 1993, and was succeeded by his brother Albert, who ruled as Albert II. In parliamentary elections held in May 1995, Dehaene’s coalition was returned to power. Belgium took another step toward integrating with Europe in May 1998, when it officially agreed to replace its national currency with a new single European currency, the euro. The euro was introduced in 1999 and entirely replaced the Belgian currency, along with the currencies of other European nations participating in the single currency, in early 2002.

Recent Events

Dehaene’s center-left coalition suffered a major defeat in parliamentary elections in June 1999, a defeat attributed to rising public anger over a food contamination scandal. The government had revealed in May that a wide variety of Belgian foodstuffs might have been contaminated by the cancer-causing chemical dioxin. Officials reportedly allowed more than a month to pass before warning the public about health risks. The contamination led to the banning of many Belgian food exports by the European Union (EU) and cost the Belgian economy hundreds of millions of dollars.

A center-right coalition led by the Liberal parties took office in July 1999, and Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt of the Flemish Liberal Democrats became prime minister. The formation of the new government, which also included the left-leaning Socialist parties and the environmentalist Green parties, marked the first time since 1958 that the Christian Democrats had been excluded from government. Verhofstadt and his coalition were returned to power following parliamentary elections in 2003. The government’s plan to raise the age at which Belgian workers could retire with full benefits led to strikes in late 2005.

In local elections held in 2000 a far-right party, Vlaams Blok (Flemish Block), achieved significant gains. The Vlaams Blok wants independence for the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders and an end to immigration. In 2004 the Vlaams Blok was declared racist, deprived of funding, and subsequently disbanded. However, it reorganized under a new name. Meanwhile, disputes over Belgium’s language boundaries continued in the early 2000s.

In parliamentary elections in June 2007, Verhofstadt’s party suffered a crushing defeat, coming in fourth place, and Verhofstadt resigned as prime minister. The Flemish Christian Democrats emerged as the single largest party and its leader, Yves Leterme, was nominated to form a coalition government. However, ensuing rounds of coalition talks repeatedly broke down as the French-speaking politicians of Wallonia rejected Leterme’s plans to give more autonomy to the regions.

The country remained mired in political deadlock until March 2008, when marathon talks led to the formation of a five-party coalition government headed by Leterme. Leterme offered his resignation in June after failing to get support for a plan to devolve power to the regions. Belgium’s king, Albert II, refused to accept the resignation, and Leterme remained in office. In December 2008 Leterme again tendered his resignation, this time due to a dispute over the government’s acquisition of Fortis Bank, one of the European banks hardest hit by the global financial crisis. The king accepted the resignation this time but asked Leterme to remain as the head of a caretaker government until former prime minister Wilfried Martens could help fashion a new government. In January 2009 Belgian politician Herman Van Rompuy was named prime minister, heading the same five-party coalition assembled by Leterme. Van Rompuy also retained most of Leterme’s cabinet and promised to follow the same policies.

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