Country in Western Europe, bounded to the north by the Netherlands, to the northwest by the North Sea, to the south and west by France, and to the east by Luxembourg and Germany.
Government Belgium is a multiparty parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. Its constitution dates from 1831 and was revised in 1971 and 1993, to adopt a federal structure, and again in 2011–12. It comprises three language communities – Flemish, French, and German – and three regions – Flemish-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, and the national capital, Brussels. The prime minister and cabinet are drawn from and answerable to the legislature, which exercises considerable control over the executive. The legislature consists of a chamber of representatives and a senate, which acts as a revising chamber. The chamber of representatives has 150 members elected by obligatory universal suffrage, through a system of proportional representation, from 20 multi-member constituencies, for a term of five years from 2014 (up from four years previously). The senate has had 60 members since 2014, comprising 50 members appointed by and from the community and regional parliaments and 10 co-opted senators. The breakdown of members is: 29 from the Flemish Parliament, 10 from the Parliament of the French Community, eight from the Walloon Parliament, two from the French-language group of the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region, and one from the Parliament of the German-speaking community. Previously it had 71 members, comprising 25 elected by Dutch-speaking and 15 by French-speaking electoral colleges, and 21 by community councils (10 Flemish, 10 French, and 1 German), and a further 10 senators are co-opted by these senators (six Dutch-speaking and four French-speaking). In addition, certain members of the Royal Family sit in the senate. The senate provides a forum to discuss matters affecting Belgium's different language communities but has little role in the legislative proicess. On the basis of parliamentary support, the monarch appoints the prime minister, who chooses the cabinet, which must include an equal number of Dutch- and French-speakers. The regional administrations are responsible for the environment, housing, and public works and the language community administrations deal with education policy and culture.
History The kingdom of Belgium was founded after the 1830 revolution, but the history of the area – the southern part of the Low Countries (also sometimes referred to in their entirety as the Netherlands) – dates back to pre-Roman times.
The land that is now Belgium was inhabited in the Palaeolithic period (the Old Stone Age), but recorded history starts with the conquest by Julius Caesar. At the time of the Roman conquest the area was inhabited by the League of the Belgae, who were chiefly Celtic tribes, although there were many traces of tribes of Germanic origin. The Belgae fiercely resisted the Roman invasion, but were eventually forced to submit in 57 BC. Under the Romans the area formed part of Gaul, and from 15 BC was distinguished by the name of Gallia Belgica.
The Middle Ages The Germanic component of the population was increased from around the 3rd century AD as the Salian Franks settled in the region between the lower River Rhine and the North Sea. At the end of the 5th century the Franks, under Clovis I, conquered the whole of Gaul (France). At the beginning of the 9th century, under Charlemagne, Belgium became the centre of the Carolingian dynasty, and the peace and order during this period fostered the growth of such towns as Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels. Following the division of Charlemagne's empire by the Treaty of Verdun in 843 the area became part of Lotharingia (ruled by Charlemagne's grandson Lothair I). A further division of the empire was made at the Partition of Meersen in 870, by which Flanders and the western provinces went to France, and the eastern provinces, including Brabant, went to Germany.
By the 11th century seven feudal states had emerged: the counties of Flanders, Hainaut, and Namur, the duchies of Brabant, Limburg, and Luxembourg, and the bishopric of Liège, all nominally subject to the French kings or the German emperor, but in practice independent. From the 12th century the economy flourished: Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres became centres of the textile industry, while the artisans of Dinant and Liège exploited the copper and tin of the Meuse valley.
Flanders with its cities became one of the most important counties, and had to struggle constantly against France to maintain its independence. Indeed French interference in Flanders, because it threatened the English wool trade, was one of the reasons the English embarked on the Hundred Years' War. Towards the end of the 14th century the line of Flemish counts became extinct, and through the 15th century, through various marriages and by inheritance or purchase, all the provinces of the Low Countries (modern Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) came into the hands of the dukes of Burgundy. The centre of Burgundian power shifted to the Low Countries, and industry and culture flourished (see Burgundy (ancient)).
Habsburg rule In 1477 Mary, the daughter of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, married Maximilian, the archduke of Austria, who later became Holy Roman emperor as Maximilian I. In this way the Low Countries came into the possession of the Habsburgs. The Low Countries were passed on by Mary of Burgundy to her son, Philip, who married the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Dying before his father, Philip left the Low Countries to his son, the future Emperor Charles V, who also became king of Spain, and so began the connection of the region (now referred to as the Spanish Netherlands) with Spain, that was to last until the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
In the 16th century Protestantism took a hold in the Spanish Netherlands, and the religious and secular tyranny of the ardently Catholic Philip II of Spain led to a revolt, starting in 1568. For a time it seemed as though the whole country would gain independence, but the military and diplomatic successes of Alexander, Prince of Parma (the Spanish governor), exacerbated the religious differences of the rebels (many of whom remained Catholic). This enabled Parma to regain the southern provinces, and the capture of Antwerp in 1585 ensured that the southern provinces (modern-day Belgium and Luxembourg) remained under Spanish rule. The independence of the northern part of the Netherlands as the Dutch Republic was recognized by Spain in 1648.
In the later 17th century, during the wars of Louis XIV with Spain, district after district was ceded to France. But the great gains made by France in the Peace of Nijmegen in 1678 were largely restored by the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697 (for more details of this period, see France: history 1515–1815). By the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which concluded the War of the Spanish Succession, the Spanish Netherlands were ceded to Austria, where the Habsburgs continued to rule.
During the century that followed, the fortunes of the Austrian Netherlands underwent many vicissitudes. In the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) they were overrun by France, but were restored to Austria by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. The Seven Years' War (1756–63) left them unmolested, and under Maria Theresa they prospered. But when her son, Joseph II, the ‘enlightened despot’, began to rule alone after her death in 1780, he roused anger by his reforms, which threatened the church and traditional local privileges. In 1789 a middle-class-led revolt broke out in the Austrian Netherlands that had to be subdued by an Austrian army.
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic period The revolt coincided with the outbreak of the French Revolution. The young Austrian emperor, Francis II, declared war on France in 1792, hoping to reinstate the monarchy, but his armies were defeated at Jemappes and Fleurus. France annexed the Austrian Netherlands, and throughout the rest of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period they were an integral part of France, governed by the Code Napoléon. Austria formally ceded the territories to France by the Treaty of Campo-Formio (1797), dictated by Napoleon.
After Napoleon's abdication in 1814, the provinces again passed to Austria, and were administered by an Austrian governor general. But in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna they were united with Holland, and William Frederick of Orange-Nassau (see Orange, House of) became king of the Netherlands (that is, the modern Netherlands and the modern Belgium) as William I in September 1815.
The creation of Belgium The two communities had been separated for nearly two hundred years. Religious differences had developed during the Eighty Years' War (the wars of independence against the Spanish, 1568–1648), and there were also linguistic differences between the Dutch and Flemish, and the southern, French-speaking Walloons. Though the Belgians prospered, discontent increased because the wealthy and powerful French-speakers in the south considered that the interests of the northern Protestant Dutch were being advanced.
A successful revolution in Paris in 1830 led to an uprising in the French-speaking south, focused especially on Brussels and Liège, and to demands for independence. At a congress of the five great powers held in London it was agreed that Belgium should be independent, with a constitutional monarchy, and the Orange-Nassau family should be permanently excluded. The election of Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (widower of Charlotte, daughter of George IV of England) as King Leopold I was the signal for a fresh Dutch invasion. The crisis was terminated in 1839 by the great powers, who forced a settlement that was in effect the Treaty of Twenty-four Articles, drawn up eight years before. By its terms the neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed. This treaty became known as ‘the scrap of paper’ in 1914.
Belgium in the later 19th century From 1839 to 1914 Belgium was an independent neutral state. From about 1850 the Liberal Party began a series of reforms to reduce the social power of the church, reforms that met with considerable Catholic opposition. In 1878 the election of an anticlerical Liberal government provoked a Catholic mobilization which culminated in a decisive Catholic electoral victory in 1884. From then until World War I Catholic governments ruled Belgium despite Liberal and subsequently socialist opposition.
In the later 19th century the Belgian king Leopold II acquired the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; formerly known as Zaire) as his personal fiefdom, and this was recognized by the other European powers in 1885. Following an international outcry over the appalling treatment of native labour, it came under the administration of the Belgian government in 1908. Leopold II died in 1909, and was succeeded by his nephew, Albert I.
Belgium in World War I The 1839 treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality was respected during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but on 3 August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium with the intention of outflanking the main French defences in the east by attacking France from the north. This violation of Belgian neutrality brought the UK into the war. (For further details of the causes of the war, and the course of events on the Western Front, see World War I).
Germany took Liège after a 12-day siege and drove the Belgian army back to Louvain, which the Germans looted, and then Antwerp. In August a German army under Gen Alexander von Kluck entered Brussels, while another army under Gen Karl von Bülow subdued the fortress of Namur. The way to France lay open, but the German army was harassed by the Belgians, who were entrenched at Malines and Antwerp. In October Antwerp surrendered after a successful withdrawal of the army to the west, and the whole of Belgium was occupied by the Germans save for the small southwestern corner from Nieuport to Ypres. Gen Maurice von Bissing was made governor.
After an initial reign of terror aimed at reducing the local population into submission, the Germans tried to restart industrial production. Men who would not work for the benefit of the enemy were deported, and from 1916 to 1917 nearly 150,000 men were sent to work in Germany. When it was found in 1917 that the passive resistance of the workers could not be broken, much of Belgian industry was dismantled and many of the machines were transported to Germany. One aim of von Bissing's policy was to divide Belgium against itself by supporting the Flemish movement and to corrupt the loyalty of the Dutch-speaking Flemings by setting them against the dominant middle-class francophone Walloons. The German assumption was that Belgium was an artificially created state without any real national unity.
Meanwhile the remains of the Belgian army were stationed on the extreme left of the Allied front, having withstood severe fighting at the Battle of the Yser. They continued to fight independently of France and the UK for the remainder of the war under the military command of King Albert. A coalition government in exile operated from the French port of Le Havre. After the fall of Antwerp the coast towns of Zeebrugge and Ostend had fallen into German hands, but in 1917 they were rendered ineffective as submarine bases by some ships being sunk by a UK squadron at the entrance of the harbours, thus partially closing them.
Some of the fiercest fighting of World War I took place on Belgian soil, in the three battles of Ypres (1914, 1915, and 1917; see Ypres, Battles of). In the series of engagements known as the Battle of Flanders (see Flanders, Battle of), fought in September–November 1918, UK, French and Belgian armies under King Albert drove the Germans out of Belgian territory and back into Germany.
The interwar period After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles declared Belgium a sovereign state, free to make what alliances it wished, and set aside the 1839 treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality. Belgium decided on a defensive alliance with France and the UK. It also gained the district of Eupen-and-Malmédy and the commune of Moresnet from Germany, adding 984 sq km/380 sq mi of territory, which in 1925 were made part of the province of Liège. Belgium was also awarded League of Nations mandates to govern the former German colonies of Rwanda and Burundi.
Postwar Belgium faced an enormous task of reconstruction, with infrastructure badly damaged in the fighting and much of its industry dismantled by the Germans. Inflation was a serious problem, and there was a severe financial crisis in 1925–26, while in the 1930s unemployment rose.
In the interwar period, the Socialist Party emerged as an influential force, winning much of the working-class vote. This established a tripartite system (Catholic, Socialist, and Liberal) which remained the dominant characteristic of Belgian politics for much of the 20th century. Universal manhood suffrage had been introduced in 1921 (although women did not get the vote until 1948). In 1925 the Socialists forced a general election, and gained such success that in July 1925 a Socialist–Catholic coalition government was formed. However, it was not until May 1938 that Paul-Henri Spaak became Belgium's first Socialist premier.
In 1929 there was a crisis over the language problem – differences between the Flemish-speaking and French-speaking populations rapidly became a major cause of tension within Belgium. In 1930 the University of Ghent was made Flemish, and provision was made for teaching in schools to be given in the language prevalent in the district concerned.
In February 1934 King Albert was killed while rock-climbing in the Ardennes and was succeeded by his son, Leopold III. The latter's first wife, Queen Astrid, was killed in a motor accident at Lake Lucerne in August 1935.
The road to war From 1925 Belgium had relied on the Locarno treaty (see Locarno, Pact of), guaranteeing Germany's existing frontiers with France and Belgium, and supported the policy of collective security. In 1936, however, Germany repudiated the Locarno treaty and fears rose of another European war. Belgium decided to move to a policy of isolationism, self-dependence, and neutrality until a 1936 agreement with the UK and France, which released Belgium from its Locarno obligations in return for a unilateral promise of support from the two powers in the event of aggression.
In October 1937, Germany agreed to respect Belgian territory so long as it did not participate in military action against Germany. On 26 August 1939, five days before the German invasion of Poland, the German ambassador to Belgium repeated his country's assurances of respect for the integrity of Belgium, and on the outbreak of war on 3 September Belgium reaffirmed its strict neutrality.
Belgium in World War II On 10 May 1940, before dawn, the German air force launched an attack on selected airfields and centres of communication in Belgium. Strategically, as in World War I, the German aim in invading Belgium was to attack France from the north, where its defences were weaker – particularly since the building of the Maginot Line.
King Leopold took over command of the army, the government declared martial law, and there was general mobilization. After 18 days of fighting, King Leopold ordered the army's capitulation, but the prime minister, Hubert Pierlot, who had fled with the government to France, rejected this and declared that Belgium would continue the struggle on the side of the Allies. This was ratified by the Belgian parliament, meeting in the French town of Limoges in late May. After France's defeat in June 1940, the government attempted to return to Belgium but was prevented by the King and the Germans, so Pierlot and senior ministers established a government in exile in London, in December 1940. It was regarded as the legal government of Belgium, not only by all the Allies, but also by neutral states. Meanwhile the Germans confined King Leopold in Laeken Palace.
Some Belgians managed to escape to the UK to serve in the forces there, or to find civilian employment, and throughout the war there were a number of resistance movements within Belgium. Conversely Flemish nationalists and some Fascist groups (notably the Rexists led by Léon Degrelle) supported the Germans and formed collaborationist military units. For more details on the fighting in Belgium during the war, see World War II.
In September 1944, following the Allied landings in Normandy in June, UK armoured units reached Tournai, the first Belgian town to be liberated, and Brussels was quickly freed. Belgian forces cooperated with the UK and US armies, and by early November the whole of Belgium was liberated, following the end of the final German resistance at Zeebrugge and south of the River Scheldt. In April 1949 some minor frontier modifications in Belgium's favour were made on the Belgian–German frontier.
The King Leopold affair After the end of the war in May 1945, the issue of the return of King Leopold III soon threatened to divide the country. The resistance movement, which had become predominantly associated with the left, opposed his return. Consequently, the government, led by the Flemish socialist Achid Van Acker, decided that the country should remain under the regency of Prince Charles, the king's brother, who had been appointed regent after the liberation of Belgium.
In 1949 the Socialists lost control of the government, and in 1950 the Catholic-dominated Christian Social Party, committed to support the king's return, held a referendum on the subject, which produced a majority in favour of Leopold's restoration. It was not a large majority, and in the Walloon districts more votes were cast against the return than for it, but the regency was ended, and Leopold returned to Belgium. Rioting and strikes broke out in Wallonia, and civil war and a possible division of the country seemed imminent. In August 1950 Leopold finally and very reluctantly agreed to delegate his powers to his eldest son, Baudouin. He abdicated in July 1951, and Baudouin became king.
International agreements Since 1945 Belgium has been a major force for international cooperation in Europe, being a founding member of the Benelux Economic Union in 1948, (with Luxembourg and the Netherlands); the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951; the Council of Europe, and the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1957, whose administrative headquarters are in Brussels.
Belgium is also a member of NATO (from 1949), whose international secretariat and military headquarters (SHAEF) are based in the country. NATO membership has sometimes brought about problems; between 1983 and 1985, for example, there was much debate about the siting of US cruise missiles in Belgium before a majority vote in parliament allowed their installation.
Belgium's handling of the independence process in its African colonies in the early 1960s was poorly thought out. The Belgians had resisted decolonization through the 1950s, but violent nationalist protests swept the continent in the late 1950s, led in Belgian Congo by Patrice Lumumba. In response, they made hurried arrangements for granting independence, to Congo in 1960 and to Burundi and Rwanda in 1962. The colonial administrations had done little to prepare the Africans for self-government, had suppressed political activity, and had made few efforts to resolve the differences between varied ethnic groupings. The result in the Congo was a bloody civil war following independence, while the continuing conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples of Rwanda and Burundi has led to many large-scale massacres. In 2001, after an official inquiry, Belgium admitted a role in the assassination, in 1961, of Lumumba, Congo's first prime minister.
Language divisions Belgium's economy grew after World War II, with the cities of Antwerp and Ghent developing as industrial and commercial centres. But increasing industrialization in Flanders led to population movements that increased friction between Flemings and Walloons. This flared up from time to time into intercommunal riots. The language division, with 55% of the population speaking Flemish and 44% French, was aggravated by the political polarization between the predominantly Catholic Flanders in the north and the mainly socialist French-speaking Wallonia in the south.
In the early 1970s, separate regional councils and ministerial committees were set up in an effort to ease linguistic and social divisions, but conflicts continued in the 1980s. It was eventually agreed that Flanders and Wallonia should be administered by separate regional assemblies, with powers to spend up to 10% of the national budget on cultural facilities, health, roads, and urban projects, and Brussels be governed by a three-member executive.
Centre-right governments Belgium politics since World War II have been dominated by the centre-right and centrist Christian People's Party (CVP), Social Christian Party (PSC), and Liberal Party (VLD), which formed a succession of coalition governments. Gaston Eyskens, of the CVP, was prime minister 1958–61 and 1968–73, Léo Tindemans of the CVP 1974–78, Wilfried Martens, of the CVP, 1979–92, and Jean-Luc Dehaene, another Flemish Catholic from the CVP, 1992–99. Dehaene governed in alliance with the Socialists and concentrated on the issues of European integration and regional devolution.
Under Dehaene, in 1993 the constitution was amended to create a federal state, based on three communities and regions. for the creation of a fully federal state. In the same year, King Baudouin died and was succeeded by his brother, Prince Albert of Liège, who became King Albert II.
Scandals A series of scandals unsettled Belgian politics in the 1990s. The unexplained assassination of the prominent Socialist politician André Cools in Liège and the enforced resignation of Willy Claes, the Belgian secretary general of NATO, after allegations of corruption, rocked the credibility of Belgian politics. In 1996 the revelation of a paedophile scandal surrounding a criminal named Marc Dutroux led many Belgians to denounce what they perceived as the corruption and incompetence of politicians and the police. Nevertheless Dehaene's Catholic–Socialist coalition remained in office, concentrating its efforts on the issues of European integration and regional devolution.
The health and farm ministers resigned in June 1999 after high levels of dioxin were found in the country's eggs and chickens. It became clear that the ministers had known about the problem for a month without informing the public or even the prime minister. The scare quickly spread to pork and beef. The European Commission announced a ban on products traced to the contaminated farms. The affair – Europe's worst food contamination crisis since the BSE scandal – had almost wiped out the country's food industry.
Flemish Liberals in power The CVP, which had been undermined by the dioxin scandal, lost ground in the June 1999 general election and significant gains were made by Greens, liberals, and far-right parties. As a consequence, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Flemish liberals, the VLD, became prime minister, heading a centre-left coalition government which included the socialists and, for the first time in Belgium, Greens.
Local elections, held in October 2000, saw the rise to prominence of the Vlaams Blok party, a far-right Flemish-based party, which polled strongly in Antwerp. Its key policies were to end immigration to Belgium, close mosques, and independence for Flanders. Its rise was in the context of Belgium's increasingly closer integration into the European Union, with, in January 2002, euro notes and coins introduced as the national currency as part of European Monetary Union.
The Verhofstadt government allied itself with France and Germany in 2003 in opposition to the US policy of a pre-emptive military attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq for alleged violations of UN resolutions on disarmament. It did so in the context of a strong popular anti-war movement in Belgium, with large demonstrations against the Iraq war.
Verhofstadt's VLD and Socialist coalition government retained power after the May 2003 general election, but the Green parties lost ground while Vlaams Blok made further gains. The government adopted tougher policies on asylum seekers in response. But Vlaams Blok gained further ground In local elections in 2004, becoming the second largest party in the Flemish assembly. In November 2004, the Supreme Court fined it and deprived it of state funding for promoting racial discrimination, but this did not hold it back. It renamed itself the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) and in October 2006 won 34% of the vote in the municipal elections in Antwerp.
2007–11 political crisis The ruling coalition lost its majority at the June 2007 general election. None of the established parties was willing to form a coalition with Vlaams Belang, which had finished third with 12% of the vote. Eventually, after nine months of negotiation, a new five-party coalition was formed in March 2008 with Yves Leterme, of the Christian Democratic and New Flemish Alliance party (CD&V–NVA, the successor to the CVP), which had won 19% of the vote, as prime minister. The other members of the coalition were the VLD and Francophone Socialists, Liberals, and Christian Democrats.
Leherne pledged further devolution of powers to Flanders and to raise pensions and cut taxes for those on low incomes. But the government's plans were hit by the global financial crisis of 2008–09. This led to economic slowdown and to the state needing, in September 2008, to inject funds into and part-nationalize the struggling Fortis Belgian-Dutch retail bank. Leterme then sought to sell off the Fortis group's Belgian assets to the French bank BNP Paribas, but shareholders forced an appeals court ruling to postpone this. In December 2008, Leterme resigned after the Supreme Court accused his aides of trying to improperly lift the appeal court's decision.
Leterme's party colleague Herman Van Rompuy, formerly speaker of the Chamber, took over as prime minister until November 2009, when he resigned to become president of the European Council. Leterme, who had returned to the government as foreign minister in July 2009, took over as prime minister. In April 2010, the Flemish liberal VLD withdrew its support from the governing coalition and new parliamentary elections were called. Held in June 2010, they produced an inconclusive result and Leterme remained as caretaker prime minister while negotiations continued on forming a new government.
Socialist Party government leads new coalition In December 2011, after a record 541 days without a government, the Socialist Elio Di Rupo became prime minister, heading a six-party coalition which included Liberals and Christian Democrats from Flanders and Wallonia. The pro-unity Socialists had finished in second place in the 2010 general election, one seat behind the conservative New Flemish Alliance (NVA), which called for greater autonomy for Flanders. Elio Di Rupo was Belgium's first Walloon prime minister since 1974 and first native French-speaking prime minister since 1979 and was also the world's second openly gay head of government, after Iceland's prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir.
Di Rupo's government introduced an austerity budget which included $15 billion of savings and carried out constitutional reforms. The 2011–12 reforms included ending direct elections to the senate, transferring more powers to Belgium's communities and regions and increasing the term of the lower house to five years, with its future elections coinciding with those to the European Parliament. In July 2013, Belgium also had a new king when Albert II abdicated on grounds of health and was succeeded by his son Philippe.
2014 elections see increased support for New Flemish Alliance (NVA) The general election of May 2014 saw support for the Flemish secessionist NVA increase, topping the poll with 20% of the vote and 33 of the lower house's 150 seats, while Di Rupo's Socialists finished second with 12% of the vote (down 2%). The day before polling, a French Islamic terrorist shot and killed four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in Brussels. After the elections, King Philippe invited NVA leader Bart De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp since 2013, to try and put together a coalition government, with Di Rupo remaining caretaker prime minister in the interim.
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Foreign Office: Attitude to be adopted towards Belgium in event of Germany violating her Neutrality during Anglo-German War
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