Located in western Europe, Belgium has about 40 mi of seacoast on the North Sea, at the Strait of Dover, and is approximately the size of Maryland. The Meuse and the Schelde, Belgium's principal rivers, are important commercial arteries.
Parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch. Under the 1994 constitution, autonomy was granted to the Walloon region (Wallonia), the Flemish region (Flanders), and the bilingual Brussels-Capital region; autonomy was also guaranteed for the Flemish-, French-, and German-speaking “communities.” The central government retains responsibility for foreign policy, defense, taxation, and social security.
Belgium occupies part of the Roman province of Belgica, named after the Belgae, a people of ancient Gaul. The area was conquered by Julius Caesar in 57–50 B.C., then was overrun by the Franks in the 5th century A.D. It was part of Charlemagne's empire in the 8th century, then in the next century was absorbed into Lotharingia and later into the duchy of Lower Lorraine. In the 12th century, Belgium was partitioned into the duchies of Brabant and Luxembourg, the bishopric of Liège, and the domain of the count of Hainaut, which included Flanders. In the 15th century, most of the Low Countries (currently the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) passed to the duchy of Burgundy and were subsequently inherited by Emperor Charles V. When the latter abdicated in 1555, the territories went to his son Philippe II, king of Spain. While the northern part, now the Netherlands, gained its independence in the following decades, the southern part remained under Spanish control until 1713, when it was transferred to Austria. During the wars that followed the French Revolution, Belgium was occupied and later annexed to France. But with the downfall of Napoléon, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 reunited the Low Countries under the rule of the king of Holland. In 1830, Belgium rebelled against Dutch rule and declared independence, which was approved by Europe at the London Conference of 1830–1831.
Germany's invasion of Belgium in 1914 set off World War I. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) gave the areas of Eupen, Malmédy, and Moresnet to Belgium. Leopold III succeeded Albert, king during World War I, in 1934. In World War II, Belgium was overwhelmed by Nazi Germany, and Leopold III was held prisoner. When he returned at the government’s invitation in 1950 after a narrowly favorable referendum, riots broke out in several cities. He abdicated on July 16, 1951, and his son, Baudouin, became king. Because of growing opposition to Belgian rule in its African colonies, Belgium granted independence to the Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1960 and to Ruanda-Urundi (now the nations of Rwanda and Burundi) in 1962.
Since 1958, when the European Economic Community was born, Brussels, the country’s capital, has gradually established itself as the de facto capital of what has now become the European Union (EU), a role that became official in Dec. 2000 when the European Council of heads of government decided to hold all its regular meetings in Brussels. As a result, the city has become home not only to nearly 20,000 European civil servants, but to an even more numerous community of lobbyists, lawyers, and other professionals drawn to the EU’s main decision center.
Growing divisions between Flemings and Walloons, and devolution along linguistic lines, culminated in the revised constitution of 1994, which turned Belgium into a federal state with significant autonomy for its three regions and its three language “communities.”
A Decade of Scandals Leads to Reform
In the 1990s Belgium’s public life was shaken by a number of serious scandals. In 1991, a former deputy prime minister and socialist leader was murdered in a contract killing that took several years to come to light. The Dutroux child-sex-and-murder affair in 1996 led to national outrage, compounded by the realization that less official negligence and inefficiency could have saved the lives of several children. The tragedy fueled pressure for reform of the political, judicial, and police systems. In 1998, along with two other major Belgian politicians, former NATO secretary-general Willy Claes was convicted of bribery. In 1999, a public health scandal involving dioxin, a cancer-causing chemical, resulted in the unexpected electoral defeat of Christian-Democratic prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene.
In June 1999, the new prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt of the Liberal Party, cobbled together a coalition of liberals, socialists, and greens, which was continued, without the green parties, after the May 2003 election. His government passed extremely liberal social policies, including the legalization of gay marriage and euthanasia and the partial decriminalization of marijuana. Against the wishes of the prime minister’s party, a parliamentary majority also extended voting rights at local elections to all foreign residents.
Government Unable to Bridge Linguistic Divide
Prime Minister Verhofstadt resigned in June 2007, after his coalition of liberals and socialists took a drubbing in a general election. He remained in office as caretaker prime minister for more than six months, however, as talks between Flemish-speaking and French-speaking parties on forming a government reached a deadlock, leaving the country in political crisis. At King Albert II's request, Verhofstadt formed an interim coalition government in December 2007.
On March 20, 2008, Yves Leterme was sworn in as prime minister, ending the political crisis that spanned nine months. A new government was formed and includes both Flemish and French-speaking democrats, liberals, and socialists.
After months of unsuccessful negotiations, Belgium's enduring linguistic divide led to the resignation of Prime Minister Leterme on July 14, 2008. King Albert II did not immediately accept his resignation, leaving the government again in a caretaker's hands. The king accepted the resignation on December 22, 2008, and on December 28, asked Herman Van Rompuy to form a new cabinet. Parliament gave Van Rompuy's new government a vote of confidence (88-45) in January 2009. Van Rompuy stepped down in November to become President of the European Council. Leterme returned for another term as prime minister. He set to work on reviving the economy and reducing unemployment.
Leterme's government collapsed in April 2010 when the liberal Open VLD party bolted from the coalition in yet another conflict between Flemish and French speakers. The movement to break up Belgium gained steam in June's parliamentary elections when the separatist New Flemish Alliance party won the most seats.
First French Speaker to Lead New Government
After a record 541 days in the hands of a caretaker administration, Belgium was prompted by Europe's debt crisis to finally form a new government. Elio di Rupo, a Socialist from the Walloon (French-speaking) community took the prime minister's office on Dec. 6, 2011. Di Rupo, 60, became Belgium's first French-speaking prime minister in three decades and the first Socialist to assume the post since 1974.
King Albert II Announces Abdication
In early July 2013, King Albert II attended a midday session of the Belgian cabinet and announced that he would leave the throne later that month, on July 21, Belgium's National Day. He said he was resigning due to health reasons. Therefore, King Albert II, age 79, became the second Belgian king to abdicate. His father, King Leopold III, abdicated in 1951.
Prince Philippe, the eldest child of King Albert II and Queen Paola, became the seventh king of the Belgians on July 21, 2013. Next in line of succession is Princess Elisabeth, King Philippe's firstborn.
Prime Minister Di Rupo Resigns after Parliamentary Elections
In May 2014 parliamentary elections, the separatist New Flemish Alliance became the largest party in the language-divided country, taking 20.3% of the vote. The Socialist Party and Flemish Christian Democratic Party tied for second with 11.7%. After the vote, leader of the Socialist Party, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo resigned.
King Philip accepted Di Rupo's resignation and asked Flemish separatist leader Bart De Wever to lead the coalition talks. After four months of negotiations, a very shaky coaltion was formed in October, with the French-speaking liberal Reform Movement party, headed by Charles Michel, joining with three Flemish-speaking parties: the New Flemish Alliance, the Flemish Christian Democrats, and the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats. For the first time in 25 years, the Socialists will be in the opposition. Michel became prime minister and said his government would implement economic reforms, including lowering taxes and raising the retirement age, to reduce the budget deficit.
Brussels Rocked by Terrorist Attacks; ISIS Claims Responsibility
Belgian police arrested Salah Abdeslam in March 2016. Abdeslam is believed to be the ISIS logistics chief for the November 2015 Paris attacks, and the only major player in the Paris attacks that is still alive.
Two bombs exploded in Brussels during rush hour on March 22, 2016, killing at least 30 people and wounding several hundred. At least 10 were killed at the Zaventem international airport; and more than 20 died at the Maelbeek subway station. Both are located close to NATO headquarters. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. “Islamic State fighters opened fire inside the Zaventem airport, before several of them detonated their explosive belts, as a martyrdom bomber detonated his explosive belt in the Maelbeek metro station.” Authorities speculated that the attacks were a response to the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, days earlier.
See also Encyclopedia: Belgium.
U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: Belgium
National Institute of Statistics www.statbel.fgov.be/ .