Belgium -- Geography --
Official Name: Kingdom of Belgium
Capital City: Brassels
Languages: French, Flamandian
Official Currency: Euro
Population: 10 392 226 (2008)
Land Area: 30 500 sq km
Land Divisions: The three regions: the Flemish Region (subdivided into five provinces: Antwerp, Limburg, East Flanders, Flemish Brabant, West Flanders) the Walloon Region (subdivided into provinces: Walloon Brabant, Hainaut Liege, Luxembourg, Namur) and the Brussels-Capital Region.
Belgium -- History --
Over the past two millennia, the area that is now known as Belgium has seen significant demographic, political and cultural upheavals. The first well-documented population move was the conquest of the region by the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC, followed in the 5th century by the Germanic Franks. The Franks established the Merovingian kingdom, which became the Carolingian Empire in the 8th century. During the Middle Ages, the Low Countries were split into many small feudal states. Most of them were united in the course of the 14th and 15th centuries by the house of Burgundy as the Burgundian Netherlands. These states gained a degree of autonomy in the 15th century and were thereafter named the Seventeen Provinces.
Episode of the Belgian Revolution of 1830, Egide Charles Gustave Wappers (1834), in the Ancient Art Museum, Brussels
The history of Belgium can be distinguished from that of the Low Countries from the 16th century. A civil war, the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648), divided the Seventeen Provinces into the United Provinces in the north and the Southern Netherlands in the south. The southern provinces were ruled successively by the Spanish and the Austrian Habsburgs. Until independence, the Southern Netherlands were sought after by numerous French conquerors and were the theatre of most Franco-Spanish and Franco-Austrian wars during the 17th and 18th centuries. Following the Campaigns of 1794 in the French Revolutionary Wars, the Low Countries—including territories that were never under Habsburg rule, such the Bishopric of Liege—were overrun by France, ending Spanish-Austrian rule in the region. The reunification of the Low Countries as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands occurred at the end of the French Empire in 1815.
The 1830 Belgian Revolution led to the establishment of an independent, Catholic and neutral Belgium under a provisional government. Since the installation of Leopold I as king in 1831, Belgium has been a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. Between independence and World War II, the democratic system evolved from an oligarchy characterised by two main parties, the Catholics and the Liberals, to a universal suffrage system that has included a third party, the Belgian Labour Party, and a strong role for the trade unions. Originally, French, which was the adopted language of the nobility and the bourgeoisie was the official language. The country has since developed a bilingual Dutch-French system.
The Berlin Conference of 1885 agreed to hand over Congo to King Leopold II as his private possession, called the Congo Free State. In 1908, it was ceded to Belgium as a colony, henceforth called the Belgian Congo. Belgium's neutrality was violated in 1914, when Germany invaded Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan. The former German colonies Ruanda-Urundi—now called Rwanda and Burundi—were occupied by the Belgian Congo in 1916. They were mandated in 1924 to Belgium by the League of Nations. Belgium was again invaded by Germany in 1940 during the blitzkrieg offensive. The Belgian Congo gained its independence on 30 July 1960 during the Congo Crisis, and Ruanda-Urundi became independent in 1962.
After World War II, Belgium joined NATO and, together with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, formed the Benelux group of nations. Belgium was also one of the founding members of the European Economic Community. Belgium hosts the headquarters of NATO and a major part of the European Union's institutions and administrations, including the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and most of the sessions of the European Parliament. During the 20th century, and in particular since World War II, the history of Belgium has been increasingly dominated by the autonomy of its two main language communities. This period saw a rise in intercommunal tensions, and the unity of the Belgian state has come under scrutiny. Through constitutional reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, regionalisation of the unitary state had led to the establishment of a three-tiered system of federalism, linguistic-community and regional governments, a compromise designed to minimise linguistic tensions. Nowadays, these federal entities uphold more legislative power than the national bicameral parliament.
Belgium -- Economy --
Densely populated, Belgium is located at the heart of one of the world's most highly industrialised regions.
Steelmaking along the Meuse at Ougree, near Liege.Belgium was the first continental European country to undergo the Industrial Revolution, in the early 1800s. Liege and Charleroi rapidly developed mining and steelmaking, which flourished until the mid-20th century. However, by the 1840s the textile industry of Flanders was in severe crisis and there was famine in Flanders (1846–50). After World War II, Ghent and Antwerp experienced a fast expansion of the chemical and petroleum industries. The 1973 and 1979 oil crises sent the economy into a prolonged recession. The Belgian steel industry has since experienced serious decline. This has been responsible for inhibiting the economic development of Wallonia. In the 1980s and 90s, the economic centre of the country continued to shift northwards to Flanders. Nowadays, industry is concentrated in the populous Flemish area in the north.
By the end of the 1980s, Belgian macroeconomic policies had resulted in a cumulative government debt of about 120% of GDP. Currently, although the government has recently succeeded in balancing its budget, public debt is nearly 100% of GDP. In 2004, the real growth rate of GDP was estimated at 2.7% but is expected to fall to 1.3% in 2005.
Belgium has a particularly open economy. It has developed an excellent transportation infrastructure of ports, canals, railways and highways to integrate its industry with that of its neighbours. Antwerp is the second-largest European port. One of the founding members of the European Union, Belgium strongly supports the extension of the powers of EU institutions to integrate the member economies. In 1999, Belgium adopted the euro, the single European currency, which replaced the Belgian franc in 2002. The Belgian economy is strongly oriented towards foreign trade, in particular of high value-added goods. The main imports are food products, machinery, rough diamonds, petroleum and petroleum products, chemicals, clothing and accessories, and textiles. The main exports are automobiles, food and food products, iron and steel, finished diamonds, textiles, plastics, petroleum products, and nonferrous metals. Since 1922, Belgium and Luxembourg have been a single trade market within a customs and currency union—the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union. Its main trading partners are Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the United States and Spain. Belgium ranks ninth on the 2005 United Nations Human Development Index.
Belgium -- Culture --
Belgian cultural life has tended to concentrate within each community. The shared element is less important, because there are no bilingual universities, except the royal military academy, no common media, and no single, common large cultural or scientific organisation where both main communities are represented. Aside from these differences, Belgium is well-known for its fine art and architecture.
The region corresponding to today's Belgium has seen the flourishing of major artistic movements that have had tremendous influence over European art. The Mosan art, the Early Netherlandish, the Flemish Renaissance and Baroque painting, and major examples of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, and the Renaissance vocal music of the Dutch School developed in the southern part of the Low Countries, are milestones in the history of art.
The Entry of Christ into Brussels, James Ensor, 1888, Malibu. This painting is inspired by the many folk festivals in Belgium.This rich artistic production, often referred to as a whole as Flemish art, gradually declined during the second half of the 17th century. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, many original artists appeared. In music, Adolphe Sax invented the saxophone in 1846. Eugene Ysaye was a major 19th- and 20th-century Belgian violinist (See also Music of Belgium). In architecture, Victor Horta was a major initiator of the Art Nouveau style. Belgium has produced famous romantic, expressionist and surrealist painters; these include Egide Wappers, James Ensor, Constant Permeke and Rene Magritte. In literature, Belgium has produced several well-known authors, such as the poets Emile Verhaeren, Jacques Brel and novelists Hendrik Conscience and Georges Simenon. The poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1911. The best known Franco-Belgian comics are The Adventures of Tintin by Herge but many other major authors of comics have been Belgian, including Edgar P. Jacobs and Andre Franquin.
More recently, notable cinema directors have emerged, most of them strongly influenced by French cinema. The absence of a major Belgian cinema company has forced them to emigrate or participate in low-budget productions. Belgian directors include Stijn Coninx, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne; actors include Jan Decleir, Marie Gillain; and films include Man Bites Dog and The Alzheimer Affair. In the 1980s, Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts has produced the important fashion trendsetters, the Antwerp Six.
Belgium has also contributed to the development of science and technology. The mathematician Simon Stevin, the anatomist Andreas Vesalius and the cartographer Gerardus Mercator are among the most influential scientists from the beginning of Early Modern in the Low Countries. More recently, at the end of the 19th century, in applied science, the chemist Ernest Solvay and the engineer Zenobe Gramme have given their names to the Solvay process and the Gramme dynamo. Georges Lemaitre is a famous Belgian cosmologist credited with proposing the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe in 1927. Three Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine have been awarded to Belgians: Jules Bordet in 1919, Corneille Heymans in 1938, and Albert Claude and Christian De Duve in 1974. Ilya Prigogine was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977.
On December 1, 2005, Father Damien was chosen as the Greatest Belgian of all time by the Flemish VRT, whereas the Walloons chose Jacques Brel.
One could not understand Belgian cultural life without considering the folk festivals, which play a major role in the country's cultural life. Examples are the Carnival of Binche, the Ducasse of Ath, the procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges, the 15th-of-August festival in Liege, and the Walloon festival in Namur. A major non-official holiday is the Saint Nicholas Day, which commemorates the festival of the children and, in Liege, of the students.
Belgium is well represented in the world of sport—football (soccer) and cycling are especially popular. The national football team is the Red Devils. Among the well known cyclists, Eddy Merckx, won five Tours de France. Belgium also has two current female tennis champions: Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne.
Many highly ranked restaurants can be found in the high-impact gastronomic guides, such as the Michelin Guide. Brands of Belgian chocolate, like Neuhaus, are world renowned and widely sold; even the cheapest and most popular brand, Leonidas, has earned a reputation for its quality. Belgium produces over 500 varieties of beer (ales, pils) (see Belgian beer). Belgians have a reputation for loving waffles and French fries aka Belgian chips, both originally from Belgium; the national food is steak (or mussels) with French fries.
Belgium -- Political system, law and government --
Belgium is a constitutional popular monarchy and parliamentary democracy that evolved after World War II from a unitary state to a federation. The bicameral parliament is composed of a Senate and a Chamber of Representatives. The former is a mix of directly elected senior politicians and representatives of the communities and regions; while the latter represents all Belgians over the age of eighteen in a proportional voting system. Belgium is one of the few countries that has compulsory voting, thus having one of the highest rates of voter turnout in the world.
The federal government, formally nominated by the king, must have the confidence of the Chamber of Representatives. It is led by the Prime Minister. The numbers of Dutch- and French-speaking ministers are equal as prescribed by the Constitution.The King or Queen is the head of state, though he has limited prerogatives. Actual power is vested in the Prime Minister and the different governments, who govern the country. The judicial system is based on civil law and originates from the Napoleonic code. The Court of Appeals is one level below the Court of Cassation, an institution based on the French Court of Cassation.
Belgium's political institutions are complex; most political power is organised around the need to represent the main language communities. Since around 1970, the significant national Belgian political parties has split into distinct components that mainly represent the interests of these communities. The major parties in each community belong to three main political families: the right-wing Liberals, the centrist Christian Democrats, and the left-wing Social Democrats. Other important younger parties are the Green parties and, especially in Flanders, the nationalist and far-right parties. Politics is influenced by lobby groups, such as trade unions and business interests in the form of the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium.
Albert II, King of the BelgiansThe current king, Albert II, succeeded King Baudouin in 1993. In 1999, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt from the VLD has led a six-party Liberal-Social Democrat-Greens coalition, often referred to as 'the rainbow government'. This was the first government without the Christian Democrats since 1958. In the 2003 elections, Verhofstadt won a second term in office and has led a Liberal-Social Democrat coalition of four parties. More recently however, the steady rise of the Flemish ultra-right nationalist separatist party Vlaams Belang, has superseded the Vlaams Blok amidst concerns of racism promoted by the party.
A significant achievement of the two successive Verhofstadt governments has been the achievement of a balanced budget; Belgium is one of the few member-states of the EU to have done so. This policy was applied by the successive governments during the 1990s under pressure from the European Council. The fall of the previous government was mainly due to the dioxin crisis, a major food intoxication scandal in 1999 that led to the establishment of the Belgian Food Agency. This event resulted in an atypically large representation by the Greens in parliament, and a greater emphasis on environmental politics during the first Verhofstadt government. One Green policy, for example, resulted in nuclear phase-out legislation, which has been modified by the current government. The absence of Christian Democrats from the ranks of the government has enabled Verhofstadt to tackle social issues from a more liberal point of view and to develop new legislation on the use of soft drugs, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. During the two most recent parliaments, the government has promoted active diplomacy in Africa, opposed a military intervention during the Iraq disarmament crisis, and has passed legislation concerning war crimes. Both of Verhofstadt's terms have been marked by disputes between the Belgian communities. The major points of contention are the nocturnal air traffic routes at Brussels Airport and the status of the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde.