- The word "Belgian" redirects to this page. For an article about the horse breed, see Belgian (horse).
The Kingdom of Belgium (Dutch: Koninkrijk België, French: Royaume de Belgique, German: Königreich Belgien) is a country in Western Europe, bordered by the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, France, and the North Sea.
Belgium is at a cultural crossroad between Germanic Europe and Romance Europe. It has Dutch speakers (the Flemings), mainly in the north, French speakers, mainly in the south (the Walloons) but also in the center (in and around the capital Brussels), and a small number of German speakers in the east. This cultural and linguistic diversity is reflected in its complex institutions and political history.
Main article: History of Belgium
Geographically and culturally, Belgium is at the crossroads of Europe, and during the past 2,000 years has witnessed a constant ebb and flow of different races and cultures. Consequently, Belgium is one of Europe's true melting pots with Celtic, Roman, and Germanic cultures having made an imprint, and later on in history, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Austrian influences. During most of its history, Belgium has been part of the Low Countries, also designated as the Netherlands.
The earliest named inhabitants of Belgium were the Belgae. They were (mostly) Celtic tribes, living in northern Gaul. In 54 BC, they were overcome by Julius Caesar, as described in his chronicle De Bello Gallico. In this same work Julius Caesar referred to the Belgae as "... the bravest of all Gauls" (horum omnium fortissimi sunt belgae). After the Roman Empire collapsed (5th century), Germanic tribes invaded the Roman province of "Gallia". One of these peoples, the Franks, finally installed a new kingdom under the rulers of the Merovingian Dynasty. Clovis I was the most famous of these kings. He converted to Christianity and ruled from northern France, but his empire included today's Belgium. Christian scholars, mostly Irish monks, preached Christianity and started conversion work under the pagan invaders. The Merovingians were rather short-lived, as the Carolingian Dynasty soon took over. After Charles Martel countered the Moorish invasion from Spain (732 - Poitiers), the famous king Charlemagne brought a huge part of Europe under his rule and was crowned as the "Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire" by the pope (800).
European Feudalism became the base for military, political and economic stability. Christianity flourished under the protection of these rulers and by the founding of religious communities and monasteries, churches and pilgrimages.
The region was later associated with the Netherlands, under Burgundian then Spanish rule.
In the 17th century followed Austrian rule, and a few years of French rule under Napoleon. After Napoleon's demise, in 1815, Belgium was reunited with the northern provinces in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands until the Belgian Revolution in 1830, which established an independent Belgian state. The Belgian revolution was initiated by the French-speaking minority who controlled the factories and other economical resources and who didn't want to live under a Dutch-speaking administration. The fact that Belgium was mostly Catholic and Netherlands predominantly Protestant also played a role. In this newly independent country Flemings were linguistically discriminated against, because Wallonia and the nobility wanted to impose its adopted language, French, on Flanders. The Flemings have overcome this linguistic oppression in the course of the late 19th and 20th century by raising cultural awareness, promoting a Flemish identity and a combination of remarkably non-violent opposition and impressive economic development.
The royal palace in Brussels served as the residence of the royal family from its construction in 1830 till 1935. It now serves as the office of the king and the residence of the crown prince.
The Belgian King, Leopold I, was chosen with the assistance of the British. This king was chosen after the first choice of the Belgians refused his appointment. The country's neutrality was guaranteed against future foreign military aggression. This neutrality was violated in 1914 when Germany invaded Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan. The British decision to honour their treaty obligations, as much as the entente cordiale with France, forced them into the First World War. After a period of alliance with France after the First World War, Belgium tried to return to neutrality in the 1930s, but was once again invaded by Germany in 1940. After World War II, the policy of neutrality was abandoned, and Belgium joined NATO. It was also one of the founding members of the European Economic Community.
Belgium possessed one primary foreign colony during its history: the Congo, which was given to King Leopold II in the Conference of Berlin in 1885. He made the land his private property and called it the 'Congo Free State'. In this Free State, the local population was brutalised in exchange for rubber, a growing market with the development of rubber tyres. In 1908, the international pressure against the cruelties of King Leopold II (estimates about the number of deaths range from 3 million to 22 million people, 8 million to 10 million being the estimates most often cited) became so great that he was forced to sell his property to the Belgian state as a colony for 150m Belgian francs. From then on, it became Belgian Congo, before gaining independence from Belgium in 1960.
Belgium's foreign involvement increased after the World War I when two former German colonies, Rwanda and Burundi, were mandated to Belgium by the League of Nations. Belgian policy in the administration and sociocultural development of these countries has been heavily criticised, many seeing Belgian decisions as contributing significantly to the troubles in Rwanda in the 1990s when a genocide took place, with an estimated 1 million casualties.
Since the 20th century, the history of Belgium became more and more dominated by the increasing autonomy of its two main communities, the Dutch- and the French-speakers. As an indication of this, since around 1970, there are no significant national Belgian political parties anymore, but only Flemish- or French-speaking parties (and one German-speaking party). The regular attempts to re-establish national, Belgian parties end up below 1 percent of the electorate; the Brussels parties either never got started (as with the 'Blauwe Leeuwen' and 'Rode Leeuwen' for the Flemings in Brussels), or got merged into one of the French-speaking liberal parties (such as the French-speaking FDF, which, however, has had a significant influence for years, and still keeps some independence). As such, the political landscape shows a near-perfect dual political system, reflecting the two underlying dominant communities. The general observation is that Belgium is well on its way to disintegration, falling apart into two independent states, Flanders and Wallonia. Some believe this would have already happened if it wasn't for the problem that the city of Brussels poses.
Main article: Politics of Belgium
Belgium's political institutions are complex, but the majority of political power is organised with the two main communities: the Flemings, and their political parties; and the French-speakers, and their parties.
Since the country's federalisation there have been many governmental entities. Apart from the Federal Government there is a subdivision according to language into Communities, with the French(-speaking) Community, the Flemish Community and the German-speaking Community, and another subdivision into Regions: the Walloon Region, the Flemish Region and the Brussels-Capital Region. The Flemish Community and the Flemish Region have been joined together to form one government, see Flanders.
Behind these complex institutions, the two dominant components of the Belgian state are the Flemings and their political institutions under the Flemish government; and the French-speakers, grouped under the French(-speaking) Community and its more fragmented institutions. Nearly all political parties in Belgium belong to one of these two communities. The exceptions are a German-speaking party and some smaller parties in Brussels. However, these only attract votes from one of the two communities in Brussels. Thus, there are no national parties active over all the Belgian territory. In short, the Belgian political landscape carefully mirrors the dual nature of Belgian society.
Federal government: Jurisdiction over Foreign affairs, development aid, defence/Military, police, economy, social welfare, security (including pensions, health care, social aid and employment controls), transport (including railways and air transport), energy, telecommunications, scientific research (partially), limited competencies in education and culture, as well as strict control over taxation by regional authorities; the federal government controls more than 90 percent of all taxation.
- Community governments: Language, culture and education. (e.g. Schools, Libraries, Theatre, etc.)
- Regional governments: Land and property based issues within their area (regional economy, zoning, housing, transportation, etc.), international trade.
For example, a school building in Brussels belonging to the public school system would be regulated by the regional government of Brussels. But the school as an institution would fall under the regulations of either the Flemish government, if the primary language of teaching is Dutch, or the French Community government, if the primary language is French. It is a complex, somewhat unstable and expensive, but peaceful compromise that allows distinctly different cultures to live together.
Communities, regions and provinces
Main article: Communities, regions and provinces of Belgium
Belgium is divided into three communities, the Flemish community, the French-speaking community and the German-speaking community, and in three regions: Brussels (mainly Dutch- and French-speaking, with a population of 980,000), Flemish region (mainly Dutch-speaking, with a population of 5,900,000), and Wallonia (mainly French-speaking, with a population of 3,360,000). The latter two regions are each divided into 5 provinces.
Between brackets is the local name of each province, in either French or Dutch:
Flanders (Dutch speaking; Vlaanderen in Dutch, Flandre or Flandres in French):
Wallonia (French speaking; Wallonie in French, Wallonië in Dutch):
- The Brussels-Capital Region (Région de Bruxelles-Capitale in French, Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest in Dutch, Die Region Brüssel-Hauptstadt in German).
Each provincial entity (including the Brussels-Capital Region) is further divided into smaller municipalities, called gemeenten in Dutch and communes in French (see List of Belgian municipalities and List of Belgian municipalities by population).
The main cities and their population are Brussels (959,318), Antwerp (445,570), Ghent (224,685), Charleroi (200,233), and Liège (184,550).
Main articles: Geography of Belgium, Extreme points of Belgium
Belgium has an area of 30,510 km². Belgium has three main physical regions: the coastal plain (located in the northwest), the central plateau, and the Ardennes uplands (located in the southeast).
The coastal plain consists mainly of sand dunes and polders. Polders are areas of land, close to or below sea level, that have been reclaimed from the sea from which they are protected by dikes, or, further inland, fields that have been drained by canals.
The second physical region, the central plateau, lies further inland. This is a smooth, slowly rising area which has many fertile valleys and is irrigated by many waterways. Here one can also find rougher land, including caves and small gorges.
The third physical region (called the Ardennes) is somewhat more rugged than the first two. It is a thickly forested plateau, very rocky and not very good for farming, which extends into northern France. This is where much of Belgium's wildlife can be found.
The two main rivers in Belgium are the Scheldt (on which Antwerp lies) and the Meuse. Although generally flat, the terrain becomes increasingly hilly and forested in the southeast (Ardennes) region, where one can find Belgium's highest point, the Signal de Botrange at only 694 metres.
The climate is cool, temperate, and rainy; summer temperatures average 25°C / 77°F, winters average 7.2°C / 45°F. Annual extremes (rarely attained) are -12.2°C / 10°F and 32.2°C / 90°F.
Main article: Economy of Belgium
Densely populated Belgium is located at the heart of one of the world's most highly industrialised regions. One of the first countries to undergo an industrial revolution on the continent of Europe in the early 1800s, Belgium developed an excellent transportation infrastructure of ports, canals, railways, and highways to integrate its industry with that of its neighbours. One of the founding members of the European Union, Belgium strongly supports deepening the powers of the EU to integrate European economies. Belgium was one of the first countries to adopt the euro, the single European currency, in January 1999 and the Belgian franc was completely replaced by euro coins and banknotes in early 2002.
Belgium is sometimes called "The heart of Europe". This is not only because of its geographical location, but also due to many international institutions, such as NATO and the European Union, having their headquarters in Brussels. This, in its turn, is because it has an excellent transportation system. It has a modern and toll-free road system, is connected to the European railway system, and Antwerp is the second largest European port.
The economy in Belgium greatly depends on its imports and exports. Its main imports are food products, machinery, rough diamonds, petroleum and petroleum products, chemicals, clothing and accessories, and textiles. Its main trading partners are Germany, The Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the United States, and Spain. Its main exports are automobiles, food and food products, iron and steel, diamonds, textiles, plastics, petroleum products, and nonferrous metals. Trade is made together with Luxembourg, because these two countries created a customs and currency union in 1922.
Demographics, language and literacy
Main article: Demographics of Belgium
The population density, 336/km², is one of the highest in Europe, after the Netherlands and some smaller countries such as Monaco. The areas with the highest population density are around the Brussels-Antwerp-Ghent-Leuven agglomerations, as well as other important urban centres as Liège, Charleroi, Kortrijk, Brugge, Hasselt and Namur. The Ardennes have the lowest density.
Historically, Belgium has three ethnic communities: Flemings, Walloons and German-speakers, which belonged to Germany until 1918, and three official languages, one for each community, Dutch, French and German. About 60 percent of the country is Dutch-speaking, French is the second most-spoken language (by about 40 percent) and German is spoken by less than 1 percent of the population.
But these figures must be taken with care because the most-recent linguistic census was before 1960, and the mother tongue is not always the same as the language used in public, or in official life. This applies especially to the many minority goups who more or less kept their ethnic identity, the oldest being the Jews, established in Antwerp since the Middle Ages, and various more recent-migrant communites as Italians, Spaniards, Poles, Turks or Moroccans. Within each of those communities, language use varies widely, with parts of each community maintaining their language of origin over generations, other parts moving towards the language of the city of residence. Percentages differ widely between the various migrant groups.
Both the Dutch spoken in Belgium and the Belgian French have small vocabulary differences from the varieties spoken in the Netherlands and France, but are mutually intelligible with their respective neighbouring dialects. Many speak Flemish or Walloon dialects which are often difficult to understand for people from other areas. Other regional languages officially recognised (in Wallonia only) are Champenois, Gaumais, and Picard.
Brussels, the capital, is mostly French-speaking, but officially French-Dutch bilingual. It evolved from a Dutch-speaking place when the Belgian state became independent in 1830 to its current dominantly French character being the capital of the central administration of the federal country that for a long time favoured French.
More than 98 percent of the adult population is literate. Education is required from the age of 6 until the age of 18, but most Belgian students keep on studying until the age of 23. This makes Belgium's education system the second most intensive in Europe, after the United Kingdom's. Nevertheless, in recent years concern is rising over certain forms of illiteracy as 'functional illiteracy'.
Main article: Religion of Belgium
In Belgium Roman Catholicism is the majority religion, accounting for between 75% and 80% of the population, although nowadays only about 10% to 20% of the population regularly goes to church. Other religions widely practised in Belgium are Islam, Protestantism, Anglicanism and Judaism.
Religion was one of the differences between the Roman Catholic south and the Protestant north of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which eventually broke up in 1830 when the south seceded to form Belgium. This accounts for the preponderance of Catholics there nowadays.
Since 1830, Catholicism has had also an important role in Belgium's politics. One example is the two so-called "school wars " ("Schoolstrijd" in Dutch, "guerres scolaires" in French) between liberals and Catholics which took place between 1879 and 1884 and between 1954 and 1958 respectively.
Between World War I and World War II the centre of occult and mystical activity in Western Europe was shifted from France to Belgium. Belgium became the main centre for many esoteric brotherhoods and secret societies of which many branches still exist today.
Main article: Culture of Belgium
A discussion of Belgian culture may lead to discussing both those aspects of cultural life shared by 'all' or most of the Belgians, regardless of their language, and also, the differences between the cultural communities, the Flemings and the German-speaking community , viewed as more inclined towards Anglo-Saxon culture, and the French-speakers , viewed as more inclined towards French and other Latin cultures.
Cultural life tends to concentrate within each community. The shared element is clearly much less important as there are no common media, no universities that are both Flemish and French-speaking (except the royal military academy), and no single common large cultural or scientific organisation where both main communities are represented. Common organisations, in the wider social area, are only those institutions imposed by the Belgian legislature (such as trade unions).
In terms of cultural life, nearly all members of all communities tend to make most individual and collective cultural choices first within their own community, and then, when going beyond, Flemings opting for a multi-polar interest, but mainly Anglo-Saxon towards culture (which dominates sciences, professional life and most news media), whereas French-speakers concentrate more on cultural life in Paris and elsewhere in the French-speaking world ('la Francité').
As for cultural generalities shared by all Belgians, the country is well known for its art, its architecture, its beer, its food, and its chocolate. Belgium has a variety of famous artists. These include Peter Paul Rubens, René Magritte, Jan van Eyck, Breughel, Memling, Ensor, Delvaux. Magritte, together with Paul Delvaux, were two major artists of the surrealistic style. Many great French authors went to Belgium for refuge. In music Adolphe Sax is famous for inventing the saxophone in 1840.
In architecture Victor Horta is well known. He was one of the originators of the Art Nouveau architecture, a style of architecture which had a major impact upon 20th century buildings.
Belgium is well represented in the world of sport, football (soccer) being very popular. The national football team is called the Red Devils, and they are ranked as 45th by FIFA. However, Belgium also has two female tennis players in the top 25; Kim Clijsters (#22), who has won the WTA Tour Championships twice: in 2002 and 2003, and Justine Henin-Hardenne (#8), who has won 3 Major Titles (Roland Garros and US Open in 2003, Australian Open in 2004) and the Olympic Gold medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Both Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne have been World Number 1.
Belgium has also performed well in cycling. One of the greatest cyclists ever, Eddy Merckx, who won five Tours de France, five Giro d'Italia, one Vuelta a España, two Tours of Belgium, and one Tour of Switzerland, was Belgian. Belgium has world and olympic champions in tennis, athletics, motocross, judo, table tennis, swimming and cyclo-cross.
Many "gourmets" think that Belgium has the best food in Europe. Brands of Belgian chocolate, like Neuhaus , Côte d'Or, Leonidas, Godiva are world renowned and widely distributed. More highly regarded by connoisseurs is Mary's, who supplies the royal court. A type of praline consisting of a chocolate candy filled with a hazelnut paste was introduced in to the market by Neuhaus in 1912; since that time Belgians claim to have "invented the praline" though almond filled chocolates known by that name have existed in France since at least the 1840's. In Belgium there are over 450 different kinds of beer, those of the Trappist monks being among the most prestigious, though serious connoisseurs tout the very rare pure lambics, fermented spontaneously by wild yeasts, as being the finest and most complex. Technically, they are ales and traditionally each abbey's beer is served in its own glass (the forms, heights and widths are different). Belgians have a reputation for loving waffles and french fries. The fried potato strips are sold at many small shops (called friteries or frietkoten) and stands and are known locally as frieten in Dutch and frites in French. Belgians claim they invented french fries.