Belgium (11,787 sq. mi., population 10,666,866 in 2008, GDP $377 billion in 2007) is one of the founding members of the European Union (EU), and a key participant in the history and economics of Europe for centuries. Along with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Belgium is part of the Benelux group of states, which together formed the Low Countries in the Middle Ages and early modern era. The so-called battlefield of Europe, the area that became Belgium was the site of major battles among European powers from the beginning of the 17th century until Belgian independence was declared in 1830.
Due to its location and intermingled history with surrounding nations, Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. Flemish is the common term both for the Belgian Dutch dialect and the Belgian Dutch people, and the Flemish masters are among the great Renaissance and Baroque painters. Because the Belgian Revolution that led to the nation’s independence began with the poor treatment of French-speaking Catholics in what was then the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, Catholicism has played an important role in Belgian culture and politics since the state’s inception.
The country has a number of major political parties—thanks to its linguistic heritage, Belgium’s political parties tend to be divided by linguistic lines as well as political ones—among which Christian Democrats have long been prominent. The basic tenets of Christian Democracy call for applying Christian principles to public policy; Christian Democratic parties tend to be socially conservative but otherwise left of center with respect to economic and labor issues, civil rights, and foreign policy. From 1958 to 1999, the Christian Democrats remained in power in Belgium, until public outcry over a food safety scandal mobilized the “rainbow coalition” of the Dutch and Francophone Greens, Liberals, and Social Democrats.
Various party coalitions have been in power in the decade since, and as of 2008 Belgium is in a political crisis due in large part to the disagreement between Dutch and Francophone parties over constitutional reform, after a series of liberal legal reforms decriminalizing certain drugs and legalizing same-sex marriages. Pressure from the king has been insufficient to resolve differences between the parties to form a government coalition.
The king (currently Albert II, b. June 6, 1934) is Belgium’s head of state and appoints various governmental ministers who compose the federal government, including the prime minister. The Belgian Constitution preserves an equal ratio of Francophone and Dutch ministers. The bicameral parliament consists of a Senate made up of seven representatives appointed by each of the three language-group community parliaments, 40 directly elected representatives, and 10 “senators by right” (which include the king’s children) who by tradition abstain from voting; and a Chamber of Representatives with 150 members elected from 11 electoral districts. Voting in Belgium is compulsory.
Belgium is highly industrialized, with a long tradition of supporting free market policies and an open economy. Compared to other countries, it ranks among the highest in the world in terms of exports per capita, and its principal exports are automobiles, food products (such as the legendary chocolate), metals, textiles, petroleum products, and diamonds, exports that speak both to its industrial and industrious natures and to its long history as one of Europe’s cultural epicenters. The Flemish regions historically outpace the Walloon (French-speaking) regions economically and in manufacturing in particular. The first country on the continent to adopt the principles and technologies of the Industrial Revolution, Belgium was riddled with mines and mills throughout the first half of the 19th century, and remained one of the leading industrial nations (behind only the United Kingdom and later the United States) until shortly before World War I. Like much of Europe, it felt the blows of the Great Depression in the1930s and the oil crises in the 1970s.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Benelux economic union—taking its name from the first letters of Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg—was formed between those three nations for common trade, and is now sometimes used to refer rather more generally to those countries which once were “Low.” The precursor to Benelux is the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union, an economic and monetary union between those two nations, which now occupies itself with fairly specific points of procedure since its major aims have been subsumed by the EU. The Benelux states were major players in the formation of the EU from the very start.
- Paul Arblaster, A History of the Low Countries (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005);
- C. H. Blom and Emiel Lamberts, eds., History of the Low Countries, James C. Kennedy, trans. (Oxford, 1999);
- Bernard A. Cook, Belgium: A History (Peter Lang, 2005);
- John Fitzmaurice, The Politics of Belgium: A Unique Federalism (Westview Press, 1996).
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