Belgium - A Country Overview

A brief overview of Belgium: its history, government, climate, security, tourism and international community...

History

The land which today makes up Belgium was originally called Gaul and was home to Celtic tribes. It was conquered by Julius Caesar and became part of the vast Roman Empire. As the Roman Empire lost its power in the fifth century the Romans were forced out of Gaul by the Franks, a Germanic tribe who also swept aside the first footholds of Christianity.

Several centuries later the country was part of Charlemagne's empire. This was a time of classical learning, the arts and the beginning of trade and commerce along the country's rivers. Charlemagne's successors did not succeed in maintaining his empire which was divided after his death. Under the terms of the treaty of Verdun in 843AD the empire was divided between three of Charlemagne's grandsons. The land to the north and west of the Scheldt River became part of West Francia while the rest of modern Belgium was part of the Middle Kingdom and gradually came under the rule of German kings.

This split marked the beginning of a very powerful period for the counts of Flanders in the north. The wool trade was a big part of this prosperity. English wool was imported and woven into fine cloth for sale throughout Europe. Cities such as Bruges, Ypres and Ghent became very prosperous and Flanders was dominated by strongly fortified and almost autonomous cities. It was one of the most densely populated regions of Europe. The cities in the south, which became part of the Duchy of Lorraine under German kings, were far less unified. Charles, Duke of Lorraine, built a fortress on the Senne River in 977AD, which was later to become Brussels.

The counts of Flanders became keen to regain control of the cities of Ghent, Ypres and Bruges, as did the French who were attracted by the prosperity of these cities. Despite initial failures, Flanders came under French rule in 1329. This increase in French power enraged England and sparked a series of wars. The English stopped sending the wool which fuelled the land's wealth and then fought to break French power. The wars ended with Burgundy, which was allied with England, ruling Flanders.

Under Burgundian rule Belgium expanded and flourished. The Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, gained authority over much of the south including the cities of Brussels, Liege and Namur. His reign heralded an era of economic success and cultural development most famous for its painters.

Instability grew in the 16th century as a result of the growing popularity of Protestantism in Northern Europe, which Phillip II of Spain was brutal in his attempt to quash. The 17th century was dominated by France's attempts to gain power in Belgium which resulted in many wars with other European powers. The Treaty of Utrecht brought Belgium a short period of independence before it fell again to French rule under Napoleon. Independence was finally gained after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo when Belgium was merged with the Netherlands; triggering a revolution. On 20 January 1831 Belgium was granted independence and chose Leopold of Saxe-Coburg as their first King under a constitution which severely limited the power of the monarchy. The country was to flourish under this regime.

During the First World War the country fell under harsh German occupation. Much of the fighting took place in Belgium. At the end of the war the Belgium army was pivotal in regaining the country. Belgium was again invaded by the Germans in World War Two. The government evacuated to London while King Leopold III surrendered to Germany, a move that made him unpopular with his people. His brother Charles became regent when allied forces liberated the country at the end of the war.

Since the war Belgium has taken on the role of European headquarters. The country is the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union. It is Europe's main centre for international business. The Benelux economic union between Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg was founded in 1957 and became the core of the European Union. In 1977 the country was split into three administrative regions: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. In 1980 this separation was recognised with changes to the country's constitution making it a federation. Tensions remain between the Flemings of the north and the French speaking Walloons of the south.

Politics and Government

Belgium is a federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch. Since a constitutional revision in 1993 there are now three levels of government: federal, regional and linguistic community. This has resulted in a complex division of responsibilities.

Decision making is no longer exclusively carried out by the federal government and parliament. Various partners, who have independent authority over their own domains, lead the country. As well as the federal government, power is shared by communities and regions. The country has three communities: Dutch, French and German speaking. There are also three regions: the Walloon region, the Flemish region and the Brussels Capital region. Further subdivisions make 10 provinces and 589 municipal councils.

Since a general election on 13 June 2010 Belgium has had no official government as coalition negotiations continue. This situation has arisen as there are no truly national political parties and there are deep divisions between the Dutch and French speaking parts of the country. Belgium now holds the world record for the country to have gone the longest period of time without a government.

Economy

Belgium has a highly developed private enterprise economy. Beyond coal it has few natural resources, and this makes it very dependent on the state of world markets. It has to import raw materials and export the products it manufactures. The Belgian economy is supported by the country's efficient transport network of ports, canals, roads and railways. Most of its trade is within the European Union. Services and industry are the dominant sectors of the economy.

Climate

Belgium has a temperate maritime climate with mild winters and cool summers. The influence of the Gulf Stream and the Atlantic Ocean result in the climate being rainy, humid and cloudy. On average, there are 200 rainy days each year. The maritime influence on the climate decreases further inland and becomes almost continental in the Ardennes, with colder winters and warmer summers.

Security

Belgium experiences low levels of violent crime and is generally considered to be a safe country. Street crimes, such as bag snatching, pick-pocketing and muggings are not uncommon in the major cities. The three major train stations in Brussels are particularly renowned for this type of crime and care should be taken with all belongings. It is advisable not to leave valuables on view in cars or other vehicles.

Foreigners Living in the Country

The free movement of labour in the European Union has led to many Europeans benefiting from the right to live and work in Belgium. Federal government statistics show that 10 percent of people living in Belgium do not hold a Belgian passport. The majority of foreigners live in Brussels and are mostly Dutch, French, Moroccan and Italian. The loosening of restrictions on becoming a Belgian citizen is allowing increasing numbers of people to gain Belgian nationality.

Tourism

People from all over the world visit Belgium. Many are drawn to the cosmopolitan city of Brussels. Two of the country's biggest attractions are the Ardennes for its tranquillity, and the coast with its long sandy beaches and fishing ports. Many Belgian cities are popular with tourists for their architecture and art.

Bruges, the best preserved city of medieval Flanders, is particularly popular. Ypres and the battlefields of the First World War are important historical landmarks. A poignant Last Post Ceremony is held every night at the Menin Gate.

Further Information