Belgium

Background

Belgian history at a glance

The various influences that historically have flowed across this narrow but strategic strip of the North European plain have created more diversity than unity to Belgium. The history of Belgium can be distinguished from that of the Low Countries from the 16th century. 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 were overrun by France, ending Spanish-Austrian rule in the region. The French Empire ended in 1815 and the Low Countries and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands reunited. 

Under King William I of the Netherlands, the Belgians resented measures that discriminated against them in favour of the Dutch, especially in the areas of language and religion. A rebellion broke out in Brussels in 1830, and Belgian independence was declared. William I invaded Belgium but withdrew when France and England intervened in 1832. The 1830 constitution was drafted in a French version only, and high qualifications for the election ensured that the political class would be drawn almost exclusively from the Francophone bourgeoisie, who had made the 1830 revolution. Belgian independence was approved by the European powers at the London Conference of 1830–31.

Belgium was the first continental nation to take up the industrial revolution and thus acquired a leading role in the continental development of railways, coal mining, and engineering. Under the rule (1865–1909) of king Leopold II rapid industrialization and colonial expansion, notably in the Congo, were accompanied by labour unrest and by the rise of the Socialist Party in opposition to the reactionary and clerical groups. After the outbreak of World War I, Germany invaded Belgium in order to attack France by the easiest route; this flagrant violation of Belgian neutrality shocked much of the world and brought Great Britain, as one of Belgium's guarantors, into the war. The inter-war years constituted a period of considerable political instability producing eighteen different governments. In 1940, Germany, which in three years earlier had guaranteed Belgian neutrality, attacked and occupied Belgium. King Leopold III (reigned 1934–51) surrendered unconditionally, but the Belgian cabinet, in exile at London, continued to oppose Germany.

After World War II, Belgium joined NATO and, together with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, formed the Benelux group of nations. Belgium is also one of the six founding members of the 1951 established European Coal and Steel Community, and the 1957 established European Economic Community and European Atomic Energy 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 the extraordinary and committee sessions of the European Parliament, as well as parts of its administration.

The constitution has been amended several times after 1970 because of intense language divisions in Belgian society. During 1980 the linguistic conflict worsened, sometimes involving violent incidents. Legislation was formulated, under the terms of which Flanders and Wallonia were to be administered by regional assemblies, with control of cultural matters, public health, roads, urban projects and 10% of the national budget, while Brussels was to retain its three-member executive. In August 1988 Parliament approved the first phase of the federalization plan, intended ultimately to lead to a constitutional amendment, whereby increased autonomy would be granted to the country’s Communities and Regions in several areas of jurisdiction, including education and socio-economic policy. The constitution was last revised in 1993, when the parliament approved a constitutional package creating a federal state, Accord de la St Michel. The authorities remaining with the central state thus mainly include foreign- and defence politics, monetary politics and pension funds. A characteristic of the Belgian federation is not only decentralization in a vertical manner, but also in a horizontal manner and Belgium thus represents a rather rare type of non-territorial federalism.

Politics in the new era

Belgium is a federal parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy consisting of a federation of the largely autonomous regions of Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia and of the Flemish-, French- and German-speaking language communities. The central legislature consists of a bicameral Parliament (the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate). The Senate has 72 members, while the chamber of representatives has 150 seats. The king is the official head of state with by and large only ceremonial duties and the prime minister is the head of government.

In the latter half of the 20th century linguistic divisions were exacerbated by the political and economic polarization of Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north and francophone Wallonia in the south. The faster-growing and relatively prosperous population of Flanders has traditionally supported the conservative Flemish Christian People’s Party (CVP) and the nationalist People’s Union—Flemish Free Democrats (VU), while Wallonia has traditionally been a stronghold of socialist political sympathies. 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. Political parties are organised along community lines, especially for the two main communities. As such, the internal organisation of the political parties reflects the fundamentally dual nature of Belgian society. As a result of a trend away from centralized administration towards greater regional control, most major parties have both French and Flemish sections.

In December 1981, the Christian Democrat-Liberal coalition, under the leadership of Wilfried Martens, came into power in Belgium. His prime ministership saw unpopular economic reforms, and inter-party strife toppled the government in 1987. A year later, however, a new coalition took control of the government, again led by Martens, which was composed of the Flemish and Walloon Socialist parties, the Christian Social party, and the Flemish Volksunie party. In 1992 a centre-left coalition government of Socialists and Christian Democrats led by Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene of the Flemish Social Christian party came to power. King Baudouin died in 1993 and was succeeded by his brother, Albert II. Following a food scare involving dioxins found in animal and dairy products, Dehaene's government fell in 1999. Guy Verhofstadt from the The Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD) then took over and led a six-party Liberal-Social Democrat-Greens coalition, often referred to as 'the rainbow government'. The new administration was of historic note in that it was the first Belgian Government in 40 years not to include the Christian Democrats, the first to include the ecologist parties, and the first to be headed by a liberal prime minister since 1884.

At the general election on 18 May 2003, in which 91.6% of the electorate participated, the outgoing centre-left liberal and socialist coalition was returned to power. Greens lost most of their seats and were excluded from Verhofstadt's new government, while the controversial Flemish Bloc, an anti-immigrant, Flemish separatist party, achieved the best result in its 25-year history. Following negotiations between the Liberal and Socialist parties, a new coalition government, comprising the VLD, the Mouvement Réformateur (MR), the Parti Socialiste (PS), the Socialist Party - Different (SP.A) and Spirit, took office on 12 July. A year later, the Flemish Bloc, won nearly a quarter of the vote in regional and European elections in Flanders, but the party was subsequently convicted of being racist and forced to disband and reform. The organization consequently changed its statutes and renamed itself Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest).

The 2007 general election held on June 10 made the liberal fraction (MR, VLD) the largest group in parliament, followed by the Christian Democrats (CD&V, Cdh) and N-VA. The electoral alliance between the Flemish CD&V and N-VA parties became the biggest single parliamentary grouping.  Following the election, coalition talks were held between the Flemish parties Open VLD, CD&V and N-VA and the French-speaking parties MR and CDH. While difficult government negotiations are not rare in Belgium, the 2007 negotiations lasted more than two months and revolved around the issue of constitutional reforms. In late August, Yves Leterme, head of the Flemish Christian Democrats charged with forming a new federal government, tendered his resignation, leading to a political crisis.

Sources:

Fitzmaurice, J. (1996). The Politics of Belgium: A Unique Federalism. London: Hurst & Company.

Recent History (Belgium), in Europa World online. London, Routledge. Retrieved 13.10. 2006.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2006, Columbia University Press.