Belgium (French Belgique; Dutch België), constitutional monarchy in northwestern Europe, bounded on the north by the Netherlands and the North Sea, on the east by Germany and Luxembourg, and on the south and southwest by France. With the Netherlands and Luxembourg, Belgium forms the Low, or Benelux, Countries. It is about 282 km (about 175 mi) long, measured in a southeastern-northwestern direction, about 145 km (about 90 mi) wide, and is roughly triangular in shape. The area is 30,519 sq km (11,783 sq mi). The capital and largest city is Brussels.
Land and Resources
Belgium has three main physiographic regions: the coastal plain, the central plateau, and the Ardennes highlands.
The coastal plain extends inland about 16 to 48 km (10 to 30 mi) on the northwest. Along the North Sea is a low-lying area consisting mainly of sand dunes and polders. The polders, sections of land reclaimed from the sea and protected by dikes, were developed between the 13th and 15th centuries. Lying inland is a flat pastureland drained by canals. The coastal plain's elevation ranges from sea level to about 20 m (65 ft).
The central plateau is a gently rolling, slightly elevated area, irrigated by many waterways and containing a number of wide, fertile valleys with a rich, alluvial soil. Caves, grottoes, and ravines are found in parts of this area.
The Ardennes highlands, a densely wooded plateau averaging 460 m (about 1500 ft) in elevation, extends across southeastern Belgium and into northeastern France. Located here is Botrange, the highest peak in Belgium, with an elevation of 694 m (2277 ft). The area is generally rocky and poorly suited to agriculture.
The chief rivers are the Schelde (Escaut) and the Meuse. Both rise in France and are for the most part navigable throughout Belgium. On the Schelde, the principal waterway of Belgium, are the ports of Antwerp, Brussels, and Ghent. The chief tributaries of the Schelde are the Lys, Dender, Zenne (Senne), and Rupel rivers. The Sambre and Ourthe rivers are the main tributaries of the Meuse.
The climate near the sea is humid and mild. Farther inland, away from the moderating maritime influences, a marked increase in the range of temperature occurs. In the Ardennes region hot summers alternate with cold winters. Heavy rains are confined almost exclusively to the highlands. Fog and drizzle are common, and April and November are particularly rainy months. In Brussels, located at the center of the nation, the average temperatures range from -1° to 4° C (30° to 40° F) in January and 12° to 23° C (54° to 73° F) in July. In Oostende, on the coast, the average range is 1° to 5° C (33° to 41° F) in January and 13° to 20° C (56° to 67° F) in July. Rainfall in Brussels is uniformly spread throughout the year, with a yearly average of about 860 mm (about 34 in); annual precipitation in Oostende averages about 600 mm (about 24 in).
The natural resources of Belgium are almost entirely mineral. Coal was mined in abundance for many years, but most accessible supplies have been exhausted and many mines have closed since the late 1950s. Deposits of zinc, lead, copper, and manganese are also exploited but are of little commercial significance; some natural gas is also extracted.
Plants and Animals
Small animals, primarily fox, badger, pheasant, squirrel, weasel, marten, and hedgehog, are found in Belgium. Deer and wild boar are present in the Ardennes region. Abundant plants include the hyacinth, strawberry, goldenrod, periwinkle, foxglove, wild arum, and lily of the valley. Forest trees include oak, beech, elm, and stands of pine that have been planted as part of reforestation programs.
The people of Belgium are primarily of two ethnic groups, the Flemings (Teutonic origin) and the Walloons (Celtic origin, probably with an admixture of Alpine elements). The most distinguishing characteristic of these two groups is language. The Flemings speak Dutch (often referred to by its historic regional name, Flemish; see Flemish Language), and the Walloons speak French. The predominantly Flemish provinces are in the northern half of Belgium, called Flanders, and the predominantly Walloon provinces are in the southern half, called Wallonia. The capital of Brussels, an enclave within the Flanders region, is mixed. In 1993 these three ethnolinguistic areas became official federal regions.
The population of Belgium (1995 estimate) is about 10,031,000. Nearly 60 percent live in the Flanders region. The overall population density, one of the highest in Europe, is about 329 persons per sq km (851 per sq mi). The largest concentrations were in the Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, and Ghent industrial areas, as well as in the narrow industrial region between Mons and Charleroi. In recent decades the Limburg city region has increased in population because of industrial expansion in that area. Almost 10 percent of all Belgians live in Brussels, which is also home to vast numbers of foreign guest workers. Nearly 97 percent of the population is classified as urban.
Political Divisions and Principal Cities
Belgium is divided into the three federal regions of Brussels (population, 1992 estimate, 956,490), Flanders (5,824,628), and Wallonia (3,287,201). These regions are further subdivided into the ten provinces of Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, Walloon Brabant, East Flanders, Hainaut, Liège, Limburg, Luxembourg, Namur, and West Flanders, and into nearly 600 communes (administrative districts). The chief cities and their 1992 estimated populations are Brussels (960,324, including suburbs), Antwerp (467,875), Ghent (230,446), Charleroi (206,928), and Liège (195,201).
In 1963 a law was passed establishing three official languages within Belgium: Dutch was recognized as the official language in the north, French in the south, and German along the eastern border. In the city and suburbs of Brussels, both French and Dutch are officially recognized, although French speakers are the larger group. In the country as a whole, strictly Dutch speakers make up about 58 percent, and French speakers about 32 percent of the population, while about 10 percent are bilingual or speak German or other languages. In 1971 a constitutional change was enacted giving political recognition to these three linguistic communities, providing cultural autonomy for them, and also revising the administrative status of Brussels.
About 84 percent of the Belgian population is Roman Catholic, but this number and regular church attendance are on the decline. Religious liberty is guaranteed, and part of the stipend for the ministers of all faiths is paid by the government. Other religions practiced within the country include a number of Protestant denominations, Judaism, and Islam.
Although educational freedom was provided by the constitution of 1831, the first law for public elementary education was not passed until 1842. In 1914 compulsory attendance was enacted for children between the ages of 6 and 14. Since 1959 the education system has included state secular schools and private Roman Catholic schools. Educational controversies involving language and religion that arose in Belgium in the 19th century have continued to the present day. In the early 1990s about 711,500 pupils were attending primary schools each year, and about 765,700 students were in secondary schools. Almost the entire adult population is literate.
The oldest Belgian university dates from the Middle Ages. The Catholic University of Louvain, since 1970 divided into independent French- and Dutch-speaking universities, was founded under religious auspices in 1425. The universities of Ghent and Liège were founded in 1817 during the period of Dutch rule, and the Free University of Brussels was opened in 1834 under an enactment by the newly formed Belgian government. Ghent has a Dutch-speaking faculty, Liège a French-speaking one. In 1965, state universities opened in the cities of Mons and Antwerp. In 1970 the Free University of Brussels became two independent institutions, one teaching in Dutch, the other in French.
Royal academies of fine arts and royal conservatories of music are maintained in Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, Liège, and Mons. State agricultural institutes are maintained in Ghent and Gembloux. In the early 1990s the total enrollment at the universities and other institutions of higher education exceeded 133,300.
Festivals play an important part in Belgian life. One of the most famous festivals is the three-day carnival at Binche, near Mons, held just before Lent. During the carnival, noisemaking and dancing are led by "Gilles," men dressed in high, plumed hats and bright costumes. Another famous pageant is the Procession of the Holy Blood, held in Brugge in May. December 6 commemorates Saint Nicholas's Day, an important children's holiday.
Libraries and Museums
General and specialized libraries are located in all the principal cities. The national library and main reference collection is the Bibliothèque Royale Albert I (1837) in Brussels, with some 3 million volumes. Large libraries are maintained by the universities of Ghent, Liège, and Louvain.
The Royal Museum for Fine Arts (1890) in Antwerp is noted for its collection of paintings by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium (1830), located in Brussels, has a collection of artworks of many periods, a concert hall, and a cinema.
The National Theater (1945) in Brussels is supported by state subsidies. Belgium has contributed to both Flemish and French literature. Among the outstanding authors of the country are Philippe de Comines and Jean Froissart, who wrote in French during the Middle Ages. The works of Charles de Coster and Émile Verhaeren, both of whom wrote in French, and of Hendrik Conscience, who developed the Flemish novel, were popular during the 19th century. Poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, who wrote in French, won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1911. See Flemish Literature; French Literature.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, northern Europe was one of the centers of the Renaissance. The Flemish painters Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder were among the outstanding artists of this period. Dominant in the 17th century were Rubens and Sir Anthony van Dyck, who are regarded by many as two of the greatest Flemish painters. Among 20th-century painters and graphic artists of international fame are James Ensor, Paul Delvaux, and René Magritte. Belgian architect Victor Horta was one of the originators of the Art Nouveau style of architecture, which had an important influence on European architects of the 20th century. Contemporary Belgian architecture is represented by the designs of Henry van de Velde.
Although the service economy is growing rapidly in Belgium, the country remains heavily industrialized, importing great quantities of raw materials that are processed mainly for export. Such industry gives Belgium one of the highest gross domestic products in the world, despite its relatively small population. With about three-quarters of exports going to other European Union countries, Belgium's economy is dependent upon its neighbors and the nation is a strong proponent of integrating European economies. In the early 1990s a growing budget deficit, combined with high unemployment rates, hindered Belgium's overall economic growth. To reduce its deficit, the government initiated an austerity program that cut spending while raising taxes, as well as beginning a program to transfer some state-owned enterprises to the private sector. The annual budget in the early 1990s anticipated revenues of $60.4 billion and expenditures of $73.2 billion.
Farming engages about 3 percent of the total labor force and produces sufficient quantities to make Belgium a net food exporter. About two thirds of the farms are intensively cultivated units of less than 10 hectares (25 acres). About 45 percent of the country is under cultivation or used for livestock raising. In the early 1990s the leading crops were sugar beets (5.7 million metric tons), potatoes (1.8 million), wheat (1.4 million), and barley (495,000). Other important crops include fruits, tomatoes, and flax. Livestock and dairy farming are major agricultural industries. In the early 1990s the livestock population of Belgium numbered some 6.5 million pigs, 3.1 million cattle, 129,000 sheep, and 31,000 horses.
Forestry and Fishing
Forests cover about one-fifth of the area of Belgium, and wooded areas are used primarily for recreational purposes. In recent years, stands of conifers have been planted, and forestry activity has increased; however, timber is still imported for the country's paper industry.
The main fishing port of Belgium is Oostende. The fishing fleet exploits the North Atlantic Ocean fisheries from the North Sea to Iceland. The total annual catch in the early 1990s amounted to about 37,400 metric tons; most of it consisted of plaice, sole, cod, and skate.
Belgium has very limited mineral resources. Coal was the chief mining product for much of the 20th century, but deposits were severely depleted by the 1950s. In the 1980s many of the mines were closed, and the last remaining coal mine was shut down in 1992. Coal and oil must now be imported for steelmaking and other industries. Annual extraction of natural gas was 565 million cu m (20.0 billion cu ft) in the early 1990s.
Belgium is one of the most highly industrialized countries of Europe, largely because of its geographical location and transport facilities. Industrial production increased steadily after World War II (1939-1945), but began to decrease in the 1950s. The establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957 and the introduction by the government of an investment-incentive program resulted in a surge in Belgian industry. However, shifts in the world economic picture have brought about a decline in industrial development in Belgium, and in the early 1990s manufacturing accounted for only about one-fifth of total economic activity. Belgium is a major producer of iron and steel, and more than half the total output is exported. About 10.3 million metric tons of crude steel were produced annually in the early 1990s.
The textile industry, dating from the Middle Ages, produces cottons, woolens, linens, and textiles of synthetic fibers. With the exception of flax, all raw materials are imported. Centers of the textile industry are Brugge, Brussels, Limburg, Ghent, Liège, Kortrijk, and Mechelen. In the early 1990s about 51,900 metric tons of cotton fabrics, 31,900 metric tons of wool fabrics, and 37,100 metric tons of rayon and acetate fabrics were produced annually. Carpet making is an important industry in Saint-Nicolas; Brussels and Brugge are noted for the manufacture of lace, fine lawn, and damask.
The Belgian chemical industry leads the world in the production of cobalt and radium salts and also ranks high in the production of fertilizers and plastics. Pharmaceuticals, photographic supplies, glassware, furniture, paper and cartons, and cement are also important manufactures.
The nonferrous-metals industry, supplied by raw materials from Zaire (formerly the Belgian Congo), furnishes the metallurgical, chemical, and other industries with a wide variety of metals, including copper, zinc, lead, platinum, germanium, and uranium. The bulk of the metal-manufacturing industry is engaged in the production of heavy machinery, structural steelwork, and industrial equipment. Other important industries are shipbuilding, which is centered in Antwerp, and the manufacture of railroad equipment. The diamond-cutting industry, also centered in Antwerp, is a main source of industrial diamonds.
Belgium's seven nuclear power plants are the main source of electricity, supplying about 60 percent of the country's electric power. With the decline of the coal-mining industry, Belgium has been forced to rely more heavily on imported coal, petroleum, and natural gas. In the late 1980s environmental concerns about nuclear power led to the exploration of alternative energy sources, such as solar power, biomass, and geothermal technologies; a gas-powered generator was also constructed. Installed electric power capacity was about 17.5 million kilowatts in the early 1990s; electric power production was about 68 billion kilowatt-hours.
Currency and Banking
The basic monetary unit is the Belgian franc (28.05 Belgian francs equal U.S.$1; 1995). At the head of the banking system is the National Bank of Belgium, established in 1850, which issues the bank notes of the country. Half the capital of the bank is owned by Belgium; legislation adopted in 1993 guarantees its independence.
The foreign trade of Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is conducted jointly. The two countries formed a customs and currency union in 1922. In 1948 the Netherlands entered a customs union, designated Benelux, with Belgium and Luxembourg. In the early 1990s Belgo-Luxembourg exports were valued at $117 billion; principal commodities were automobiles, food and food products, iron and steel, diamonds, textiles, plastics, petroleum products, and non-ferrous metals. Annual imports in the early 1990s had a value of $120 billion. Principal commodities were food products, machinery, rough diamonds, petroleum and petroleum products, chemicals, clothing and accessories, and textiles. Belgium's major trading partners were Germany, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, Italy, the United States, and Spain. Belgium became a member of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951. Six years later, Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed two treaties creating the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). In 1967 the ECSC, the EEC, and Euratom merged to form the European Community, now the European Union, with headquarters in Brussels.
The chief access to the sea for Belgian shipping is via the Schelde and Meuse estuaries, which lie within the territory of the Netherlands. Antwerp, on the Schelde River, although some 84 km (some 52 mi) from the sea, is one of the busiest ports in the world. The rivers of Belgium are connected by an important system of canals. The aggregate length of canals and navigable rivers totals about 1520 km (about 940 mi). Supplementing the waterways is a system of 14,516 km (9020 mi) of main or national roadways, including 1631 km (1014 mi) of divided motorways. There are 3568 km (2217 mi) of railroads, which are state owned. No other country in the world has more railroad trackage per unit area. Sabena, the Belgian national airline, operates routes to major cities throughout the world.
French- and Dutch-language broadcast services are provided by the government, with costs defrayed through annual license fees on receiving sets; commercial broadcasting is also permitted. Many foreign broadcasts are also received. In the early 1990s some 7.7 million radios, 4.5 million television sets, and 5.4 million telephones were operating. Some 33 daily newspapers are published.
The total labor force in the mid-1990s numbered about 4.3 million workers. About two-thirds are in services. About 2.6 million workers belong to three trade union groups: the General Federation of Labor, the Federation of Christian Trade Unions, and the General Federation of Liberal Trade Unions.
Belgium is a constitutional, representative, and hereditary monarchy. Succession to the throne is determined by primogeniture. The present ruler is King Albert II. The Belgian constitution was promulgated in 1831 and revised in 1893, 1921, 1970, 1971, 1980, 1989, and 1993. The reforms of the 1970s and afterward gradually transformed Belgium into a federal country, giving the majority of essential governmental powers to the three regions: Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels.
Executive power is vested in the king, who appoints the prime minister, cabinet ministers, and judges. The king is commander in chief of the armed forces and, with the approval of parliament, has the power to declare war and conclude treaties. The rights of the king, according to the constitution, include convening and dissolving parliament, conferring titles of nobility, and granting pardons. All royal acts, however, must be countersigned by a minister, who in turn assumes responsibility for those acts before parliament. Inasmuch as the ministers are responsible to parliament, the king must choose a cabinet that represents a majority in parliament. Cabinets are generally multiparty coalitions.
Under constitutional changes which took effect with the parliamentary elections of 1995, both houses of the Belgian parliament were reduced in size. The Senate was scaled back from 183 members to 121, while the Chamber of Representatives dropped from 212 members to 150. All members of the Chamber of Representatives are directly elected, while the Senate's membership is elected through a combination of direct and indirect methods. All citizens more than 18 years of age are required to vote in parliamentary elections, and may be fined for not doing so.
The three major political alliances, each consisting of Dutch-and French-speaking units, are the Christian Social parties (1945), the Socialist parties (1885), and the Liberal parties, including the Freedom and Progress party (Dutch, 1961) and the Liberal Reform party (French, 1979). There are many minor parties.
Belgium has devised a two-tiered system of regional government to address political and cultural differences. Each of the three federal regions elects its own council, which is responsible for territorial matters such as planning, transportation, water, energy, municipalities, and regional development. There are also independent language councils for the Dutch-, French-, and German-speaking communities. These councils are in charge of education, health care, and communications (such as broadcasting) for the communities. Each of the ten provinces has a council of 50 to 90 members who are chosen by direct vote. The provinces are subdivided into administrative districts, often based in cities and towns, called communes. Each commune is administered by a burgomaster appointed by the king. The town council, directly elected to six-year terms, advises the king on this appointment. The council elects an executive body called the board of aldermen. Local government on all levels possesses a large degree of autonomy, a tradition that originated in feudal times.
The Belgian constitution provides for an independent judiciary with powers equal to those of the executive and legislative departments. The highest tribunals are the five courts of appeal, which sit at Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, Liège, and Mons; the five labor courts; and the Supreme Court of Justice. Cases are referred to the courts of appeal by the courts of assize, which review both civil and criminal matters. In the assize courts 12 jurors decide all cases by majority vote. A special court was established in 1989 to resolve constitutional conflicts arising from the transfer of power from the central government to regional authorities.
Health and Welfare
Health and hospital services are the responsibility of public assistance commissions located in each town. The commissions pay for relief patients in private hospitals, administer public hospitals, and organize nursing services and clinics.
Social security, based on a law passed in 1944, applies to all workers subject to employment contracts. The Central National Office of Social Security collects from employers and employees all contributions for family allowances, health insurance, old-age insurance, holidays, and unemployment insurance and distributes the funds to the respective administrative divisions. This comprehensive welfare system has resulted in great improvements in public health and economic stability of the populace, but has also exacerbated Belgium's budget deficit.
Belgium is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which has its headquarters in Brussels. Recruitment in Belgium's armed forces is made by voluntary enlistment. Military training methods and equipment are coordinated with those of the Netherlands under an agreement of 1948. The Belgian armed forces, which include a navy, army, and air force, exceeded 80,000 in the early 1990s. However, large force reductions were planned by the Belgian government, to be completed by 1997.
Belgium derives its name from the Belgae, an ancient Celtic tribe. The Roman region of Gallia Belgica (Belgian Gaul) included modern Belgium, northern France, the Netherlands, and part of Switzerland. Rome's successor in western Europe was the kingdom of the Franks, which originated in Belgian Gaul and expanded into Germany, eventually extending from the Pyrenees Mountains eastward across the Alps and southward as far as Rome itself. The Franks were led by Charlemagne, who united all of western Europe through conquest during his reign from 768 to 814. When the Frankish realm was partitioned in 843, Belgium was incorporated in the duchy of Lorraine, which was part of Francia Orientalis (the East Frankish Kingdom, or Germany). In the extreme west of this realm arose the county of Flanders, which was a fief of the kings of France. In 1384 Flanders was united with Burgundy, and by the mid-15th century the dukes of Burgundy ruled the greater part of the Belgian and Dutch Netherlands. While owing allegiance to the French crown, Burgundy's aim was to found a powerful state between France and Germany. This effort was disrupted by the death in 1477 of the last Burgundian ruler, Charles the Bold.