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State

Capital

Belgium

Brussel/Bruxelle

Belgie/Belgique

Brussels

Currency unit

euro

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History

A country formed in the space between ancient France and Germany. It is one of the territories given to the third son of Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious, Lothar which were called Lotharingia.

In medieval times the County of Flanders, based on Gent and Brugge, was an important local power, which covered some of the area of France. Some of it was absorbed into France.

Flanders and the southern counties came into the ownership of the family of the Habsburgs who assembled a personal empire mostly in the east of Europe, based on their lands in Bavaria and their control of the ceremonial position of Holy Roman Emperor. Along with the Netherlands it passed to the Spanish branch of the family. (Emperor Charles the fifth was born in Gent). After the independence of the Netherlands Belgium passed from Spain to the Austrian Habsburgs, and was known as the Austrian Netherlands.

At the end of the Napoleonic wars the country was joined with the Netherlands as part of the kingdom of the United Netherlands (Low Countries, because they are rather flat). The union between the Catholics of Belgium and the Protestants of the Netherlands was not a success.

Belgium became independent of the Netherlands in 1830 as part of the confusion in which king Charles the 10th of France was driven out. A German prince was made king.

From the 1880s the king Leopold the second, a relative of Queen Victoria (cousin) gained control of the Congo and presided over a regime of unparalleled atrocity. He profited and so did the Belgian state, especially later when the colony came under the state rather than the monarch.

The linguistic frontier between Germanic and Latin Europe runs through the country, so that there are two main languages spoken, French in Wallonia, Flemish (Dutch) in Flanders. There are also German speakers on the German border (Eupen) which was added to Belgium at the end of the first world war. There is a constant tension between the two main language groups who each now have their own regional administrations, which threaten to secede altogether. Conflict (of a verbal nature) comes over such areas as the Fourons, a French-speaking group of villages within the Flemish region and in Brussels itself.

Belgium is the state most likely to break up if the European Union were to become a political federation. Wallonia might join France or become independent; Flanders would be more likely to form its own state. Brussels might become a European Federal Territory as it is already the seat of the European Commission.

In February 1993 the Central government gave up most powers to the regions, leaving only defense, foreign affairs, currency and justice to a federal government in Brussels. Under the European Monetary Union Brussels (Belgium) has lost control of currency to the European Central Bank. Is the Belgian state a Cheshire Cat, gradually fading away? (See Lewis Carroll - Alice in Wonderland). Apart from the Crown, perhaps the railways are the main unifying institution.

Languages

French (Francais)

Flemish (Dutch)

German

As Flemish nationalism gains strength the formerly bi-lingual country is retreating into linguistic enclaves. French signs disappear from the Flemish area. Trains that cross the country show internal electronic signs only in the language used in the region they are passing through.

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There are three regional governments and a national government.

The northern region, Flanders, is the area where Flemish is spoken. This language is very similar to the Dutch spoken over the border. However, the inhabitants of this area are mostly Catholic in contrast to the Protestants of the Netherlands. This may be the main reason why there has been no serious desire to unite Flanders with the Netherlands, though linguistically such a state would seem logical. Its capital is Gent.

The southern area is French speaking Wallonia which the 17th century French state wanted to incorporate arguing it had been separated only by the accidents of 15th century feudal politics. Its capital is Namur.

As the Belgian state becomes weaker in relation to the linguistic regions, is Wallonia likely to join France even now? Probably this is unlikely, if only because a European federation would make it unnecessary. A possibility is that Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels might become separate members, along with such potential entities as Scotland, Catalonia and Corsica. The main hindrance to this is that Brussels itself is a mixed area with Flemish speakers and French speakers in different boroughs. Thus it would be hard to separate Brussels from the rest of Belgium or for it to maintain its own integrity. But perhaps it could become a Federal District and belong to Europe.

Belgian federal governments are composed of complicated coalitions of parties which have to include members of both linguistic groups and also reflect the ideological differences between parties. Negotiations to form a government can take months (during which time the previous government functions as a "caretaker" ).

The November 1991 elections weakened the Center parties and showed a growing support for a neo-Fascist Vlaamse Bloc party in Flanders, and a similar French extremist party in Wallonia as well as a growth in support for the Greens. However, the latest constitutional arrangement gives such powers to the regions, including the ability to sign agreements with the EU, that the Belgian government is now becoming like the Cheshire Cat's smile, the last remnant of a Belgian state which is fading away.

The federal elections in June 2007 produced a stalemate. So far (14/11/07) no federal government has been formed because the Flemish parties, representing the majority, and the French parties cannot agree on a government. Talk of final separation is becoming more serious.

Until the 1970s French was the dominant language, and the Flemings felt that they were not taken seriously, even though they were then, as now, a majority of the population. To some extent the current rise of Flemish nationalism is a reaction to the former period of French domination.

An "interim" government was agreed in December 2007. It broke up again in April 2010.

A new government was formed in December 2011 after a long period from elections in June 2010 with only an interim government. The new prime minister is Elio Di Rupo , a French speaking descendant of Italian immigrants.




Schatten über dem Kongo


Les Fantômes du roi Léopold : Le terreur coloniale dans l'Etat du Congo, 1884-1908

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At the end of the 19th century Belgium gained from the king's colony in Congo and continued to benefit until Congolese independence in 1960. Has the loss of this colony contributed to Belgium's decline?

The former heavy industry of the French speaking Wallonia is in decline, as in most other European states. Flanders is now the more prosperous area with the port of Antwerp a rival to Rotterdam as a trans-shipment port for Europe. Modern industries have located mainly in Flanders.

The rise of Flemish nationalism may be related to the feeling that Flemish taxpayers do not wish to support the former industrial areas - a similar motive to the split in former Czechoslovakia.

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Last revised 8/12/11


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