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Belgium

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Belgium (België in Dutch, Belgique in French, and Belgien in German) is a country in Western Europe, bordered by the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, France, and the North Sea. Belgium is at a cultural crossroad between the Germanic Europe (with Dutch speakers in the North, the Flemings) and the Romance Europe (with French speakers in the South, the Walloons), which is reflected in its complex institutions and political history.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Politics
3 Communities, regions & provinces
4 Geography
5 Economy
6 Demographics
7 Religion
8 Culture
9 Related topics
10 External links

History

Main article: History of Belgium

Geographically and culturally, Belgium is at the crossroads of Europe, and during the past 2,000 years has witnessed a constant ebb and flow of different races and cultures. Consequently, Belgium is one of Europe's true melting pots with Celtic, Roman, Germanic cultures having made an imprint, and later on in history, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Austrian influences.

The earliest named inhabitants of Belgium were the Belgae. They were (mostly) Celtic tribes, living in northern Gaul and overcome by Julius Caesar in 54 BC, as described in his chronicle De Bello Gallico. After the Roman Empire collapsed (5th century), Germanic tribes invaded the Roman province of "Gallia". One of these people, the Franks, finally installed a new kingdom under the rulers of the Merovingian Dynasty. Clovis was the most famous of these kings: he converted to Christianity and ruled from northern France, but his empire included today's Belgium. Christian scholars, mostly Irish monks, preached Christianity and started conversion work under the pagan invaders. The Merovingians were rather short-lived, as the Carolingian Dynasty took over: after Charles Martel countered the Moorish invasion from Spain (721 - Poitiers), their famous king Charlemagne brought a huge part of Europe under his rulership and was crowned as the "Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire" by the pope himself (800).

European Feudalism became the base for military, political and economical stability. Christianity flourished under the protection of these rulers and by the founding of religious communities and monasteries, churches and pilgrimages.

The region was later associated with the Netherlands, under Burgundian then Spanish rule, until the Protestant provinces took their independence (see Netherlands). Then followed Austrian rule, and a few years of French rule under Napoleon. After Napoleon's demise, in 1815, Belgium was reunited with the northern provinces in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands until the Belgian Revolution in 1830, which established an independent Belgian state. The Belgian revolution was initiated by the French-speaking minority who controlled the factories and other economical resources and who didn't want to live under a Dutch-speaking administration. The fact that Belgium was mostly catholic and Netherlands predominantly protestant also played a role.

The Belgian King, Leopold I, was chosen with the assistance of the British. The country's neutrality was guaranteed against future foreign military aggression. This neutrality was violated in 1914 when Germany invaded Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan. The British decision to honour their treaty obligations, as much as the entente cordiale with France, forced them into the First World War. After a period of alliance with France after the First World War, Belgium tried to return to neutrality in the 1930s, but was once again invaded by Germany in 1940. After World War II, the policy of neutrality was abandoned, and Belgium joined NATO and the European Economic Community.

Belgium possessed one primary foreign colony during its history: the Congo, which was given to King Leopold II in the Conference of Berlin in 1885. He made the land his private property and called it the 'Congo Free State'. In this Free State, the local population was brutalised in exchange for rubber, a growing market with the developement of rubber tyres. In 1908, the international pressure against the cruelties of King Leopold became so great that Leopold II was forced to give his property to the Belgian state as a colony. From then on, it became Belgian Congo, before gaining independence from Belgium in 1960.

The royal palace in BrusselsEnlarge

The royal palace in Brussels

Belgium's foreign involvement increased after the First World War when two former German colonies, Rwanda and Burundi were mandated to Belgium by the League of Nations. Belgian policy in the administration and socio-cultural development of these countries has been heavily criticised, many seeing Belgian decisions as contributing significantly to the troubles in Rwanda in the 1990s.

Since the 20th century, the history of Belgium became more and more dominated by the increasing autonomy of its two main communities, the Dutch- and the French-speakers. As an indication of this, since around 1970, there are no significant national Belgian political parties anymore, but only Flemish or French-speaking parties. The regular attempts to establish national, Belgian parties end up below 1% of the electorate; the Brussels parties either never got started (as with the 'Blauwe Leeuwen' and 'Rode Leeuwen' for the Flemings in Brussels), or got merged into one of the French-speaking liberal parties (such as the French-speaking FDF, which however has had a significant influence for years, and still keeps some independence). As such, the political landscape shows a near-perfect dual political system, reflecting the two underlying dominant communities.

Politics

Main article: Politics of Belgium

Since the country's federalisation there have been many governmental entities; apart from the Federal Government there is a subdivision according to language into Communities, with the French(-speaking) Community, the Flemish Community and the German-speaking Community, and another subdivision into Regions: the Walloon Region, the Flemish Region and the Brussels-Capital Region. The Flemish Community and the Flemish Region have been joined together to form one government, see Flanders.

Behind these complex institutions, one notes the two dominant components of the Belgian state: the Flemings and their political institutions under the Flemish government; and the French-speakers, grouped under the French(-speaking) Community and its more fragmented institutions. All political parties in Belgium belong to one of these two communities, except for a German-speaking party and some marginal parties in Brussels. However, these only attract votes from one of the two communities in Brussels. Thus, there are no national parties active over all the Belgian territory. In short, the Belgian political landscape carefully mirrors the dual nature of Belgian society.

Thus:

For example, a school building in Brussels belonging to the public school system would be regulated by the regional government of Brussels. The school as an institution however would fall under the regulations of either the Flemish government, if the primary language of teaching is Dutch, or the French Community government, if the primary language is French. It is a complex, somewhat unstable and expensive, but peaceful compromise that allows distinctly different cultures to live together.

Communities, regions & provinces

Main article: Regions and provinces of Belgium

Belgium is divided into three communities, the Flemish community, the French-speaking community and the German-speaking community, and in three regions: Brussels (mainly Dutch- and French-speaking, with a population of 960,000), Flanders (mainly Dutch-speaking, with a population of 6,000,000), and Wallonia (mainly French-speaking, with a population of 3,300,000). The later two regions are each divided into 5 provinces.

Map of Belgium with regions and provincesEnlarge

Map of Belgium with regions and provinces

Between brackets is the local name of each province, in either French or Dutch:

  1. Flanders (Dutch speaking; Vlaanderen in Dutch, Flandre or Flandres in French):
  2. Wallonia (French speaking; Wallonie in French, Wallonië in Dutch):
  3. The Brussels-Capital Region (Région de Bruxelles-Capitale in French, Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest in Dutch, Die Region Brüssel-Hauptstadt in German).

Each provincial entity (including the Brussels-Capital Region) is further divided into smaller municipalities, called gemeenten in Dutch and '\'communes'' in French (see List of Belgian municipalities and List of Belgian municipalities by population).

The main cities and their population are Brussels (959,318), Antwerp (445,570), Ghent (224,685), Charleroi (200,233), and Liège (184,550).

Geography

Main article: Geography of Belgium

Map of Belgium with cities

Belgium has an area of 30,510 kmò. Belgium has three main physical regions: the coastal plain (located in the northwest), the central plateau, and the Ardennes uplands (located in the southeast).

The coastal plain consists mainly of sand dunes and polders. Polders are areas of land, close to or below sea level, that have been reclaimed from the sea from which they are protected by dikess, or, further inland, fields that have been drained by canals.

The second physical region, the central plateau, lies further inland. This is a smooth, slowly rising area which has many fertile valleys and is irrigated by many waterways. Here one can also find rougher land, including caves and small gorges.

The third physical region (called the Ardennes) is somewhat more rugged than the first two. It is a thickly forested plateau, very rocky and not very good for farming, which extends into northern France. This is where much of Belgium's wildlife can be found.

The two main rivers in Belgium are the Scheldt and the Meuse. These two rivers bring prosperity to Tournai, Ghent, Antwerp, Bruges, Liège and Namur. Although generally flat, the terrain becomes increasingly hilly and forested in the southeast (Ardennes) region, where one can find Belgium's highest point, the Signal de Botrange at only 694 metres.

The climate is cool, temperate, and rainy; summer temperatures average 25ðC / 77ðF, winters average 7.2ðC / 45ðF. Annual extremes (rarely attained) are -12.2ðC / 10ðF and 32.2ðC / 90ðF.

Economy

Main article: Economy of Belgium

Densely populated Belgium is located at the heart of one of the world's most highly industrialised regions. One of the first countries to undergo an industrial revolution on the continent of Europe in the early 1800s, Belgium developed an excellent transportation infrastructure of ports, canals, railways, and highways to integrate its industry with that of its neighbours. One of the founding members of the European Union, Belgium strongly supports deepening the powers of the EU to integrate European economies. Belgium was one of the first countries to adopt the euro, the single European currency, in January 1999 and the Belgian franc was completely replaced by euro coins and banknotes in early 2002.

Belgium is sometimes called "The heart of Europe". This is not only because of its geographical location, but also due to many international institutions having their headquarters in Brussels, such as NATO (others). This, in its turn, is because it has an excellent transportation system. It has a modern and toll-free road system, is connected to the European railway system, and Antwerp is the second largest European port.

The economy in Belgium greatly depends on its imports and exports. Its main imports are: food products, machinery, rough diamonds, petroleum and petroleum products, chemicals, clothing and accessories, and textiles, and its main trade partners are Germany, The Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the United States, and Spain. Its main exports are automobiles, food and food products, iron and steel, diamonds, textiles, plastics, petroleum products, and nonferrous metals. Trade is made together with Luxembourg, since these two countries created a customs and currency union in 1922.

Demographics

Main article: Demographics of Belgium

The population density, 336/km², is one of the highest in Europe, after the Netherlands and some smaller countries such as Monaco.

There are three official languages, Dutch, French and German. More than half of the country is Dutch-speaking (56%-60%), French is the second most spoken language (40%-44%) and German is spoken by less than 1% of the population, although these figures must be taken with care since the last linguistic census dated before 1960.

Both the official Dutch spoken in Belgium and Belgian French have small vocabulary differences from the varieties spoken in the Netherlands and France, but are mutually intelligible with their respective neighbouring dialects. Many of the population speak Flemish or Walloon which are often difficult to understand for speakers of standard Dutch or French. Other regional languages officially recognised (in Wallonia only) are Champenois, Gaumais, and Picard.

Brussels, the capital, is mostly French speaking, but officially French/Dutch bilingual as it evolved from a Dutch-speaking place when the Belgian state became independent in 1830 to its current dominantly French character being the capital of the central administration of the federal country.

Over 98% of the adult population is literate. Education is obligatory from the age of 6 until the age of 18, but most Belgian students keep on studying until the age of 23. This makes Belgium's education system the second most intensive in Europe, after the UK's.

Religion

Main article: Religion of Belgium

In Belgium Roman Catholicism is the majority religion, accounting for between 75% and 80% of the population, although nowadays only about 10% to 20% of the population regularly goes to church. Other religions widely practiced in Belgium are Islam, Protestantism, and Judaism.

Religion was one of the differences between the Roman Catholic south and the Protestant north of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which eventually broke up in 1830 when the south seceded to form Belgium. This accounts for the preponderance of Catholics there nowadays.

Since 1830, Catholicism has had also an important role in Belgium's politics. One example is the so-called "school wars" ("guerres scolaires" in French) between liberals and Catholics which took place between 1879 and 1884 for the first one and between 1954 and 1958 for the second one.

Between World War I and World War II the centre of occult and mystical activity was shifted from France to Belgium. Belgium became the main centre for many brotherhoods and secret societies of which many branches still exist today.

Culture

Main article: Culture of Belgium

The country is well known for its art, its great architecture, its beer, its food, and its chocolate.

Belgium has a variety of famous artists. These include Peter Paul Rubens, René Magritte, Jan van Eyck, Breughel, Memling, Ensor, Delvaux. René Magritte is probably the most famous Belgian artist. He, together with Paul Delvaux, are two major artists of the surrealistic style. Many great French authors went to Belgium for refuge. In music Adolphe Sax is famous for inventing the saxophone in 1840. He appeared on the former Belgian 200 Belgian francs (BEF) banknotes.

In architecture the name Victor Horta is well known. He was one of the originators of the Art Nouveau architecture, a style of architecture which had a major impact upon 20th century buildings.

Belgium has a large variety of museums and temporary expositions. Some of the most impressive museums in Belgium are The Royal Museum for Fine Arts, in Antwerpen, which has an admirable collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens, and The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, which has a cinema, a concert hall, and artworks of many periods.

Belgium is well represented in the world of sport, football (soccer) being very popular. The national football team is called the Red Devils, and they are ranked as 24th by FIFA. However, Belgium also has two female tennis players in the top 20; Kim Clijsters (#2) and Justine Henin-Hardenne (#1). Belgium has also performed well in cycling. One of the greatest cyclists ever, Eddy Merckx, who won 5 Tours de France, five Giro d'Italia, one Vuelta a Espana, two Tours of Belgium, and one Tour of Switzerland, was Belgian. Belgium has world champions in motocross, judo and table tennis. Many gourmets think that Belgium has the second best food in Europe, after French food. Brands of Belgian chocolate, like Neuhaus, Cote d'Or, Leonidas, Godiva are world renowned, the praline having been invented in Belgium. In Belgium there are over 450 different kinds of beer, those of the Trappist monks being the most prestigious. Technically, it is an ale and traditionally each abbey's beer is served in its own glass (the forms, heights and widths are different). Belgians have a reputation for loving French fries. The fried potato strips are sold at many small shops and stands (often at train stations) and are known locally as frieten in Dutch and frites in French, though not as 'French fries'.

Some Belgian cuisine is exported all over the world. Other less known snacks are speculaas (a sweet, crunchy cookie) and waffles. As main courses Belgians have mussels with french fries, endive prepared in a special way, Brussels sprouts, Gentse waterzooi (a casserole made up of chicken and vegetables).

Festivals play a major role in Belgium's cultural life. Nearly every city and town has its own festival, some that date back several centuries. And these aren't just tricks for tourism, but real, authentic celebrations that take months to prepare. Two of the biggest festivals are the three-day carnival at Binche, near Mons, held just before Lent (the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter), and the Procession of the Holy Blood, held in Bruges in May. During the carnival in Binche, "Gilles" lead the procession, which are men dressed in high, plumed hats and bright costumes.

Another part of Belgian traditions is the comic strip. Belgium has numerous cartoonists, such as Hergé (Tintin), Willy Vandersteen (Bob & Bobette or "Suske en Wiske" in the original Dutch), Morris (Lucky Luke), Peyo (The Smurfs), Franquin (Spirou, Marsupilami, Gaston), Marc Sleen (Nero).

An important holiday (which is however not an official public holiday) takes place each year on December 6. This is Sinterklaas dag in Dutch or la Saint-Nicolas in French (English: Feast of Saint Nicholas). This is sort of an early Christmas. On December 5 evening before going to bed, kids put their shoes by the hearth with some water or wine and a carrot for Saint Nicholas's horse or donkey. Supposedly St. Nicholas then comes at night and travels down the chimney. He then takes the food and water or wine, puts down presents, goes back up, feeds his horse or donkey, and continues his course. He also knows whether kids have been good or bad. This holiday is especially loved by children in Belgium and the Netherlands. Belgians also celebrate a variety of international, but mostly Christian holidays; such as Christmas, Epiphany (Three King's Day), Easter, New Year, Valentine's Day.

'\'See also:'' Music of Belgium

Related topics

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