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Last updated : Nov 2009
Belgium History
Belgium History - TravelPuppy.com
Belgium was part of Charlemagne’s empire in the 8th and 9th centuries but, by the 10th century, had achieved independence. The Flemish cloth towns enjoyed great financial and political power, although the area fell again under French control after 1322. A period of instability ended with the accession of Philip of Burgundy in 1419. However, on the death of his son, Charles the Bold, in 1477, the Low Countries passed to the Hapsburgs. The Protestant northern part rebelled against Philip II of Spain in the 1560s and soon the division between the southern provinces and the northern United Provinces (the basis for the modern-day Netherlands) became established. The Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, confirmed this position. The region suffered badly as a result of Franco-Spanish conflicts in the subsequent decades, most notably the War of the Spanish Succession, which took place from 1700 to 1713, resulting in the Spanish Netherlands passing to the Austrian Hapsburgs until 1794, apart from a short French occupation from 1744 to 1748.

In 1790, inspired by the events in France, a local rebellion led to the brief establishment of the United States of Belgium, although the country was invaded by France in 1794, remaining annexed until the fall of Napoleon in 1814. The allies subsequently attempted to unite both Netherlands but a rebellion, in 1830, resulted in the London Conference establishing the Kingdom of Belgium.

The late 19th and early 20th century was a period of social and political upheaval, even though it was ultimately overshadowed by the outbreak of World War I during August 1914. At the start of the war, King Albert and his army made a stand against the invading Germans but within weeks they were pushed back to a line behind the Yser river, which they successfully held until 1918. The country suffered heavily in the war, not least because much of the fighting was conducted on its territory. The inter-war period saw the forging links between Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg, as well as the emergence of the Walloon/Flemish schism within Belgium itself. The country was invaded by the Nazis during 1940, remaining occupied for the rest of the war. King Leopold, hounded by accusations of collaboration with the Nazis, remained in Switzerland after 1945 and his nephew Baudouin succeeded in 1951.

Belgium was a founder member of the Benelux Union and the EU, while Brussels is the headquarters of both NATO and the EU. Successive Belgian governments have given strong support to the Union and have generally favoured the integrationist policies laid down by the Maastricht Treaty.

Belgium also has a relatively small but important colonial legacy in central Africa – the Democratic Republic of Congo (previously Zaïre and before that Belgian Congo), Rwanda and Burundi. The nature of Belgian involvement – Belgian Congo was originally established as, literally, the personal fiefdom of King Leopold – and their precipitate withdrawal from their African territories at the turn of the 1960s, did not augur well for the future of the newly independent countries. Zaïre, despite enormous mineral wealth, has been ruined by the massively corrupt Mobutu regime, which received consistent support from successive Belgian governments. Rwanda and Burundi, meanwhile, have been repeatedly engulfed by ethnic conflict.

Belgium epitomises a stable, cautiously progressive Western European liberal democracy. The alliance with the Netherlands and Luxembourg became the Benelux Union in 1958, which, in turn, became one of the foundation stones of the European Community. The principal domestic problem is the continuing tension between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south of the country, whose inhabitants are known as Walloons.

Electoral politics have been dominated by coalitions, as none of the 4 major parties – the Socialists (PS), Christian Social (CVP), Flemish Liberal Democrats (VLD) and Liberal parties (PRL) – have been able to attract sufficient support to establish a government on their own. In addition, there are several smaller parties that have a significant influence over the outcome of elections – the ecological parties, Ecolo and Agalev, and the extreme right-wing Flemish separatist party, Vlaams Blok.

Coalitions of 4 or 5 parties governed Belgium throughout the 1990s. In 1992, Belgium lost its popular and long-serving Head of State when King Baudouin died and his brother, Prince Albert, then succeeded to the Belgian crown. In 1993, a new constitutional arrangement came into effect, under which Belgium became a federal state – now comprising the largely autonomous region of Flanders, Wallonia and the bilingual Brussels district. A complicated 3-tier system of local government (regional, provincial and communal) now prevails.

In the late 1990s, a series of political scandals and badly handled major criminal cases combined to undermine the Belgian people’s already fragile confidence in the organs of state. The June 1999 election returned a 6-party grouping, headed by VLD leader Guy Verhofstadt, and including socialists and ecologists. But the high level of popular discontent continues to be reflected in the persistent influence of the Vlaams Blok, especially in local politics. The most recent national poll in May 2003 was notable for the continuing advance of the Blok and now approaching 20 per cent nationally. It was also a disaster for the ecologist Greens, who were all but wiped out. Verhofstadt remained in power at the head of a smaller coalition of his own VLD and socialists, which has a commanding parliamentary majority.