Belgium derives its name from a Celtic tribe, the Belgae, whom Caesar
described as the most courageous tribe of Gaul. However, the Belgae were
forced to yield to Roman legions during the first century B.C. For some
300 years thereafter, what is now Belgium flourished as a province of Rome.
But Rome's power gradually lessened. In about A.D. 300, Attila the Hun
invaded what is now Germany and pushed Germanic tribes into northern Belgium.
About 100 years later, the Germanic tribe of the Franks invaded and took
possession of Belgium. The northern part of present-day Belgium became
an overwhelmingly Germanized and Germanic-Frankish-speaking area, whereas
in the southern part people continued to be Roman and spoke derivatives
of Latin. After coming under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy and, through
marriage, passing into the possession of the Hapsburgs, Belgium was occupied
by the Spanish (1519-1713) and the Austrians (1713-1794).
Under these various rulers, and especially during the 500 years from
the 12th to the 17th century, the great cities of Ghent, Bruges, Brussels,
and Antwerp took turns at being major European centers for commerce, industry
(especially textiles) and art. Flemish painting--from Van Eyck and Breugel
to Rubens and Van Dyck--became the most prized in Europe. Flemish tapestries
hung on castle walls throughout Europe.
Following the French Revolution, Belgium was invaded and annexed by
Napoleonic France in 1795. Yet with the defeat of Napoleon's army at the
Battle of Waterloo, fought just a few miles south of Brussels, Belgium
was separated from France and made part of the Netherlands by the Congress
of Vienna in 1815.
In 1830, Belgium won its independence from the Dutch as a result of
an uprising of the Belgian people. A constitutional monarchy was established
in 1831, with a monarch invited in from the House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha
Belgium was invaded by the Germans in 1914 and again in 1940. Those
invasions, plus disillusionment over postwar Soviet behavior, made Belgium
one of the foremost advocates of collective security within the framework
of European integration and the Atlantic partnership.
Since 1944, when Belgium was liberated by British, Canadian, and American
armies, the nation has lived in security and at a level of increased well-being.
Language, economic, and political differences between Dutch-speaking
Flanders and Francophone Wallonia have produced increased cleavages in
Belgian society. The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and the 19th
century accentuated the linguistic North-South division. Francophone Wallonia
became an early industrial boom area, affluent and politically dominant.
Dutch-speaking Flanders remained agricultural and was economically and
politically outdistanced by Brussels and Wallonia. The last 50 years have
marked the rapid economic development of Flanders, resulting in a corresponding
shift of political power to the Flemish, who now constitute an absolute
majority (58%) of the population.
Demonstrations in the early 1960s led, in 1962, to the establishment
of a formal linguistic border, and elaborate rules made to protect minorities
in linguistically mixed border areas. In 1970, Flemish and Francophone
cultural councils were established with authority in matters of language
and culture for the two-language groups. Each of the three economic regions--Flanders,
Wallonia, and Brussels--were granted a significant measure of political
Since 1984, the German language community of Belgium (in the eastern
part of Liège Province) has had its own legislative assembly and
executive, which have authority in cultural, language, and subsequently
In 1988-89, the Constitution was again amended to give additional responsibilities
to the regions and communities. The most sweeping change was the devolution
of educational responsibilities to the community level. As a result, the
regions and communities were provided additional revenue, and Brussels
was given its own legislative assembly and executive.
Another important constitutional reform occurred in the summer of 1993,
changing Belgium from a unitary to a federal state. It also reformed the
bicameral parliamentary system and provided for the direct election of
the members of community and regional legislative councils. The bilingual
Brabant province, which contained the Brussels region, was split into separate
Flemish and Walloon Brabant provinces. The revised Constitution came into
force in 1994.
A parliamentary democracy, Belgium has been governed by successive coalitions
of two or more political parties. The centrist Christian Democratic Party
often provided the Prime Minister. The June 13, 1999 general election saw
a significant drop in overall Christian Democratic support, however. Driven
in part by resentment over a mishandled dioxin food-contamination crisis
just before the June 1999 election, Belgian voters rejected Jean Luc Dehaene's
longstanding coalition government of Christian Democrats and Socialists
and voted into power a coalition put together by Flemish Liberal Leader
Guy Verhofstadt. The first Verhofstadt government (1999-2003) was a six-party
coalition between the Flemish and Francophone Liberals, Socialists, and
Greens. It was the first Liberal-led coalition in generations and the first
six-party coalition in 20 years. It also was the first time the Greens
had participated in Belgium's federal government. In the most recent general
election in May 2003, however, the Greens suffered significant loses, while
the Socialists posted strong gains and the Liberals also had modest growth
in electoral support. As a result, Liberal Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt
was able to reconstitute a four-party coalition government in July 2003,
this time with only the Liberals and Socialists in power.