BELGIUM BELGIË (Flemish); La BELGIQUE (Fr); Belgien (Ger).
One of the Low Countries in western Europe, predominantly Roman Catholic, but divided by language. Flemish (Dutch) is spoken by nearly three out of five of the population, Walloon (French) by almost a third, German by under 1%, while some 9% of the population is of foreign extraction. The name comes, as its French form clearly shows, from the Roman province of Belgica.
1. Origins. Belgium broke away from the Kingdom of the (united) Netherlands in 1830-1, though it was not until 1839 that its independence was fully confirmed and its borders settled. The breakaway of Belgium restored the division within the Netherlands that had existed since the Dutch had gained their independence from the Habsburg Kings of Spain in the 16th century. The southern Netherlands (except for the ecclesiastical principalities) had continued under Habsburg rule, first of the Spanish branch, then the Austrian, until the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s. Besides the political separation of north and south, there is a fundamental geographical division within the Netherlands, and a long-standing divergence between the economies and societies of the lands north and south of the lower courses of the Rivers Rhine and Maas.
2. Extent. Belgium’s border with France and most of its border with the Kingdom of the Netherlands were fixed before the Kingdom came into existence. The Spanish Netherlands in the 16th century extended further south than modern Belgium. The wars of Louis XIV pushed the Habsburgs back and created most of the present frontier between France and Belgium. The French revolutionaries annexed the southern Netherlands. In 1814 the 1790 frontier was restored except that France was allowed to keep the old Duchy of Bouillon, virtually French in the later 18th century, and some territory to the west, which meant that the old French enclaves of Philippeville and Marienbourg were contiguous with France. Napoleon’s Hundred Days led the victors to rescind these concessions and the present frontier was established.
The ending of the united Netherlands restored the old border between north and south (except in the east, where there had been a confused jumble of territories in the 18th century). The Dutch military victories in earlier years meant that the frontier lay further south than the natural border region of the Scheldt/Maas/Rhine outflows and the lower reaches of the Maas and Rhine. In the east the province of Limburg in the united Kingdom was divided, using the Maas as the frontier, except in the vicinity of Maastrcht where the Dutch Kingdom crossed to the left bank of the river. This particular frontier was not settled until 1839, nor was the southeastern frontier, where Luxembourg was partitioned between a Belgian province and the Grand Duchy, mostly close to the linguistic boundary between predominantly French- and Letzebuergisch-speaking districts. Belgium’s eastern border with Germany was changed in 1919, when Germany ceded the districts around Eupen, Malmédy and St Vith.
3. Territorial divisions. The PROVINCE was the intermediate unit between national and local government in Belgium. There were nine altogether. They still survive, though there are now to most intents and purposes ten, Brabant functioning as two separate provinces.
Belgium’s fundamental problem is that it has two principal peoples, the Dutch-speaking Flemings and the French-speaking Walloons. The Walloons dominated the kingdom in their early years, creating Flemish discontent. As the 20th century progressed wealth shifted away from the French-speaking region, so that Flemish discontent became allied with growing power.
To solve the problem of nationalism within the state, two new intermediate institutions have been invented. The first is the COMMUNITY, based on language, with a cultural council, created early in the 1970s, as the principal institution. There are three Communities, the Flemish-, French and German-speaking. They proved insufficient to pacify nationalist demands, so in the 1980s, the REGION was created. Again, there are three regions. The Flemish Region, commonly called Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels, were created by constitutional changes in 1980, though it was 1988-9 before Brussels became effective.
Further constitutional changes in 1993 made Belgium’s evolving federal character explicit and provided for even stronger regional institutions.