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Belgium country profile

Map of Belgium

For such a small country, Belgium has been a major European battleground over the centuries.

Occupied by Germany during World Wars I and II, it has experienced an economic boom in the last 50 years to become a model Western European liberal democracy.

However, there has also been a growing divide between the mainly Dutch-speaking north and the mainly French-speaking south, with some even speculating that the country could break up.

Overview

Brussels is the headquarters of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). Thus, it is the polyglot home of an army of international diplomats and civil servants.

The country stretches from the dunes of the northern coastline through the Flemish lowlands and on to the forests of the rolling Ardennes hills in the south.

Belgium reconciles regional and cultural identities in a single federal structure.

The structure includes three communities - Flemish, French and German-speaking - and three regions: Flanders in the north where the official language is Dutch; Wallonia in the south where French is the official tongue and Brussels, the capital, where French and Dutch share official language status. Wallonia has a 70,000-strong German-speaking minority.

Atomium, Brussels
The Atomium - a Brussels landmark built for the 1958 World Fair

Tensions between the two main language communities sometimes run high, and the issue has brought down several governments, creating frequent political instability. Opinion polls suggest most Belgians want to maintain the federation, but separatist parties often score well in Flanders.

Belgium also has a small colonial legacy in Africa: in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo - once Zaire.

It attracted international attention following the US-led war on Iraq in 2003 because of a controversial law allowing Belgian courts to try foreigners for war and human rights crimes, regardless of where the crimes were committed. The law led to suits against numerous high-profile international figures before undergoing radical revision.

Belgium is noted for its strong culinary traditions and is particularly famous for its fine chocolate and array of beers.

Facts

  • Full name: Kingdom of Belgium
  • Population: 10.7 million (UN, 2010)
  • Capital: Brussels
  • Area: 30,528 sq km (11,787 sq miles)
  • Major languages: Dutch, French, German
  • Major religion: Christianity
  • Life expectancy: 77 years (men), 83 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 euro = 100 cents
  • Main exports: Machinery and electrical equipment, chemicals, vehicles, metals, diamonds
  • GNI per capita: US $45,910 (World Bank, 2010)
  • Internet domain: .be
  • International dialling code: +32

Leaders

King: Albert II

Prime Minister-designate: Elio di Rupo

French-speaking Socialist Elio di Rupo was appointed to lead a six-party coalition in December 2011, finally giving Belgium a government after a nearly a record year-and-a-half of tortuous negotiations.

Elio di Rupo
Mr Di Rupo's appointment ended 541 days without a government

His swearing-in put an end the country's longest political crisis, which had left Belgium increasingly under pressure from the financial markets. Only 10 days before the cabinet was formed, the Standard & Poor's rating agency cut Belgium's credit score.

The 541 days without a government came after elections - called when the previous government of centre-right Prime Minister Yves Leterme collapsed over a constitutional dispute - failed to produce a clear winner.

The separatist New Flemish Alliance emerged as the largest single grouping from the vote, although the French and Flemish Socialists together had more seats overall.

The dispute over francophone rights in Dutch-speaking areas near Brussels that led to the fall of Mr Leterme's government was also one of the main sticking points that protracted the formation of the new government.

Coming to power nearly half-way through its four-year term, the new coalition faced the daunting task of pushing through an extensive programme of constitutional reform as well as an austerity bugdet that included $15.2bn dollars of savings.

The flamboyant Mr Di Rupo will be Belgium's first French speaking prime minister for more than 30 years, and Europe's second openly gay government leader after Iceland's PM, Johanna Sigurdardottir.

He faced suspicion from more right-leaning Flemish voters at being led by a French-speaking Socialist, and has been frequently lampooned for his poor Dutch.

Born in 1951 the son of poor Italian immigrants, his ascent to power has been portrayed as a rags-to-riches story.

A trained chemist, Mr Di Rupo started his political career in the 1980s. He became mayor of the city of Mons in 1982.

After serving in several other posts, he became Socialist Party leader in 1999, and was briefly prime minister (minister-president) of the largely French-speaking southern Walloon region of Belgium in 1999-2000 and 2005-7.

Belgium's current political instability was already evident under Mr Di Rupo's predecessor, Yves Leterme, who held the prime ministerial office twice and offered his resignation three times in the three years since the previous general election of July 2007.

Mr Leterme made little headway on the vital issue of devolving more powers to Belgium's regions, and his premiership saw frequent flare-ups of tensions between the French- and Dutch-speaking communities.

Media

Belgian broadcasting mirrors the unique political and linguistic nature of the country. The cultural communities, rather than the federal authorities, are responsible for regulating radio and TV.

So, unlike most other European countries, Belgium does not have a single public broadcasting organisation, but two separate bodies, with their own regulations, running their own radio, TV and external broadcasting.

Some 95% of Belgians are hooked-up to cable TV; one of the highest take-up rates in the world. Cable offers dozens of domestic and foreign channels, including Dutch and French stations. Belgium aims to complete the conversion to digital TV by 2011.

The Belgian press is self-regulated by the Federation of Editors - to which all editors of major newspapers belong. A small number of media groups owns the main newspaper titles.

There were 8.1 million internet users by June 2010 (InternetWorldStats).

The press

Television

  • RTBF - French-language public broadcaster
  • VRT - Dutch-language public broadcaster
  • VTM - Dutch-language commercial broadcaster
  • VT4 - Dutch-language commercial broadcaster
  • RTL - French-language commercial broadcaster

Radio

News agency/internet



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A GUIDE TO EUROPE

 

 

Compiled by BBC Monitoring

SEE ALSO
Belgian lawmakers pass burka ban
30 Apr 10 |  Europe
Language rift in Belgian election
06 May 09 |  Europe
Can divided Belgium hold together?
20 Oct 08 |  Europe
Digging up the past in Belgium
14 Mar 07 |  Europe
Viewers fooled by 'Belgium split'
14 Dec 06 |  Europe
Poll gain for Belgium's far right
09 Oct 06 |  Europe
Belgian town bans school French
01 Sep 06 |  Europe
Murders highlight far-right fears
12 May 06 |  Europe

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