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Belgium Modern History

After World War II, it was clear that political and economic power had shifted, from Wallonia to Flanders. Growing nationalist trends and economic crisis led to ever greater contradictions between the regions. The split made an impression by the fact that more and more social institutions were shared along the language boundary. In 1993, Belgium became a federal state with far-reaching autonomy for regions and language communities. But the contradictions remain and have created recurring government crises in the 21st century.

In the 1950s, it became evident that the economic divide of Belgium had begun to change character. As long as coal and iron production were the engine of the Belgian economy, Wallonia flourished, while Flanders was a poor agricultural area. However, many Flemish farmers started small businesses alongside their unprofitable farms and a modern light industry grew in the old agricultural areas.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Belgium. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

The Flemish economy grew rapidly after the war thanks to the area attracting both domestic and foreign (mainly US) investments. Contributing to this was the region's, in comparison with Wallonia, cheaper and less strike-prone manpower and - not least - the gigantic port of Antwerp. That only Flanders was favored by Belgium's "other industrial revolution" provoked resentment in Wallonia.

In the early 1960s, a formal language limit was established. Eventually, a division of the educational system was consolidated and separate French and Flemish cultural councils were established. The three major political groups that dominated Belgian politics during the post-war period - Christian Democrats, Socialists and Liberals - were divided into separate French and Flemish-speaking parties. With more parties, which to a greater extent than previously represented regional special interests, it became more difficult to form stable governments, and thus to find solutions to the economic problems.

Contemporary History of BelgiumGrowing fragmentation

In the 1970s, Wallonia was hit hard by the international steel crisis, and the divide between the two regions deepened. In order to deal with the conflicting interests and to meet growing nationalism, it was agreed to change the state and form a federation. A large number of decisions were made to decentralize legislation and administration. Flanders and Wallonia were increasingly responsible for their own affairs. In the late 1980s, Parliament approved the first steps in the federalization plan, but then stopped the constitutional work because of disagreement on, among other things, the status of the Brussels area.

The major parties' inability to unite paved the way for new political groupings. In the 1991 election, the extreme nationalist Flemish bloc (VB) advanced strongly. Two environmental parties also won land. After several months of negotiations, however, the Christian Democrats, which dominated the post-war governments, could form yet another coalition government. Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene.

It was not until 1993 that there was a two-thirds majority in Parliament required for a constitutional change and Belgium was transformed into a federal state divided into three regions and three language communities (see Political system).

Corruption and the root cause

During the 1990s, Belgium was shaken by several major scandals involving corruption and high-level ill-treatment in society. In a bleak case, a former Socialist former minister for involvement in the murder of a party mate was suspected. The murder must have been ordered because the party mate was suspected of being on the verge of revealing illegal business. During the investigation, it emerged that the Socialist parties had been mutilated to help an Italian helicopter manufacturer (Agusta) and a French aircraft manufacturer (Dassault) receive large orders from the Belgian defense. The disclosure led to several senior politicians being forced to resign, and some were sentenced to conditional prison sentences. The ex-minister accused of involvement in the murder committed suicide, as did a senior officer in the Air Force.

The police were charged with incompetence in connection with a striking court case discovered in 1996, with rape and murder of abducted girls. Rumor has it that a network of pedophiles enjoyed government protection. The protests became violent and when the perpetrator Marc Dutroux temporarily managed to escape, the Interior and Justice Ministers were forced to resign, as was the country's highest police chief. In June 2004, Dutroux was sentenced to life imprisonment.

A scandal involving dioxin-poisoned food (see Agriculture and Fisheries) contributed to the 1999 election becoming a disaster defeat for the Christian Democrats, who with few exceptions had led government work for over a hundred years. Jean-Luc Dehaene was now succeeded by the liberal Guy Verhofstadt. This formed a six-party coalition with liberals, socialists and environmentalists. It was the first time that green parties came into office in Belgium. The election was also a new success for the right-wing VB.

Right extremity advancing

The spring 2003 parliamentary elections mainly confirmed the changes, but the environmental parties returned and Guy Verhofstadt formed a four-party coalition with only liberals and socialists. The xenophobic separatists in VB took on new mandates. When elections to the regional parliaments and the linguistic communities were held in 2004, VB got close to a quarter of the vote and became the second largest party in Flanders. Even in Wallonia and Brussels, right-wing parties won land, albeit on a smaller scale. The established parties did not want to cooperate with the extremists in any case.

In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that VB was a racist party that lacked the right to state grants. The party was dissolved but immediately resumed under the name Flemish interest, also abbreviated VB. The most openly xenophobic elements in the party program had then been removed. When municipal elections were held in October 2006, VB once again strengthened its position. The party's demand for independence for Flanders caused growing concern among the Belgians who did not want to see a division of the country.

In the 2007 parliamentary elections, the Flemish Christian Democrats resumed their position as the largest party, while Verhofstadt and his coalition suffered a stinging defeat. But the formation of government was almost impossible and Belgium ended up in what can be said was a multi-year political crisis.

Recurrent government crises

The Christian Democrats had, in alliance with the right-wing nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), made a choice on promises to increase regional self-government, popular in Flanders but unpopular in Wallonia. A coalition across the language boundaries seemed distant, and neither side could get its own majority. Only after nine months of stalemate, in March 2008, Flemish Yves Leterme was able to form a five-party coalition with Christian democrats and liberals from both language groups as well as the French-speaking socialists. The parties had then agreed that some federal power would be transferred to the regions. However, the fundamental conflict remained unsolved, and the ongoing discussions about the Constitution and the distribution of power did not go anywhere.

At the end of 2008, Leterme's government collapsed, but the cause was not the political lock-up but the global financial crisis. During the autumn, the government had made big money when the financial empire Fortis faltered. The crisis worsened and Forti's Belgian assets were taken over by French bank BNP Paribas. Shareholders tried to stop the deal and received support in court. A report from the Supreme Court accused Leterme's employees of trying to influence the legal process. Leterme then resigned.

At the turn of the year, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Herman Van Rompuy, succeeded in forming a new government with the same five parties as before. Van Rompuy was a party mate with Leterme but was considered popular with French speakers. But the man of compromise Van Rompuy got less than a year in office before being named the first EU permanent chairman. Therefore, in November 2009, Leterme again took over as prime minister. However, he failed as his representative to mediate in the conflict between French-speaking and Flemish parts of the country. In April 2010, the government fell and new elections were announced.

Withdrawal deadlock

In the recent election, the right-wing Nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) rallied, which went from 5 to 27 seats and became the largest party in the House of Representatives. A new prolonged crisis followed. Only after a year and a half, in December 2011, the Walloon Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo was able to form a coalition government consisting of six parties: the five former government parties and the Flemish socialists. N-VA stood outside the government.

An infected battle that contributed greatly to the political crisis concerned Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, the only eleven constituencies in the country that included two linguistic areas: the official bilingual Brussels and parts of the surrounding Flemish province. The regional divisions of the parties meant that French-speaking residents outside Brussels had the right to vote for French-speaking parties despite living in Flanders - something that other Belgians were similarly prevented from doing. The Constitutional Court ruled in 2003 that it violated the Constitution, but only in July 2012 did Parliament agree to divide the constituency into two units. The bilingual Brussels became a constituency and Flemish Halle-Vilvoorde merged with Leuven to form the new Flemish Brabant constituency.

The decision meant a victory for Flemish parties. The issue is not only politically sensitive; A common Flemish complaint is also that French-speaking Brussels residents move out to surrounding Flemish communities where they help drive up property prices but do not learn language or culture.

Protests against cuts

In late 2011 and early 2012, the trade union movement organized strikes in protest of planned austerity measures, in particular a pension reform. Despite the protests, further cuts were presented as there was concern that the budget deficit would grow too large.

Under Di Rupo's government, other constitutional amendments were also implemented, following promises that the transfer of powers from the federal state to regions and linguistic communities would continue. Among other things, the term of office for members of Parliament's lower house, the House of Representatives, was extended from four to five years, and it was decided that all senators from the 2014 elections should be elected indirectly (see Political system).

Ahead of the local elections in the autumn of 2012, concerns increased that the divide between the northern and southern parts of the country would again come into focus and be strengthened. The Flanders nationalists had great successes in the election and N-VA won in three of five provinces in Flanders. Party leader Bart De Wever became mayor of Antwerp.

The economic situation remained tight in 2012 and 2013. However, the government managed to tighten the state budget to a total of EUR 22 billion and reduce the soaring central government debt (see Economic overview).

 
 

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