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
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
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
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
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.
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).