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These groups are allowed to receive some funding from the government. Laic groups are also considered as a recognized religion. Some social discrimination has been reported by Jews , Muslims, and members of "unrecognized" groups. In , the densest railway network in the world comprised 3, km 2, mi of track operated by the government-controlled Belgian National Railway Co.

In addition, Belgium has a regional railway network of 27, km 17, mi. The road network in comprised , km 89, mi of highways, of which , km 72, mi were paved, including 1, km 1, mi of expressways. All major European highways pass through Belgium. In , Belgium had 4,, passenger cars and , commercial vehicles registered for use.

Inland waterways comprise 2, km 1, mi of rivers and canals, and are linked with those of France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In , a total of 1, km mi of these waterways are in regular commercial use. The chief port, Antwerp one of the world's busiest ports , on the Scheldt River, about 84 km 52 mi from the sea, handles three-fourths of the country's foreign cargo. Other leading ports are Gent and Zeebrugge. In the Belgian merchant fleet was comprised of 53 vessels, with a total of 1,, GRT.

The fleet numbered ships 2. In , there were an estimated 43 airports. As of a total of 25 had paved runways, and there was also a single heliport. The Belgian national airline, Sabena, formed in , is the third-oldest international airline. Brussels National Airport, an important international terminus, is served by more than 30 major airlines. In , a total of 2. Belgium is named after the Belgae, a Celtic people whose territory was conquered in 57 bc by Julius Caesar and was organized by him as Gallia Belgica. In 15 bc, Augustus made Gallia Belgica which at that time included much of present-day France a province of the Roman Empire.

In the 5th century ad, it was overrun by the Franks, and in the 8th century, it became part of the empire of Charlemagne. But this empire soon fell apart, and in the 10th century there emerged several feudal units that later would become provinces of Belgium. During the three following centuries, trade flourished in the towns of the county of Flanders.

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Antwerp, Bruges, Ypres Ieper , and Ghent in particular became very prosperous. In the 15th century, most of the territory that currently forms Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg — formerly called the Low Countries and now called the Benelux countries — came under the rule of the dukes of Burgundy as the result of a shrewd policy of intermarriage. Through the marriage of Mary of Burgundy with Archduke Maximilian of Austria , those same provinces, then collectively known as the Netherlands, became part of the Habsburg Empire in the early s.

His policies resulted in a revolt led by the Protestants. Thus began a long war, which, after a year truce — 21 , became intermingled with the Thirty Years' War. Under the Treaty of Westphalia , which ended the Thirty Years' War, independence was granted to the northern Protestant provinces. The southern half remained Roman Catholic and under Spanish rule.

By this time, the southern Low Countries the territory now known as Belgium had become embroiled in Franco-Spanish power politics. Belgium was invaded on several occasions, and part of its territory was lost to France.


The country was occupied by the French during the War of the Austrian Succession but was restored to Austria by the Treaty of Aixla-Chapelle Belgium entered a period of recovery and material progress under Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II. Leopold II, successor to Joseph II , defeated the Belgians and reoccupied the country, but his regime won little popular support. In , the French army invaded the Belgian provinces, which were formally ceded to France by the Treaty of Campo Formio This French regime was defeated by the anti-Napoleonic coalition at Waterloo in Belgium was united with the Netherlands by the Congress of Vienna in This action caused widespread discontent, culminating in a series of uprisings.

The Dutch were compelled to retreat, and on 4 October , Belgium was declared independent by a provisional government. The powers of the Congress of Vienna met again at London in June and accepted the separation of Belgium and the Netherlands. However, William I, king of the United Netherlands, refused to recognize the validity of this action. On 2 August , he invaded Belgium, but the Dutch force was repulsed by a French army.

The European powers guaranteed Belgium's status as "an independent and perpetually neutral state. In , the Belgian Parliament had chosen Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as ruler of the new kingdom, which was already in the process of industrialization. Leopold's nephew, Albert I , came to the throne in The Belgian army offered fierce resistance, but by the end of November , the only Belgian towns not occupied by the Germans were Nieuport Nieuwpoort , Furnes Veurne , and Ypres. Belgium, on the side of the Allies, continued to struggle to liberate the kingdom.

Attrition of first World War etched like scars into Flanders landscape

Ypres, in particular, was the scene of fierce fighting: nearly , men lost their lives at a battle near there in April and May during which the Germans used chlorine gas , and at least , Allied troops lost their lives in this region during an offensive that lasted from late July to mid-November Vith, and Moresnet.

The country made a remarkable recovery from the war, and by , manufacturing industries were nearly back to normal. After a heated controversy with Germany over reparations payments, Belgium joined France in the occupation of the Ruhr in Belgium was again attacked on 10 May , when, without warning, the German air force bombed Belgian airports, railroad stations, and communications centers, and Belgian soil was invaded. Antwerp fell on 18 May and Namur on 23 May. By the end of the month, British, French, and Belgian forces were trapped in northwestern Belgium.

The Belgian government-in-exile, in London, continued the war on the side of the Allies. With the country's liberation from the Germans by the Allies and the well-organized Belgian underground, the Belgian government returned to Brussels in September In his absence, his brother Prince Charles was designated by parliament as regent of the kingdom. However, a tense political situation resulted from the split that had developed during the war years between Leopold III and the exiled government in London, which had repudiated the king's surrender.

After his liberation by the US 7th Army, the king chose to reside in Switzerland.


On 12 March , The general elections of 4 June gave an absolute majority to the Christian Social Party, which favored his return, and on 22 July , Leopold came back from exile. But the Socialists and Liberals continued to oppose his resumption of royal prerogatives, and strikes, riots, and demonstrations ensued. On 1 August , Leopold agreed to abdicate, and on 17 July , one day after Leopold actually gave up his throne, his son Baudouin I was formally proclaimed king. In , the Belgian Congo now the Democratic Republic of the Congo , a major vestige of Belgium's colonial empire, became independent.

The event was followed by two years of brutal civil war, involving mercenaries from Belgium and other countries. Another Belgian territory in Africa, Ruanda-Urundi, became independent as the two states of Rwanda and Burundi in Belgium was transferred into a federal state in July The country is divided into three regions Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels and three linguistic communities Flemish, French, and German.

Voters directly elect members to the regional parliaments. The French-speaking branch of the Socialist party dominates Wallonia while the Dutch-speaking faction of the Christian Democratic Party governs Flanders. As a participant in the Marshall Plan , a member of NATO , and a leader in the movement for European integration, Belgium shared fully in the European prosperity of the first three postwar decades. Domestic political conflict during this period centered on the unequal distribution of wealth and power between Flemings and Walloons. The Flemings generally contended that they were not given equal opportunity with the Walloons in government and business and that the Dutch language was regarded as inferior to French.

The Walloons, in turn, complained of their minority status and the economic neglect of their region and feared being outnumbered by the rapidly growing Flemish population. In response to these conflicts, and after a series of cabinet crises, a revised constitution adopted in created the framework for complete regional autonomy in economic and cultural spheres. In July , legislation provided for the granting of autonomy to Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels upon a two-thirds vote in parliament.

However, the necessary consensus could not be realized. In , a Christian Social — Socialist coalition proposed to establish a federal administration representing the three regions, but could not obtain parliamentary approval for the proposal.

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In , however, following several acts of violence as a result of the dispute, parliament allowed the establishment in stages of regional executive and legislative bodies for Flanders and Wallonia, with administrative control over cultural affairs, public health , roads, and urban projects. Labor unrest and political violence has erupted in the past. In , as a result of an industrial recession, worsened by rising petroleum prices and debt servicing costs, the government imposed an austerity program; an intensification of the austerity program, announced in May , aimed to cut public sector spending, restrain wages, and simplify the taxation system.

Vigorous tradeunion protests have taken place to protest the freezing of wages and cuts in social security payments. Belgium has one of the largest national debts in Western Europe. Since , however, unions have gone along with pay freezes to restore profitability and improve labor market performance. A riot in May , at a soccer match between English and Italian clubs, caused the death of 39 spectators and precipitated a political crisis. The government coalition collapsed over charges of inefficient policing, and a general election returned the Christian Social — Liberal alliance to power in November This in turn accelerated terrorist attacks on public places as well as NATO facilities, responsibility for which was claimed by an extreme left-wing group, Cellules Combattantes Communistes CCC.

Security was tightened in Linguistic disputes between the French- and Dutch-speaking sections have continued to break out. Extremist parties have sought to capitalize on anti-immigrant feeling among the general population. The Flemish Blok now Flemish Interest has been the third-largest party in Flanders and openly advocates an independent Flanders in order to get rid of French-speakers and foreigners. Belgium joined the European economic and monetary union in January with no problems. In Wallonia, the Socialists came in first.

In both elections, the Greens suffered. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, in office since , formed a center-left coalition of Liberals and Socialists after the May elections. Under Verhofstadt's leadership, Belgium legalized euthanasia and the use of marijuana, and approved gay marriages. Under Belgium's "universal jurisdiction" law, enacted in , Belgian courts can hear cases involving war crimes and crimes against humanity even if the crimes were not committed in Belgium and did not involve Belgian citizens.

Amendments to the law in April made it harder to bring a case where neither victim, plaintiff, nor accused were Belgian.

Bush were charged with war crimes under the law, relating to the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon , and the bombing of a civilian shelter in the Gulf War , respectively. Due to pressure from the United States , Belgian courts now may try only cases which involve charges against Belgian citizens or people resident in Belgium.

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The European Union was divided over the use of military force by the United States and UK in the months leading up to the war in Iraq that began on 19 March Belgium stood with France and Germany in opposing a military response to the crisis. In , the far-right Vlaams Blok increased its share of the vote in regional and European elections.

However, the Belgian High Court ruled that the party was racist and stripped it of the right to state funding and access to television. The party was subsequently reorganized under a new name, the Vlaams Belang, or Flemish Interest. In May , the government survived a confidence vote, enabling it to put to rest a dispute over the voting rights of French speakers in Dutch-speaking areas around Brussels. This came after months of negotiations over the issue, which sparked demonstrations and riots and brought the government to the brink of collapse. Belgium is a hereditary monarchy governed under the constitution of This document has been frequently amended in recent years to grant recognition and autonomy to the Dutch- and French-speaking communities.

Executive power is vested in the king, who appoints and removes ministers, civil servants, judges, and officers. In June , parliament approved a constitutional amendment to allow female members of the royal family to succeed to the throne. The monarch, however, would continue to be known as king regardless of gender.