Belgium

Belgium became independent from the Netherlands in 1830. It was occupied by Germany during World Wars I and II. The country prospered in the past half century as a modern, technologically-advanced European state and a member of NATO and the EU. Tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish of the north and the French-speaking Walloons of the south have led, in recent years, to constitutional amendments granting these regions formal recognition and autonomy.

In 1948 Belgium became a co-signatory to the Benelux Customs Union along with the Netherlands and Luxembourg. This later became the Benelux Economic Union in 1958 and in 2008 the treaty between the three countries was renewed and revised under the title of the Benelux Union. Belgium was a founding member of NATO (it is the site of NATO Headquarters) in 1949 and the European Economic Community (EEC) (now the European Union (EU)) in 1957 and also participated in the introduction of the Euro (EUR) in a two-phased approach in 1999 (accounting phase) and 2002 (monetary phase) to replace the Belgian Franc (BEF). Belgium is also a member country of the Schengen Area in which border controls with other Schengen members have been eliminated while at the same those with non-Schengen countries have been strengthened.

Belgium is roughly triangular in shape. It is bounded on the north by Netherlands and the North Sea, on the east by Germany and Luxembourg, and on the south and south-west of France. Belgium has an area of 30,528 sq km (11,787 sq mi). The country is about 280 km (about 175 mi) long, measured in a southeast-northwest direction, and about 145 km (about 90 mi) wide.

Location: Western Europe, bordering France 620 km, Germany 167 km, Luxembourg 148 km, Netherlands 450 km

Capital: Brussels

Climate: Temperate

Population: 10,438,353

Religion: Roman Catholicism (58%),   Agnostic/Non-religious (20%), Atheist (7%),  Other Christian (7%),   Islam (5%)

Government: federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch

The climate of Belgium is cool and wet, being influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, especially on the coast and the plain, while it becomes more continental and even more unstable in summer in the south-eastern regions (Ardennes), which are located at higher altitudes, in addition to a greater distance from the sea.

Precipitation is frequent, but not particularly abundant. The coastal area is less rainy and is also slightly more sunny than the inland area: on the coast, in Ostend, 750 millimetres of rain per year fall; in Brussels, a hundred kilometres away from the coast, 820 mm of rain fall; while in Spa, in the Ardennes, the rainfall amount reaches 1,100 mm. 

About 520 sq km (200 sq mi) of reclaimed coastal land is protected from the sea by concrete dikes. As of 2000, Belgium’s most significant environmental problems were air, land, and water pollution due to the heavy concentration of industrial facilities in the country. The sources of pollution range from nuclear radiation to mercury from industry and pesticides from agricultural activity. The country’s water supply is threatened by hazardous levels of heavy metals, mercury, and phosphorous. It has a renewable water supply of 12 cu km. Pollution of rivers and canals was considered the worst in Europe as of 1970, when strict water-protection laws were enacted.

Air pollution reaches dangerous levels due to high concentrations of lead and hydrocarbons. Belgium is also among the 50 nations that emit the highest levels of carbon dioxide from industrial sources. In 1996 its emission level was 106 million metric tons. Belgium’s problems with air pollution have also affected neighboring countries by contributing to the conditions which cause acid rain.

According to a 2001 Survey and Study of Religion conducted by universities within the country, about 47% of the population were nominally Roman Catholic. However, other sources have reported that Roman Catholics account for as high as 75% of the population. The Roman Catholic Church estimates that of its total Belgian membership, only about 10–15% are active participants.

Based on the Survey and Study of Religion, the Muslim population numbered about 364,000, most of whom were Sunni. Protestants numbered between 125,000 and 140,000. Greek and Russian Orthodox adherents numbered about 70,000. The Jewish community was approximately 45,000 to 55,000 and Anglicans numbered approximately 10,800. The largest unrecognized religions included the Jehovah’s Witnesses, with 27,000 members, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), with about 3,000 members. About 350,000 people belong to laics, the government’s term for nonconfessional philosophical organizations. Estimates indicate that up to 15% of the population do not practice any religion at all. About 7.4% claim to follow the tenets of nonconfessional philosophical organizations (laic ).

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and this right is generally respected in practice. The government gives “recognized” status to Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Anglicanism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity. 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.

The name Belgae was originally applied to a Celtic people in Gaul who were conquered by the Romans in the 1st century bc. Later, Germanic elements mingled with the Romanized Celtic strain. In the course of history, the Franks, the Burgundians, the Spaniards, the Austrians, and the French have introduced new elements into the population. Today the people of Belgium are primarily of two ethnic groups, the Flemings (Germanic origin) and the Walloons (Celtic origin, probably with an admixture of Alpine elements). The most distinguishing characteristic of these two groups is language.

The Flemings speak Dutch (often referred to by its historic regional name, Flemish), and the Walloons speak French. The predominantly Flemish provinces are in the northern half of Belgium, called Flanders, and the predominantly Walloon provinces are in the southern half, called Wallonia. The capital of Brussels, an enclave within the Flanders region, is mixed. In 1993 these three ethnolinguistic areas became official federal regions.

Friction between Flemings and Walloons has been a stubborn social and political problem since Belgium gained independence in 1830. French became the official language of government after the Revolution of 1830, which was directed against Netherlands.

Antagonism between the two groups increased after World War II (1939-1945). The Belgian constitution was revised in 1971 and 1980 to provide Flemings with a greater degree of cultural and political autonomy. Today, Flemings continue to outnumber Walloons in Belgium.

The population of Belgium is 10,414,336 (2009 estimate). Nearly 60 percent live in the Flanders region. The overall population density, one of the highest in Europe, is 344 persons per sq km (891 per sq mi). The largest concentrations were in the Brussels, Antwerp, Liège, and Ghent (Gent) industrial areas, as well as in the narrow industrial region between Mons and Charleroi. In recent decades the Limbourg city region has increased in population because of industrial expansion in that area. Almost 10 percent of all Belgians live in Brussels, which is also home to vast numbers of foreign guest workers. Some 97 percent of the population is classified as urban.

A law passed in 1963 established three official languages within Belgium: Dutch was recognized as the official language in the north, French in the south, and German along the eastern border. In the city and suburbs of Brussels, both French and Dutch are officially recognized, although French speakers are the larger group.

In the country as a whole, strictly Dutch speakers make up about 56 percent, and French speakers 32 percent of the population. Only 1 percent of the people speak German, while some 11 percent speak more than one language. In 1971 a constitutional change was enacted giving political recognition to these three linguistic communities, providing cultural autonomy for them, and also revising the administrative status of Brussels.

About 80 percent of the Belgian population is Roman Catholic. Religious liberty is guaranteed, and part of the stipend for the ministers of all faiths is paid by the government. Other religions practiced within the country include Islam, a number of Protestant denominations, and Judaism.

Belgian cuisine particularly that of Brussels and Wallonia, is held in high regard worldwide, and in most of Europe is seen as second only to French in quality – indeed many feel it’s of equal standing. For such a small country, there’s a surprising amount of provincial diversity, but it’s generally true to say that pork, beef, game, fish and seafood – especially mussels – are staple items, often cooked with butter, cream and herbs, or sometimes beer – which is, after all, Belgium’s national drink. Soup is also common, a hearty stew-like affair offered in a huge tureen from which you can help yourself – a satisfying and reasonably priced meal in itself. The better Belgian chefs are often eclectic, dipping into many other cuisines, especially those of the Mediterranean, and also borrowing freely from across their own country’s cultural/linguistic divide.

Wallonian cuisine

Wallonian cuisine is broadly similar to French, based on a fondness for rich sauces and the freshest of ingredients. From the Walloons come truite à l’Ardennaise, trout cooked in a wine sauce; chicorées gratinées au four, chicory with ham and cheese; fricassée Liègeois, basically, fried eggs, bacon and sausage or blood pudding; fricadelles à la bière, meatballs in beer; and carbonnades de porc Bruxelloise, pork with a tarragon and tomato sauce.

The Ardennes, in particular, is well-known for its cured ham (similar to Italian Parma ham) and, of course, its pâté, made from pork, beef, liver and kidney – though it often takes a particular name from an additional ingredient, for example, pâté de faisan (pheasant) or pâté de lièvre (hare). Unsurprisingly, game (gibier) features heavily on most Ardennes menus. Among the many salads you’ll find is salade de Liège, made from beans and potatoes, and salade wallonie, a warm salad of lettuce, fried potatoes and bits of bacon.

Flemish cuisine

In Flanders, the food is more akin to that of the Netherlands, characteristically plainer and simpler. Indeed, for decades traditional Flemish cuisine was regarded with much disdain as crude and unsubtle, but in recent years there’s been a dramatic revival of its fortunes, and nowadays Flemish specialities appear on most menus in the north and there are dozens of speciality Flemish restaurants too.

Commonplace dishes include waterzooi, a soup-cum-stew consisting of chicken or fish boiled with fresh vegetables; konijn met pruimen, an old Flemish standby of rabbit with prunes; paling in ’t groen, eel braised in a green (spinach) sauce with herbs; stoofvlees, beef marinated in beer and cooked with herbs and onions; stoemp, mashed potato mixed with vegetable and/or meat purée; and hutsepot, literally hotchpotch, a mixed stew of mutton, beef and pork.

Cakes, pastries and chocolate

Belgium heaves with patisseries, where you can pick up freshly baked bread and choose from a mouthwatering range of cakes and pastries – from mousse slices through to raspberry tarts and beyond. As almost everyone knows, Belgium is famous for its chocolate and on average each Belgian eats a prodigious 12.5kg of the stuff annually; chocolates are also the favoured gift when visiting friends. The big Belgian chocolatiers, for example Neuhaus, Godiva and Leonidas, have stores in all the main towns and cities, but many consider their products too sugary, one of the reasons why all of Belgium’s cities now boast at least a couple of small, independent chocolate makers. These almost invariably charge more than their bigger rivals, but few would deny the difference in taste.

Drink

No trip to Belgium would be complete without sampling its beer, which is always good, almost always reasonably priced and comes in an amazing variety of brews. There’s a bar on almost every corner and most serve at least twenty types of beer; in some the beer list runs into the hundreds. Traditionally, Belgian bars are cosy, unpretentious places, the walls stained brown by years of tobacco smoke, but in recent years many have been decorated in anything from a sort of potty medievalism (wooden beams etc) through to Art Nouveau and a frugal post-modernist style, which is especially fashionable in the big cities. Many bars serve simple food too, while a significant percentage pride themselves on first-rate food served from a small but well-conceived menu.

Wines and spirits

In Belgium, beer very much overshadows wine, but the latter is widely available with French vintages being the most popular. There’s no one national Belgian spirit, but the Flemings have a penchant – like their Dutch neighbours – for jenever, which is similar to gin, made from grain spirit and flavoured by juniper berries. It’s available in most ordinary as well as specialist bars, the latter selling as many as several hundred varieties. Broadly speaking, jenever comes in two types, young (jonge) and old (oude), the latter characteristically pale yellow and smoother than the former; both are served ice-cold.

Belgium has a fairly liberal society that is tolerant of different races, cultures and religions. In Brussels, particularly, expats will see people of almost every nationality, race or religion going about their daily lives in close proximity.

One thing that some expats may find shocking is the legalisation of prostitution in Belgium, as in the Netherlands. Each big city has its own red light area, complete with scantily clad women in the windows, like in Amsterdam.

Smoking is very common in Belgium. As a country famed for its beer; alcohol is also widely available, more so than in other countries. Most bars, cafés, restaurants and sandwich shops happily sell beer; it is even possible to buy beer in McDonalds. Beer is also considerably cheaper than in some other countries – a can of beer is often cheaper than a can of Coke the same size.

Officially it’s illegal to drink on the street, but in practice, as most bars have an outside area for smokers, this doesn’t seem to be enforced, and it’s not uncommon to see people drinking beer in the park on a warm afternoon. When eating out, tipping is not viewed as mandatory, but a tip is always welcomed.

Expats should note that all Belgian citizens, immigrants, expats and tourists are required to carry some form of identification at all times in Belgium.

LGBT rights in Belgium have been seen as some of the most progressive in Europe and in the world. Same-sex sexual activity was legalized in 1795, with an equal age of consent, except from 1965 until 1985. After granting same-sex couples domestic partnership benefits in 2000, Belgium became the second country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003. Same-sex adoption was completely legalized in 2006 and is equalized with that of opposite-sex adoption. Lesbian couples can get access to IVF as well.

Belgium has frequently been officially referred to as one of the most gay friendly countries in the world, with recent polls indicating that a majority of Belgians support same-sex marriage and adoption.

A few words before you go:

Dutch is the most widely used in terms of the speaking population, so here are a few useful Dutch phrases to help you get by…

Good day / Good morning                           Goede morgen

Good evening                                                   Goede navond

Good night                                                         Goede nacht

Hi                                                                            Hi / Dag

Good bye / Bye                                Tot ziens

See you soon                                                     Gauw tot ziens

See you tomorrow                                          Zie je morgen

How are you?                                                    Hoe gaat het ermee?

Fine thank you                                                  Goed, dank u

And yourself?                                                    En uzelf?

Yes                                                                         Ja

No                                                                          Nee

Please                                                                   Alstublieft

Thank you (very much)                 Dank je/u (zeer)

You are welcome                                             Niets te danken

Excuse me                                                          Neem me niet kwalijk

Pardon?                                                               Pardon?

I don’t understand you                 Ik weet het niet

Could you say that again, please?             kan u dat alstublieft herhalen?

Do you speak English?                                   Spreekt u Engels?

A little                                                                   een beetje

I’m sorry, but…                                 Het spijt me, maar…

That’s a shame  Dat is jammer

May I… ?             Mag ik… ?