A low-lying country in the Benelux, Belgium (Dutch: Belgium, French: Belgium, German: Belgium) lies at the crossroads of Western Europe. It unites the two historical monuments for which the continent is known with spectacular modern architecture and rural idylls, while the capital, Brussels, is the headquarters of the European Union.
Nevertheless, Belgium is not without its divisions. On the contrary, Flanders, the northern part of the country that speaks Dutch and Wallonia, the southern, French-speaking area are often at odds with each other and it would sometimes appear that their disputes will divide the country in half. However, these seemingly incompatible situations bring both half of Belgium together to create a country which contains some of the most attractive and historical cities in Europe and which is a real ‘must-see’ for every visitor of the continent.
Belgium’s immediate neighbors lie on the North Sea coast: France in the southwest, Luxembourg in the southeast, Germany in the east and the Netherlands in the north.
Belgium is a densely populated country that tries to find a balance between the conflicting demands of urbanisation, transport, industry and commercial and intensive agriculture. It imports large quantities of raw materials and exports a large volume of industrial products, mainly to the EU.
Belgium borders France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Its total area, including water areas, is 30,528 square kilometers; land area alone is 30,278 km2. It is located between latitudes 49°30 and 51°30 N, with longitudes 2°33 and 6°24 E.
There are three main geographical areas in Belgium.
Its coastal plain is composed mostly of sand dunes and polders. Further inland is a gentle, slowly rising landscape irrigated by numerous watercourses, with fertile valleys and the northeastern sandy plain of the Campine(Kempen). The heavily forested hills and plateaus found in the Ardennes is more rugged and rocky with its caves as well as small gorges. This area, which extends westward into France, is joined to the east by the High Fens with the Eifel in Germany, where the Signal de Botrange, at 694 meters, is the highest point in the country.
The climate is maritime-moderate with considerable rainfall in all seasons (Köppen climate classification: Cfb), as in most of northwestern Europe. In January, the average temperature is the lowest with 3 °C and in July it is the highest with 18 °C. Average precipitation per month varies from 54 millimeters in February or April to 78 mm in July. The average values for the years 2000 to 2006 show daily temperature minima of 7 °C and maxima of 14 °C, and monthly precipitation of 74 mm; these are about 1 °C and almost 10 millimeters above the normal values of the last century, respectively.
Because of its high density of population, its industrialization, and its location in the center of Western Europe, Belgium continues to face several environmental problems. Belgium also has one of the highest waste recycling rates in Europe. In particular, the Flemish region of Belgium has the highest waste recycling rate in Europe. Almost 75% of the municipal waste generated there is reused, recycled or composted.
On 1 January 2015, the total population of Belgium was 11,190,845 according to the population register. Almost the entire population is urban, 97% in 2004. Belgium’s population density in March 2013 was 365 per square kilometre (952 per square mile). Flanders is the most densely populated area. And the Ardennes has the lowest density. The Flemish region had 6,437,680 inhabitants, with the most populated cities being Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges. Wallonia is the most densely populated, with Charleroi (202,021), Liège (194,937) and Namur (110,447). Brussels has 1,167,951 inhabitants in the 19 municipalities of the Capital Region, three of which have more than 100,000 inhabitants.
In 2007, almost 92% of the population held Belgian citizenship, other EU members accounted for about 6%. Among the most common foreign nationalities are Italians (171,918), French (125,061), Dutch (116,970), Moroccans (80,579), Portuguese (43,509), Spanish (42,765), Turkish (39,419) and German (37,621). In 2007, 1.38 million foreign-born residents lived in Belgium, representing 12.9% of the total population. Among them, 685,000 (6.4%) where born outside the EU while 695,000 (6.5%) was born in another EU Member State.
It was estimated that people with a foreign background as well as their descendants made up approximately 25% of the total population. Among those new Belgians, 1,200,000 had European ancestry and 1,350,000 originated from non-Western countries. including Morocco, Turkey and the DR Congo. Since the amendment of the Belgian Nationality Act in 1984, more than 1.3 million migrants have acquired Belgian nationality. Moroccans are the largest group of immigrants in Belgium with more than 450,000. Turks are the third largest group and the second largest Muslim ethnic group with 220,000 people.
Since the country’s independence, Roman Catholicism, balanced by strong free-thinking movements, has played an important role in Belgian politics. Nevertheless, Belgium is very much a secular nation, since the secular constitution provides freedom of religion and generally governments have respected this legal right in practice.
Roman Catholicism has traditionally been the majority religion in Belgium, particularly in Flanders. In 2009, Sunday church attendance was 5% throughout Belgium, 3% in Brussels and 5.4% in Flanders. Despite the decline in church attendance, Catholic identity remains an important part of Belgian culture.
According to the latest Eurobarometer survey in 2010, 37% of Belgian citizens replied that they believe there is a God. 31% replied that they believe there is some kind of spirit or life force. 27% replied that they do not believe that there is some kind of spirit, god or life force. 5% did not answer.
In symbolic and material terms, the Catholic Church continues to be in a very favourable position. Belgium has three officially recognised religions: Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican), Islam and Judaism.
At the beginning of the 2000s, there were approximately 42,000 Jews in Belgium. In Antwerp, the Jewish community ( with approximately 18,000 people) represents one of the largest communities in Europe and also one of the last locations in the world in which Yiddish is the main language of a large Jewish community (comparable to some Orthodox and Hasidic communities in New York and Israel). Moreover, most Jewish children in Antwerp receive a Jewish education. There are several Jewish newspapers and more than 45 active synagogues (including 30 in Antwerp) in the country.
A 2006 survey in Flanders, which is considered a more religious region than Wallonia, found that 55% consider themselves religious and 36% believe that God created the universe. On the other hand, Wallonia is one of the most secular/ least religious regions in Europe. The majority of the French-speaking population does not regard religion as an important part of its life and as many as 45% of the population describe themselves as irreligious. This is particularly the case in eastern Wallonia and in the areas along the French border.
An estimate made in 2008 shows that approximately 6% of the Belgian population (628,751 people) is Muslim. 23.6% of the Brussels population, 4.9% of Wallonia and 5.1% of Flanders is Muslim. Most of Belgium’s Muslims reside in larger cities including Brussels, Antwerp and Charleroi. The largest group of immigrants in Belgium are the Moroccans with 400,000 people. Turks are the third largest group and the second largest ethnic Muslim group with 220,000 people.
According to new surveys on religiosity in the European Union conducted by Eurobarometer in 2012, Christianity is the largest religion in Belgium with 65% of Belgians. Catholics are the largest Christian group in Belgium with 58% of Belgian citizens, while Protestants account for 2% and other Christians for 5%. Non-belies/agnostics make up 20%, atheists 7% and Muslims 5%.
Its highly integrated globalised economy and transport infrastructure has been well connected to the rest of Europe. Its position at in the heart of a highly industrious region played a part in making it the 15th biggest trading nation in the world. The economy is characterised by a highly productive labour force, a high GNP and high exports per capita.
With a strong service orientation, the Belgian economy shows a dual nature: a vibrant Flemish economy followed by a Walloon economy that lags behind. As a founding member of the EU, Belgium is a strong supporter for an open economy and for the increase of EU institutions’ powers in order to integrate the national economies of its members. Since 1922, Belgium and Luxembourg have formed a common trade market with customs and monetary union through the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union.
Belgium was the first continental European country to experience the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century. Mining and steel production developed rapidly in Liège and Charleroi and flourished in the Sambre and Meuse valleys until the mid-20th century, making Belgium one of the three most industrialised nations in the world from 1830 to 1910. However, during the 1840s, Flanders’ textile industry was in serious crisis which resulted in the region experiencing starvation from 1846 to 1850.
Following the WWII, Ghent and Antwerp have experienced tremendous expansion in the chemical and oil industries. The oil crises in 1973 and 1979 sent the economy into recession; it was particularly protracted in Wallonia, where the steel industry was no longer competitive and suffered a severe decline. In the 1980s and 1990s, the country’s economic centre shifted further north and is now concentrated in the populous Flemish Diamond area.
By the end of the 1980s, Belgian macroeconomic policies had led to a cumulative public debt of about 120% of GDP. In 2006, the budget was balanced and the public debt was 90.30% of GDP. In 2005 and 2006, real GDP growth rates were slightly above the Eurozone average at 1.5% and 3.0%, respectively. The unemployment rate was close to the region’s average at 8.4% in 2005 and 8.2% in 2006. By October 2010, this had risen to 8.5%, compared to an average rate of 9.6% for the European Union (EU 27) as a whole. From 1832 to 2002, the Belgian currency was the Belgian franc. Belgium switched to the euro in 2002, with the first euro coin sets minted in 1999. The standard Belgian euro coins intended for circulation show the portrait of the monarch (initially King Albert II, since 2013 King Philippe).
Even though there was an 18% decrease between 1970 and 1999, Belgium continues to have the densest rail network in the European Union, with 113.8 km/1,000 km2 in 1999. On the other hand, during the same period, 1970-1999, the motorway network grew enormously (+56%). In 1999, the motorway density per 1000 km2 and 1000 inhabitants was 55.1 and 16.5 respectively, well above the EU averages of 13.7 and 15.9.
Belgium has one of the highest congestion rates in Europe. In 2010, commuters in Brussels and Antwerp were stuck in traffic jams for 65 and 64 hours a year respectively. As in most smaller European countries, more than 80% of air traffic is handled by a single airport, Brussels Airport. The ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge account for more than 80% of Belgian maritime traffic. Antwerp is the second largest European port with a gross handling weight of 115,988,000 tonnes in 2000, after a growth of 10.9 % over the last five years.
There is a significant economic gap between Flanders and Wallonia. Wallonia has historically been prosperous compared to Flanders, mainly due to heavy industry, but the decline of the steel industry after the Second World War led to a rapid decline in the region, while Flanders has experienced rapid growth. Since then, Flanders has done well and is one of the most prosperous regions in Europe, while Wallonia has been in decline. Since 2007, unemployment in Wallonia has been more than twice as high as in Flanders. This discrepancy has contributed to the tensions between Flemings and Walloons, on top of the existing language gap. As a result, the independence movements in Flanders have gained great popularity. For example, the separatist party New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) is the largest party in Flanders.