Eglise Notre Dame in Bruges
Belgium is a northwestern European country, sharing borders with Germany and Luxembourg to the east, France to the south and southwest and to the north; it is bounded by the North Sea and the Netherlands. The population consists mostly of Dutch speaking Flemings in the north of the country and French speaking Walloons who live in the south. Belgium, together with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, are known as the Low, or Benelux, Countries.
Roughly triangular in shape, Belgium is about 282 km long and about 145 km wide. It is divided into the three federal regions of Brussels, Flanders, and Wallonia, which are further subdivided into the ten provinces of Antwerpen, Flemish Brabant, Walloon Brabant, East Flanders, Hainaut, Liège, Limbourg, Luxembourg, Namur, and West Flanders.
Belgium can be divided into several geographic regions. The three main regions are the Ardennes highlands, the central plateau, and the coastal plain.
The densely forested Ardennes highlands in the southeast, south of the Meuse River valley, include Mount Botrange, which, at 694 meters, is Belgium's highest point. It is located in the middle of the heavily populated triangle of Paris, Brussels, and Cologne. The area is generally rocky and poorly suited to agriculture and supports only heath, the wooded areas are used primarily for recreational purposes; timber is imported for the country’s paper industry.
Middle Belgium is a gently rolling, slightly elevated plateau, crossed by tributaries of the Schelde River and containing a number of wide, fertile valleys with rich, alluvial soil. Caves, grottoes, and ravines are found in parts of this area.
The coastal plain extends inland about 16 to 48 km on the northwest and rises from sea level to about 20 m. Along the North Sea is Maritime Flanders, a low-lying area consisting mainly of sand dunes and polders, (sections of land reclaimed from the sea and protected by dikes) with a thriving agriculture. Lying inland are the flat pastures of Flanders, drained by canals.
There are about 1,520km of canals and navigable rivers in Belgium. The main access to the sea for Belgian shipping is via the Schelde and Meuse estuaries. Both rivers rise in France and are for the most part navigable throughout Belgium. Ocean going vessels can reach Antwerp at full tide thanks to a channel in the western Schelde. After a course of 435 km, the Schelde empties into the North Sea in Dutch territory. Along with the lower Rhine and the Meuse rivers, it drains one of the world's most densely populated areas. The chief tributaries of the Schelde are the Lys, Dendre, Senne, and Rupel rivers.
An important waterway in Western Europe, the Meuse is 950 km long; its main tributaries are the Sambre and Ourthe rivers. It is joined by the Lesse River, which rises in the Ardennes and follows a winding course northwest for 84 km, flowing through the Grottoes of Han, famous for their stalactites and stalagmites.
The climate near the sea is mild, but humid. In Ostend, on the coast, annual rainfall averages about 600 mm and average temperatures range from 1°C in January to 20° C in July. Farther inland, away from the sea's calming influence, there is a notable increase in the range of temperatures. In Brussels, average temperatures range from -1°C in January to 23° C in July, and there is an average annual rainfall of about 860 mm, spread evenly throughout the year. In the Ardennes region hot summers alternate with cold winters, and fog and drizzle are common. April and November are especially rainy but the heavy rains are restricted to the highlands.
In ancient times, Belgium was inhabited by the Belgae, a Celtic people. Conquered by Caesar in 57 BC it became the Roman province of Belgica. Then in the 3rd century AD, it became part of Charlemagne's kingdom. When the kingdom of the Franks was partitioned in 843, Belgium was incorporated in the duchy of Lorraine. By the late 15th century the territories of the Netherlands, gradually united and passed to the Habsburgs.
In 1549, the Low Countries came under Spanish rule, eventually becoming independent in 1648. However, the south was reconquered by Spain and it remained Spanish until 1713 when it was transferred to Austria. In 1719 the Austrian Netherlands were annexed by revolutionary France. Then in 1815 North and South Netherlands were united under William, King of Orange-Nassau, finally becoming the independent Kingdom of Belgium after the revolt of 1830.
Belgium joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April 1949, and in 1957 was instrumental in the founding of the European Economic Community (EEC), which in 1967 merged with Euratom and the European Coal and Steel Community, to form the European Community, now called the European Union (EU).
In the 1970s and ‘80s, three nearly autonomous regions were created, according to the language spoken, (Flemish in Flanders, French in Wallonia, and both in Brussels). These three regions gained greater autonomy in 1993 when Belgium became a federation.
The Grand Place in Brussels
Belgium's industry gives its population one of the highest gross domestic products in the world. With few natural resources of its own, Belgium has to import raw materials to process into manufactured goods for export. Belgium’s economy is dependent upon its exports to other European Union countries.
Important industries include textiles, carpet making, pharmaceuticals, photographic supplies, glassware, furniture, paper and cartons, cement, fertilizers and plastics. Other important industries are shipbuilding, and manufacturing of railway equipment. Diamond cutting is a major source of industrial diamonds. Belgium also produces iron and steel, manufacturing heavy machinery, structural steelwork, and industrial equipment.
Belgium is a net food exporter, agriculture employs about 3 percent of the total labour force, and livestock and dairy farming are major industries, as is fishing. Fishing out of the main port of Ostend, Belgium's fleet catches plaice, sole, cod, and skate from the North Sea to Iceland.
European Commission Building in Brussels
Belgium is a constitutional monarchy with a parliament composed of two legislative houses. The head of state is the monarch, who, with the support of parliament, appoints the prime minister, and the head of government is the prime minister, who chooses the cabinet. The legislature consists of a Senate and a Chamber of Representatives. Members of the Senate are elected through a combination of direct and indirect methods, while the Chamber of Representatives is directly elected. Voting is obligatory for all citizens over the age of 18.
Local government is, by tradition, very autonomous. There is a two-tiered system of regional government; each of the three federal regions elects its own council, and there are independent language councils for the different communities. Each of the ten provinces has a directly elected council and each province is subdivided into administrative districts, called communes. The directly elected town councils advise the monarch on the appointment of the burgomaster to oversee the communes. There is also an executive body called the board of aldermen, which is elected by the council.
There is an independent judiciary with powers equal to those of the executive and legislative departments. The highest tribunals are the five courts of appeal, the five labour courts and the Supreme Court of Justice. In the courts of assize, 12 jurors decide all cases by majority vote; they also refer cases to the courts of appeal, which review both civil and criminal matters. In 1989, a special court was set up to resolve constitutional conflicts.