|More about: Belgium|
|Patrick E. Merlevede, M.Sc|
Belgium is a small country (approx. 30.500 km² land + 3.000 km² of sea). But its size doesn't mean that explaining it is easy...
The country is situated in the heart of Europe, between The Netherlands, France and Germany. Brussels is the capital of Belgium. This city is also the capital of the European Community and of Flanders, one of the country's Regions. When you travel 2 hours by train from Brussels, depending on the direction you take, you will be in London, Paris, Köln or Amsterdam.
The population is quite dense. There were about 10,6 Million people living in Belgium at the end of 2006 or some 347 persons/km². About 1 Million people live in Brussels. Some 6,1 Million live in Flanders (The Northern part of the country, outside Brussels) and over 3,4 Million live in Wallonie (to the south of Leuven). Antwerp is one of the biggest harbors in Europe. Namur is the capital of Wallonie. Brugge (Bruges) is a very touristic city that has kept its medieval look.
Given its size, Belgium is very much directed towards international trade. 80% of its production is for exports (for 75% to other countries within the European Community). Flanders accounts for 65% of the Belgian economy. It probably has the best educated workforce in the world. Education is free and mandatory till the age of 18. The cost of attending university is very low too (especially compared to the US en the UK). And this investment in people pays off. In a 2001 study of the OESO the Flemish Youth (aged 15) scored the best in the World for maths and reading comprehension while they ended third for sciences (after Japan & North Korea). The Flemish Education system also teaches its high school students 3 to 4 languages. No wonder that in July 1998, Flanders had less than 7% unemployment, which is among the best numbers in Europe (the European average was 11,5%).
The minimum wage is 6,77 USD, one of the highest in the world (OESO study, early 1998), compared to 5,15 USD for the USA. Despite heavy taxes (up to 60%), a very high rate of the population owns its own house (compared France, the UK, the Netherlands, you will get a larger house for less money...). And the Health of nations survey by WMRC (World Markets Research Center) on Health Care (March 2002) selected Belgium as the country with the best quality of medical services world wide (and these services are the most accessible to everyone as well)!
According to "We Europeans", a book by Richard Hill, the Belgians have a reputation of being pragmatic (or opportunistic), materialistic and open-minded. They are not very chauvinistic and they insist on their individual rights. They have a natural affinity with creature comforts, the sorts of things that money will buy, like good food, a cozy home (every Belgian has 'a brick in his belly)', a smart car and so on. "Manneken Pis" and "Friet met Mayonnaise" are considered National symbols.
Life in Belgium is good. Belgium also has reputation for offering better French Kitchen than what you'll find in France. Typical for Belgium are its beers: Belgium has the greatest diversity of beers (over 600 or so), many of them flavored with herbs, spices and fruits.
The population in Belgium is pretty diverse for Europe. About 10% of the people living here have another nationality. Apart from Eurocrats, and international managers, large groups of immigrants came from countries like Italy, Morocco and Turkey. There are also about 600.000 Belgians living abroad. The country's official languages are Dutch, French and German. A lot of Belgians speak several languages. In Flanders, the population has Dutch a native language. In Wallonie they speak French. In Brussels, both languages are spoken. A lot of Belgians also speak English.
Flanders has historically been among the
richest regions of Europe (and it still is). In the 15th century
Bruges was one of the biggest harbors of Europe. A role that was
taken over by Antwerp in the 16th century. A third "art
city", Gent, also has a large port and a rich cultural
background. Now Brussels, the fourth of the "art
Cities", is the capital of the European Community. Famous
painters like Breugel, Jordaens, Rubens, Ensor are typical
product of Flemish art. Delvaux and Magritte, are 2 famous
surrealist painters of this century.
If culture and history interest you, a quick visit to these 4 towns will take you at least 1 day each!
Belgium has been called "an accident of history". It is made of leftovers of other European countries. During the history it has been part of the Roman, French, Spanish, Austrian Empire. When Napoleon was defeated in 1815, it was merged with The Netherlands, but it finally gained its independence in 1830 after a revolution. Due to its central location in Europe, Belgium was the site for many "famous" battles, such as Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated. During the first World War (1914-1918), a part of Flanders was the main battle field of Europe, around the city of Ypres (Oh, Flanders Fields, where the poppies grow...). The country was again occupied by the Germans during the Second World War and remains known for the battle of the Ardennes (Winter 1994). The national holiday is July 21st.
Belgium is a Kingdom with a democratic elected parliament, but the government is really "in control". The prime minister and his ministers are pulling the strings of the members of parliament. The only real significance of the king is that his task is to keep Belgium together, as some say. Apart from the Federal Government, each region has its own elected parliament and government. Matters like education, health care, environment, agriculture are governed from a regional level.
I live in Eeklo. This small town (20000 people) is situated in the Flanders, half way between Bruges and Gent. It is a quiet place, with a lot of woods and fields surrounding the area. But since Belgium is a small country, it takes only 30 minutes by car to Gent, Bruges or to the coast. Antwerp and Brussels are a bit further away: without traffic jams, it takes me about an hour to reach these 2 cities. It takes me about 2,5 hours to get in Paris (by car or by train). Using the Eurostar (train) getting in London or Köln is easy (and fast) as well.
(c) Patrick E. Merlevede, Page last modified on