Belgium’s contemporary history is history after 1993. Belgium’s modern history is marked by the contradictions between the three regions of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. In 1988, the process of making Belgium a federal state with three autonomous (autonomous) regions began. In 1993, this process was completed.
Regional contradictions and economic problems
The conflict between the regions characterized Belgian politics throughout the 1980s. After 1993, Belgium is a federal state with three regions, where the interests of the linguistic minorities in the different regions are also taken care of. The hope is that the tripling will reduce the cultural and linguistic contradictions in the country.
In the 1980s, Belgium’s industry was characterized by extensive economic problems. The crisis in the coal mines and in the steel mills hit the traditionally more industrialized Wallonia stronger than the previously mainly agricultural- dominated Flanders, where new high-tech industry was growing rapidly. This development has led to the economic center of gravity being gradually shifted northwards, thus reinforcing regional contradictions.
The cultural and economic problems made it difficult to get the legs of powerful governments. Christian Democrat Wilfried Martens, with alternating parliamentary support, managed to sit as head of government, so to speak, continuously during the period 1979-1992. Both Martens and his successor Jean-Luc Dehaene (Christian Democrat) led a partly hard- fought economic policy, with devaluation, wage halt and large cuts in public budgets to overcome unemployment, without fail. In the period 1985–95, unemployment in Belgium was among the highest in Europe (13–14%).
The 1991 and 1994 elections
The economic problems led to severe pressure on the established political parties. At the 1991 elections, separatist groups, environmental parties and right-wing extremists became the big winners. At the 1994 general elections, the separatist, far-right, Vlaams Blok became the largest party in the country’s second largest city, Antwerp.
In 1994, the Minister of Transport had to step down after he was suspected of corruption. The reason was that the Italian helicopter company Agusta had paid large sums to the Walloon Socialist Party after receiving a contract for the delivery of helicopters to the Belgian defense. The Agusta case led to a total of 12 politicians being convicted of corruption. The affair also cost former Secretary of Economy and Foreign Affairs Willy Claes the position of Secretary General in NATO.
In 1996, another scandal added to the revelations about corruption and illegal use of hormone additives and environmental toxins in agriculture. The roll-up of a league behind the killings and sexual abuse of toddlers brought many celebrities into the spotlight, and strong criticism was directed at the authorities for outright investigation and for allegedly protecting some members of the league. Several ministers had to leave their positions during the latter part of the 1990s, and both political killings and suicides were linked to the many scandals.
The 1999 and 2003 elections
Against this backdrop, the 1999 parliamentary elections were characterized by protest. The majority were lost to the ruling parties – the socialists and Christian democrats – and Jean-Luc Dehaene had to hand over the prime minister’s post to Guy Verhofstadt of the Flemish Liberal Democrats VLD. The Christian Democrats were hardest hit by the scandals, and the party’s 40-year reign was broken. Verhofstadt led a coalition in which six of the National Assembly’s 11 parties participated. The fact that the VLD, with less than 15% of the vote, became the largest party of the National Assembly illustrated a growing political divide.
At the 2003 elections, VLD and the socialists strengthened their position and continued the government cooperation by close to 2/3 majority in the national assembly – and a program based on tax and tax relief, budget balance and modernization of the public sector.
The green small parties now suffered a heavy defeat and left the coalition. Vlaams Blok (VB) received close to 10% of the vote in 1999 and became the largest in several Flemish big cities during the 2000 local elections. VB’s basic program record is independence for the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders. The electoral protest channeled by the party concerned the relatively liberal immigration policy more than the corruption scandals. The rules for residence permits and asylum were tightened in 2000, while around 70,000 illegal immigrants were offered amnesty.
In 1990, the National Assembly passed a new liberal abortion law. Despite internal divisions in the government, it was agreed not to let the case lead to a government crisis. However, the law triggered a constitutional crisis because, for conscience reasons, King Baudouin refused to approve it. The crisis was resolved by Parliament deposing the king on April 4 and even signing the law. The next day, the King was re-elected as head of state. Baudouin was childless and personally strongly opposed to abortion. He died in 1993 and was succeeded by his brother Albert.
EU and NATO headquarters
Despite political scandals and strong internal demolitions, Belgium has strengthened its position as a key country in Europe. The EU and NATO headquarters are located in Brussels, which is establishing itself as an all-European capital. Belgium has been a driving force in striving for more binding cooperation within the EU, not least because the authorities hope that stronger integration in the EU will also dampen internal regional contradictions.
In its foreign policy, Belgium is concerned with human rights. A 1993 law allowed Belgian authorities to prosecute human rights violations all over the world – so-called universal jurisdiction. The law was first applied in 1994, when four people were convicted in connection with the Rwanda genocide. But political and diplomatic entanglements emerged when charges were filed against, among others, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former US President George Bush Sr. In 2003, the law was amended to apply in practice only to Belgian nationals.
Several criminal cases – with the words pedophilia and racism – have shaken Belgian society and damaged the country’s reputation in recent years, but have also had a mobilizing effect. In 2004, Marc Dutroux was sentenced to life imprisonment and rape against six schoolgirls in the 1990s, four of whom were bestially killed. The case resulted in both government resignations and judicial reform. Dutroux’s fellow runners also received long prison sentences. However, the case did not connect to what was claimed to be a large pedophile network. Hundreds of thousands participated in protest marches against such crimes. Several similar affairs in subsequent years also led to mass demonstrations in the streets, which for the time being culminated when a right-wing extremist killed a pregnant Africanau pair and the Belgian girl she looked after on open street in Antwerp.
The 2004 and 2007 elections
At the 2004 regional elections, the right-wing Vlaam Blok achieved a quarter of the votes in Flanders and thus became the largest party. Shortly thereafter, the party was found guilty of racism and discriminatory attitudes of the Belgian Supreme Court, with the result that it had to be dissolved before it emerged under the name of Vlaams Belang (“Flemish interest / welfare”) and with a somewhat subdued immigration-critical profile. The party continued its progress in several major cities, becoming the second largest in the Flanders region in the June 2007 parliamentary elections.
The conservative Christian Democrats and Flemish Alliance (CD&V), with increased regional self-government as its main point, emerged as the winner of the parliamentary elections; its Walloon sister party also made progress. The losers of the elections became the parties behind the center / left government, and Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt resigned. This marked the beginning of the most prolonged political crisis in the country since 1945. After nine months of business ministries and interim governments, Christian Democrat Yves Leterme in March 2008 was appointed leader of a new coalition. He wanted to cast the cards in July, after failing to pass a constitutional reform that would transfer more power to the regions – and give a clearer division of power between the French – and Dutch-speaking regions – but the dismissal was rejected by King Albert 2. However, in December of that year, the departure was a fact, as a result of a banking scandal – the first European government that could be said to be a victim of the financial crisis. The right-wing coalition, however, was largely continued, with party chairman Herman Van Rompuy as prime minister, from January 2009.
The protracted government crisis led to a sharpening of the debate on the functioning and future of the Belgian federation. During the 175th anniversary as an independent nation in 2005, a question was whether the celebration would also be among the last. However, the Brussels National Party gathered three quarter million people. And while separatist forces carried out flag burning two years later, some 25,000 went on what was supposedly the country’s first national day march, with Belgian flags and federal slogans. But the explosive power is considered to be intact in the linguistic conflict between the Dutch-speaking and prosperous Flanders and the French-speaking and economically more retarded Wallonia.
The change of prime minister in 2009
In November 2009, Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy was named the first EU President, at the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty. A new change of prime minister already after ten months triggered a fear in Belgium that the protracted political crisis of 2007/2008 would flare up again; Van Rompuy was considered to have succeeded in creating calm around the pertinent questions related to language and constituencies. Former Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene was now commissioned to continue this work, while Van Rompuy’s closest predecessor, Christian Democrat Yves Leterme – now Foreign Minister, after being purged in a banking scandal – again took over as head of government, following a deal between the country’s five government parties.