Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Herman Van Rompuy, a Flemish Christian Democrat who had ended 18 months of political crisis in Belgium after becoming prime minister in December 2008, resigned in November 2009 to assume his new post as the first permanent president of the European Council. He was replaced as prime minister by his predecessor and fellow Christian Democrat, Yves Leterme.
Modern Belgium dates to 1830, when the territory broke away from the Netherlands and formed an independent constitutional monarchy. The territory that constitutes present-day Belgium had previously been in the possession of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs and Napoleonic France, as well as briefly the Netherlands. History accounts for its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and to some extent, tension. In the 20th century, Belgium became one of the founding members of the European Union (EU) and still hosts the organization’s central administration in Brussels.
Ethnic and linguistic conflicts prompted a series of constitutional amendments in 1970, 1971, and 1993 that devolved considerable power from the central government to the three regions in the federation: French-speaking Wallonia in the south, Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, and Brussels, the capital, where French and Flemish share the same official status. The small German minority in Wallonia, which consists of around 70,000 people, has also been accorded cultural autonomy.
Prior to the 2007 parliamentary elections, cultural and economic differences between the country’s regions had contributed to political rifts between Flemish and Francophone parties across the ideological spectrum, with the wealthier Flemish north seeking increased self-rule and reduced taxpayer support for the less prosperous Wallonia.Flanders premier Yves Leterme’s centrist Christian Democratic and Flemish (CDV) party—in an electoral bloc with the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA)—led the June elections with 30 of 150 seats in the lower house. The remaining seats were divided among 10 other factions. Leterme was invited by King Albert II to form a new government, but because the Flemish and Walloon parties were unable to agree on coalition terms after an extraordinary 196 days of negotiations, outgoing prime minister Guy Verhofstadt stayed on as a caretaker. In December 2007, Verhofstadt agreed to the request of King Albert II to form an interim government with the authority to act on pressing economic and other concerns.
In February 2008, a majority of political parties agreed on an outline for limited constitutional reform, which cleared the way for Leterme to become prime minister the following month. However, he was unable to consolidate support after taking office. The king rejected his offer to resign in July, after he failed to win approval for a regional autonomy plan, and lawmakers began to leave the ruling coalition during the fall. Leterme’s government was ultimately brought down at the end of the year after being accused of interfering in a court case concerning the failed bank, Fortis. The prime minister offered his resignation again in December, this time refusing to return to his post. On December 30, the king swore in Herman Van Rompuy, also of the CDV, to replace him.
Van Rompuy’s time in office proved to be brief, but noteworthy. His 11-month term is regarded as a time during which the instabilities and divisions of the recent past were laid to rest. In part due to his burgeoning reputation as a consensus-builder, Van Rompuy emerged in the fall of 2009 as a leading candidate to fill the new position of the first permanent president of the European Council, the supreme intergovernmental decision-making body in the EU comprising the heads of state and government of the member states. The post was created by the Lisbon Treaty to end the six-month rotation of the Council’s presidency between the heads of state of the country holding the presidency of the EU. Van Rompuy was unanimously appointed by the 27 EU member states on November 19. On November 24, it was announced that Leterme would succeed Van Rompuy as prime minister.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Belgium is an electoral democracy. Parliament consists of two houses: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The 150 members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected directly by proportional representation. In the Senate, there are 71 seats, with 40 filled by direct popular vote and 31 by indirect vote. In both houses, members serve four-year terms. The prime minister, who is the leader of the majority party or coalition, is appointed by the monarch and approved by Parliament.The party system is highly fragmented, with each standard ideological niche occupied by separate Flemish and Walloon parties.
In November 2004, Belgian courts banned the xenophobic Vlaams Blok party for violating the country’s antiracism laws. The party changed its name to Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) and removed some of the most overtly racist elements from its platform. However, the party maintains its opposition to immigration and commitment to an independent Flanders. The party was the third-largest vote-earner in the 2007 Chamber of Deputies elections, taking 12 percent of the vote and 17 seats. It won 16 percent of the Dutch-speaking vote in the 2009 European Parliament election.
Belgium has minimal issues regarding corruption and was ranked 21 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedoms of speech and the press are guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected by the government. Belgians have access to numerous private media outlets. However, concentration of newspaper ownership has progressed in recent decades, leaving most of the country’s papers in the hands of a few corporations. A law on the protection of journalists’ sources was enacted in 2005, in the wake of a 2004 incident in which police raided the home and office of a Brussels reporter. In early 2009, Belgian prosecutors dismissed a complaint of bribery brought by the EU Anti-Fraud Office against Hans-Martin Tillack, a German journalist for Stern magazine working in Brussels; Tillack had been investigating EU-related fraud and corruption. The government does not limit access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is protected. About half of the country’s population identifies itself as Roman Catholic. However, members of a number of minority religions have complained of discrimination by the government, which has been criticized for its characterization of some non-Catholic groups as “sects.” The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of association is guaranteed by law, except for groups that practice discrimination “overtly and repeatedly.” Freedom of assembly is also respected. About 63 percent of the workforce is unionized. Employers found guilty of firing workers because of union activities are required to reinstate the workers or pay an indemnity.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. Although conditions in prisons and detention center meet most international standards, many continue to suffer from overcrowding.
Specific antiracism laws prohibit and penalize the incitement of discrimination, acts of hatred, and violence based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. However, there have been complaints about the treatment of rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, who have often been held in unsanitary conditions in Brussels national airport, sometimes for several months. The European Court of Human Rights in 2008 ordered Belgium to pay two Palestinian asylum seekers 15,000 Euros each (roughly $22,000) in damages after they were detained in the airport in 2002. Belgium decided in 2009 to regularize 25,000 illegal immigrants. The wearing of the hijab is prohibited in several municipalities in Flanders.
The law provides for the free movement of citizens at home and abroad, and the government does not interfere with these rights.
The government actively promotes equality for women. In 2003, it created the Institute for the Equality of Men and Women, formerly the Ministry of Labor’s Division of Equal Opportunity, which is empowered to initiate sex-discrimination lawsuits. Women won more than 35 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 38 percent of the seats in the Senate, during the 2007 elections. Belgium is a destination and transit point for trafficked persons. However, according to the 2009 U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, the country complies fully with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, including financing nongovernmental organizations that assist victims.