Belgium | Freedom House

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After more than 500 days of negotiations following June 2010 parliamentary elections, a new Belgian government was formed in early December 2011. Elio Di Rupo took office as the first French-speaking prime minister from Wallonia in almost 40 years. Two women were arrested in July for wearing burqas after a ban on the partial or total covering of the face in public came into force earlier that month.

Modern Belgium dates to 1830, when the largely Roman Catholic territory broke away from the mostly Protestant Netherlands and formed an independent constitutional monarchy. In the 20th century, Belgium became one of the founding members of the European Union (EU) and 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; Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north; and Brussels, the capital, where French and Flemish share the same official status. Cultural and economic differences between the regions have 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. Voting takes place along strict linguistic lines; with the exception of the bilingual district encompassing Brussels, parties are only permitted to run in their respective linguistic regions.

In June 2007 parliamentary elections, Flanders premier Yves Leterme’s centrist Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V) party—in an electoral bloc with the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA)—won 30 of 150 seats in the lower house. The remaining seats were divided among 10 other factions. Flemish and Walloon parties were unable to agree on coalition terms after an extraordinary 196 days of negotiations, and in December the king asked outgoing prime minister Guy Verhofstadt 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. He was unable to consolidate support after taking office, however, 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, and on December 30 the king swore in Herman Van Rompuy, also of the CD&V, to replace him.

Van Rompuy was credited with calming the recent political instability, and partly as a result of this success, he was appointed as the first permanent president of the European Council, the EU’s intergovernmental decision-making body, in November 2009. Leterme returned to replace Van Rompuy as prime minister. However, his government fell in April 2010 when its coalition partner, the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD), pulled out; the coalition had disagreed on proposed changes to voting rules in the district encompassing Brussels.

In national elections held in June 2010, the N-VA led with 27 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Francophone Socialist Party (PS) placed second with 26 seats. Coalition negotiations again stalled over a series of issues linked to the balance of power between Flanders and Wallonia. The Leterme government remained in place for most of 2011 in a caretaker capacity. In September, the Dutch and Francophone parties reached a compromise on the fate of a contentious electoral district outside Brussels, and a final agreement was reached at the end of November. The development appeared to be prompted by the Standard & Poors downgrade of Belgium’s credit rating on November 25 as well as warnings from the EU because the country had failed to meet its fiscal targets: the caretaker government was unable to pass a budget necessary to reduce the deficit. The new government, which notably does not include the N-VA, is led by Elio Di Rupo of the PS, the first French-speaking prime minister in more than 30 years; it took over from the caretaker government in December.

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. There are 71 seats in the Senate, with 40 filled by direct popular vote and 31 by indirect vote. Members serve four-year terms in both houses. 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 separate Flemish and Walloon parties representing all traditional parties of the left and right.

The xenophobic Vlaams Blok party was banned in 2004 for violating the country’s antiracism laws. It changed its name to Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) and removed some of the more overtly racist elements from its platform. However, the party maintains its opposition to immigration and its commitment to an independent Flanders.

Corruption is relatively rare in Belgium, which was ranked 19 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 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. In March 2011, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled against Belgium concerning a 2001 Belgian court injunction that delayed broadcast of a program on patients’ rights while a doctor profiled in the program brought defamation charges against the television channel in question. The ECHR said this violated the channel’s freedom of expression as protected in the European Convention on Human Rights. 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.” In April 2010, the Chamber of Deputies approved a ban on the partial or total covering of the face in public locations; although it did not specifically mention the veils worn by some Muslim women, these were widely seen as the target. New elections were called before the Senate could vote on the measure, and implementation of the ban was delayed until July 2011. Offenders face a fine of up to €137.50 ($183) or a week in jail. Two women who were fined €50 ($66) in July for wearing full veils have challenged the law in court. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

Freedom of assembly is respected. Freedom of association is guaranteed by law, except for groups that practice discrimination “overtly and repeatedly.” Employers found guilty of firing workers because of union activities are required to reinstate the workers or pay an indemnity. Belgian human rights groups and trade unions criticized the police for preventive arrests and using physical force against peaceful demonstrators during the September 2010 “Euromanifestation” demonstration, which was organized by European trade unions.

The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. Although conditions in prisons and detention centers meet most international standards, many continue to suffer from overcrowding.

Specific antiracism laws penalize the incitement of discrimination, acts of hatred, and violence based on race, ethnicity, or nationality. While a 2009 government decision regularized 25,000 illegal immigrants, there have been complaints about the treatment of rejected asylum seekers and illegal immigrants awaiting deportation who can sometimes be held in unsanitary conditions in the Brussels airport for several months. The Belgian League of Human Rights filed a complaint with the Labor Court in Brussels in August 2011, claiming authorities had failed to provide adequate housing for asylum seekers, particularly unaccompanied minors. In January 2011, the ECHR ruled Belgian deportations of asylum seekers to Greece were a human rights violation due to the poor detention conditions in the country. Belgium has since halted returns to Greece.

The law provides for the free movement of citizens at home and abroad, and the government does not interfere with these rights. However, individual communities may expel Roma from city limits at the discretion of the local government. In July 2010, it was reported that up to 700 Roma were forced to move from Flanders to Wallonia.

The government actively promotes equality for women. The state Institute for the Equality of Men and Women is empowered to initiate sex-discrimination lawsuits. In the 2010 elections, women won about 40 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and 37 percent of the seats in the Senate. Belgium is a destination and transit point for trafficked persons. However, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, the country complies fully with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, including financing nongovernmental organizations that assist victims.