Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
King Albert II abdicated on July 21, 2013, at the age of 79, and his son, Crown Prince Philippe, 53, became king. The monarchy is largely ceremonial, although the king retained constitutional authority to mediate between parties during the process of forming a government—a role played by Albert during a 541-day political stalemate that followed 2010 parliamentary elections.
In July, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo oversaw the completion of a state reform package that would grant more autonomy to regional and local governments in areas including welfare, labor, and health care policy. The reform was to take effect in July 2014.
Ethnic and linguistic conflicts had 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 Belgian 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.
After 2010 parliamentary elections, coalition negotiations stalled over issues linked to the balance of power between Flanders and Wallonia. A deal was finally reached in November 2011, after Flemish and Francophone parties reached a compromise on the separation of the contentious Brussels-area electoral district. Di Rupo, of the Francophone Socialist Party, became the first French-speaking prime minister in more than 30 years. The next federal and regional elections were set to take place in 2014.
Political Rights: 40 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
Belgium’s Parliament consists of two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. The 150 members of the House 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.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 16 / 16
The separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) had won 27 seats in the House of Representatives in the 2010 parliamentary elections, the most of any party, but was excluded from Di Rupo’s government. Di Rupo’s Francophone Socialist Party had 26 seats. The Francophone Movement for Reform held 18 seats. The Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V) party had 17 seats.
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. It held 12 seats.
C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12
Corruption is relatively rare in Belgium, which was ranked 15 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. In March 2013, Finance Minister Steven Vanackere resigned over a scandal involving a January deal by a state-owned bank to buy back shares at favorable terms from two Christian labor organizations linked to Vanackere’s CD&V; Vanackere admitted no wrongdoing.
Civil Liberties: 57 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16
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 increased in recent decades, leaving most of the country’s papers in the hands of a few corporations. Internet access is unrestricted.
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 March 2013, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders called for closer scrutiny of the preaching of Muslim clerics in Belgium, warning that some imams were preaching radical Islamist views.
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. The ban took effect in July 2011. Offenders face a fine of up to €137.50 ($180) or a week in jail. In June 2013, a Belgian court sentenced a French Islamist, Brahim Bahrir, to 17 years in prison for “attempted murder for terrorist motives.” He had stabbed two police officers in Brussels in June 2012, after riots earlier in June that followed the arrest of a woman who refused to remove her veil.
The government does not restrict academic freedom.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12
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. In February 2013, as many as 40,000 people joined a demonstration in Brussels organized by unions to protest government austerity measures, including wage and welfare benefit freezes.
F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16
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.
In March 2013, the federal minister for asylum and migration policy, Maggie De Block, rejected a call from Flanders integration minister Geert Bourgeois to require Roma immigrants to Flanders to undergo an integration course.
In April 2013, police raided over 45 homes across the country and arrested six men suspected of recruiting Islamist militants to join the ongoing antigovernment insurgency in Syria. The police operation targeted a group called Sharia4Belgium, which had agitated for Islamic law in Belgium until announcing that it was disbanding in October 2012.
In October 2013, Belgium extradited to the United States Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian man who had been held in Belgian custody since 2001. He was convicted in 2003 by a Belgian court of plotting to carry out a suicide bombing at a Belgian air base where U.S. soldiers were stationed. In September, the Council of State, Belgium’s highest administrative court, had rejected Trabelsi’s appeal of his extradition, in which he claimed that he would be subject to “inhumane” treatment by the United States. The Belgian government said it had received assurances from U.S. officials that Trabelsi would be tried in a civilian court rather than a military tribunal, and would not face the death penalty.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16
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. The European Court of Justice in April 2013 ruled that a Flemish law infringed on workers’ freedom of movement within the European Union by requiring employers based in the region to write contracts in Dutch, even for non-Dutch-speaking employees from abroad; the law stipulated that noncompliance could result in cancellation of a contract.
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 legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, and in 2006 it gave gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt children. In 2011, Di Rupo became the country’s first openly gay prime minister. Belgium is a source, destination, and transit point for trafficked persons. However, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, the country complies fully with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking.
In December, the Senate passed a bill that would make the country the first in the world to legalize euthanasia for terminally ill children, despite opposition from religious groups. The measure still required the approval of the House of Representatives to become law. Belgium legalized euthanasia for terminally ill adults in 2002.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year