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The political environment in 2015 was dominated by concerns about terrorist activity in Belgium. Officials estimated that close to 500 individuals had traveled from Belgium to join extremist groups in Syria—the highest per capita rate in the European Union (EU). In January, days after terrorists attacked the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, Belgian security forces carried out nationwide raids against suspected Islamist militants. In November, after coordinated shooting sprees and suicide bombings in Paris killed 130 people, strong suspicions emerged that the attackers—several of whom were identified as Belgian nationals—had largely organized their operations in Brussels. Belgian officials took a number of emergency measures, including a high-security lockdown of the capital, numerous raids and arrests, and proposals for broader government authority in investigating and prosecuting terrorism suspects.
Political Rights: 40 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
The Belgian monarchy is largely ceremonial, although the king retains constitutional authority to mediate during the process of government formation. Belgium’s Federal Parliament consists of two houses: the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate. The 150 members of the Chamber are elected directly by proportional representation. The Senate is comprised of 50 members selected by community and regional parliaments, and an additional 10 members chosen by the first 50 based on the results of the Chamber of Representatives elections. Members serve five-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 the legislature.
The separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) won 33 seats in the Chamber of Representatives in 2014, while outgoing prime minister Elio Di Rupo’s Francophone Socialist Party (PS) won 23 seats. The Francophone Movement for Reform (MR) captured 20 seats, the center-right Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V) party took 18, and the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD) won 14. The N-VA, the CD&V, the MR, and the VLD reached an agreement to form a center-right coalition government. The N-VA was included in the government for the first time, while the PS was excluded for the first time in more than two decades. Charles Michel of the MR became prime minister.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 16 / 16
The party system is robust but highly fragmented, with separate Flemish and Walloon parties representing all traditional parties of the left and right.
After the far-right, separatist Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) 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 xenophobic elements from its platform. However, the party maintains an anti-immigration stance and a commitment to an independent Flanders. It captured only three seats in the Chamber of Representatives in the 2014 elections, down from 12 in 2010.
Ethnic and linguistic conflicts have prompted a series of constitutional amendments since 1970 devolving 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. The wealthier Flemish north has sought 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.
There are no restrictions on the ability of minority groups to participate in national or subnational politics. In the 2014 elections, 11 candidates of Turkish and Moroccan origin were elected to the Chamber of Representatives.
C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12
Corruption is relatively rare in Belgium, which was ranked 15 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. Public officials can face heavy fines and up to ten years’ imprisonment for corruption-related offenses, and enforcement of anticorruption legislation is generally adequate. In February 2015, the European Commission launched an investigation into whether favorable tax treatment given by Belgium to multinational corporations violated EU competition rules. The effort formed part of a wider inquiry into several member states’ corporate tax agreements.
Legislators and other high-ranking elected officials are required by law to regularly disclose their assets as well as paid or unpaid mandates, executive functions, and occupations to the Court of Audit. Information about asset declarations is not publicly accessible, but declarations of interests are published in the official government gazette.
Civil Liberties: 56 / 60 (−1)
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 print media ownership has increased in recent decades. Internet access is unrestricted.
More than half of the country’s population identifies as Roman Catholic. Freedom of religion is protected, but members of minority religious groups have complained of discrimination by the government as well as in housing and employment. A ban on the partial or total covering of the face in public locations has been in effect since 2011. Offenders can face a fine or up to a week in jail. In October 2015, a Brussels court began hearing a case against 11 members of the Church of Scientology’s Belgian branch, who along with two affiliated groups were charged with offenses including fraud, extortion, and running a criminal organization. A conviction could lead to a ban on the organization in Belgium.
The government does not restrict academic freedom, and private discussion is open and vibrant. In June, the Belgian Privacy Commission filed a claim against Facebook, claiming that the company’s tracking of the personal data of nonmembers—who, unlike members, have not agreed to the platform’s terms of service—is unlawful due to the absence of explicit consent. In November, a Brussels court ordered Facebook to stop the practice within Belgium.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12
Freedom of assembly is generally respected. In October, Belgium’s three main trade unions facilitated mass demonstrations in Brussels against the government’s austerity policies. After some protesters attacked police officers and vehicles, security forces responded with tear gas and water cannons. Dozens were detained in the clashes.
Freedom of association is guaranteed by the Constitution, but antidiscrimination legislation penalizes membership in or cooperation with a group that “overtly and repeatedly practices or teaches discrimination” based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin.
Workers at companies that employ more than 50 people have the right to organize and join unions and to bargain collectively. Employers found guilty of firing workers because of union activities are required to reinstate the workers or pay an indemnity. In 2015, unions continued to organize opposition to austerity measures, which they saw as favoring big corporations at the expense of workers’ rights.
F. Rule of Law: 14 / 16 (−1)
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. Police and armed forces are under civilian control, and the constitution protects the right to a free trial. Although conditions in prisons and detention centers meet most international standards, many facilities continue to suffer from overcrowding. Torture is illegal.
Concerns about potential terrorist attacks—particularly by affiliates of the Islamic State (IS) militant group—drove government priorities and discussions in the areas of security and rule of law in 2015. In January, Belgian security forces carried out a series of raids against a suspected Islamist militant cell. Several individuals were detained, and in Verviers, two suspects were fatally shot by police. In February, a court in Antwerp ruled that the group Shariah4Belgium was a terrorist organization that recruited fighters for extremist groups in Syria, and sentenced its leader to 12 years in prison. Seven members received prison sentences ranging from three to five years. Thirty-seven other defendants were convicted in absentia; although many were believed to have died in Syria, the court warned that militants often fabricate death records in order to avoid prosecution.
In November, days after coordinated attacks in Paris left 130 people dead, Belgian officials raised the threat assessment for Brussels to the highest level, imposing a complete lockdown as police searched for a suspect believed to have returned to the capital. The lockdown lasted from November 21 through November 25, but police raids and heightened security continued through the end of the year. Although most individuals detained in the raids were released without charge, several suspects connected to the violence in Paris or other terrorist activity remained in custody at year’s end. The judiciary granted extended detentions in a number of cases.
After evidence emerged suggesting that the November attacks had been planned in Belgium, some critics argued that the country’s governance system was hampering coordination among security agencies and hindering efforts to combat extremism and arms trafficking. Prime Minister Michel called on legislators to pass a set of antiterrorism measures, including significant increases to the domestic security budget; an extension of the maximum period of detention without charge from 24 hours to 72 hours; the imprisonment upon return of Belgian citizens who fought with extremist groups abroad; a requirement that terrorism suspects wear electronic tags; the closure of houses of worship that propagate hate speech; and the lifting of a ban on nighttime police raids. Lawmakers were still debating the proposals, some of which require constitutional amendments, at year’s end.
An influx of asylum seekers in 2015 strained government resources, and authorities struggled to provide adequate accommodations and to process applications in a timely manner. Belgium received approximately 39,000 first-time asylum applications in 2015—more than twice the amount received in 2014. The majority of applicants were Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghan nationals.
Antiracism and antidiscrimination legislation penalizes the incitement of discrimination, acts of hatred, and violence based on race, ethnicity, nationality, or sexual orientation. The human rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people are protected by strong legislation and supported by a vibrant community of civil society groups.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16
The law provides for freedom of domestic movement and foreign travel, and the government upholds these rights in practice. Freedom of movement was restricted in Brussels during heightened alert levels in November 2015. There are no restrictions on the right to choose one’s place of residence or employment, but Roma have faced expulsions and forced evictions. Commercial activity is regulated without arbitrary interference.
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 2014 elections, women won approximately 39 percent of seats in the Chamber of Representatives and 50 percent of seats in the Senate. Belgium legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, and in 2006, same-sex couples gained the right to adopt children.
In 2014, the Chamber of Representatives approved a bill making Belgium the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia for terminally ill children. Belgium had legalized euthanasia for terminally ill adults in 2002.
While the country has seen increased immigration in recent years, labor market integration of non-EU immigrants and their native-born children is low. Belgium remains a destination country for human trafficking, particularly for sexual exploitation and domestic labor; victims generally originate from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year