Freedom in the World
Freedom in the World Scores
Belgium is a stable electoral democracy, with political rights and civil liberties legally guaranteed and largely respected in practice. Security concerns have dominated public dialogue in recent years, driven by attacks in both Belgium and neighboring states.
- In March, three coordinated terrorist bombings—two at the Brussels Airport and one at the capital’s Maalbeek metro station—led to the deaths of 32 civilians and injured more than 300; the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group claimed responsibility.
- Although the March attacks deeply shook the political establishment, the governing coalition remained relatively stable during the year.
- In May, approximately 60,000 demonstrators, primarily union workers, marched in Brussels to protest labor market reforms planned by the government of Prime Minister Charles Michel.
Security and economic concerns dominated public debate in 2016. In the first months of the year, national security and intelligence forces focused on searching for the perpetrators of terrorist attacks that had targeted Paris in November 2015, as intelligence reports indicated that the attacks had been planned in Belgium. The search gave rise to public debate about the divided nature of administration in Belgium, and whether these divisions create vulnerabilities for the country’s security. In March, a series of coordinated bombings occurred at Brussels Airport and a metro station in the center of the capital, killing 32 civilians and injuring hundreds. The bombings were the deadliest terrorist incident in Belgium’s history. They deeply shook Belgian society as well as the country’s political arena, with multiple officials offering their resignations, but the governing coalition led by Prime Minister Michel remained stable. A string of stabbings targeting police officers took place in the latter half of the year, including one in Charleroi in which the perpetrator attacked two policewomen with a machete.
A set of economic reforms proposed by the Michel government—including extending maximum workweek hours, raising the retirement age, and temporarily suspending automatic wage hikes—provoked strong opposition from unions, who claimed that the reforms would weaken workers’ rights as well as Belgium’s welfare state. Approximately 60,000 individuals—primarily union members—marched in Brussels in May to protest the planned changes. After a group of participants broke away from the demonstration and turned violent, police responded with water cannons.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Belgium, see Freedom in the World 2016.