Please read first: Belgium, an Introduction.
The European powers of the era created Belgium in 1830. They cut the Southern part of the Netherlands off. This Southern part was only added to the Netherlands in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon in Waterloo. Why did the split happen? France sponsored in the South provocations arousing the sentiments of the French Speaking Walloons and the Catholic Flemings against the Dutch speaking Protestant leaders of the Netherlands. France wanted to split its powerful neighbor in the North, and supported the actual rebellion with money and troops. England liked the idea of splitting its main international competitor on the seven seas. The shortsighted and penny-pinching Protestant powers of the Netherlands didn't want to fight for the Catholic South.
From the beginning the new Belgian establishment aimed to make Belgium a French-speaking nation, closely allied with France. Great Britain had a German Prince stirring up trouble for almost 15 years at the court in London. He used to be married to the Crown Princess Charlotte, who died in childbirth in 1817. Great Britain managed to get him named king of Belgium by the International Conference. Thus, this German Prince became Leopold I, king of Belgium. However, he was so fearful of his new subjects, he landed in no man's land between France and Belgium before he dared to step on Belgian soil. He was so reluctant to take the job he negotiated from the British a huge stipend for the rest of his life.
But let's start back further in history, and name the most important historical facts that happened on the territory now called Belgium. You can't understand Belgium without knowing these events.
The early history.
Julius Caesar wrote in his book on his wars in Gaul: 'Gallorum foritissimi sunt Belgae." (The Belgians are the bravest of the Gauls.) The word Belgium is derived from the name the Romans gave to the Low Countries, today's Belgium and today's Netherlands. 'Low': because this territory sits on the delta of three big rivers: Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt. The Romans influenced the region for about 500 years. The Romans settled among many others the towns of Tongeren, Tournai.
After centuries of global warming during the heydays of the Roman Empire, the globe had been cooling again since a few centuries. The wide Rhine River froze solid in the winter of 406. Tens of Thousands of German families crossed the river over a length of several hundred miles! And that in a matter of weeks. It meant the end of the decaying Roman Empire and culture. The Germanic tribes settled among the locals. Eventually the German culture became the leading culture.
In the 6th and 7th century Irish monks convert to Christianity the new Germanic upper class, the Merovingian and the Carolingian dynasties. Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was born in the region of LiÃ¨ge on the Meuse River, in today's Wallonia. His grandfather, Charles Martel, the great warrior, saved Europe from the Muslims by defeating them decisively near Tours (France) in 732. Less than 150 miles South of Paris! No battle in European history was so important for the future of Europe, Christianity, and actually the whole world. Had the battle gone the other way, Europe would now be part of the Islam Ummah. Charlemagne becomes the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and rules Europe, except for the far North, and the British Islands. After the death of his son, his reign splits in three, one part for each of the grandsons of Charlemagne.
What is now Belgium was split between the three brothers. The part West of the Scheldt River (historic Flanders) fell under the same brother that rules France, Pepin. The middle part (historic Brabant) ended up with today's Netherlands in a Middle reign, stretching further South over Lothringen, Switzerland and Italy. Charlemagne's grandson, Lothair, ruling this middle reign died without children. The parts of his reign were able to grow in a more independent environment for many centuries. The far Eastern part of today's Belgium fell under the third grandson, Louis the German.
During the first two of the four centuries of the Medieval Warm era (800 to 1200), the Vikings roamed the known world and attacked the Low Countries many times. Especially in Flanders, bordering the North Sea, these incursions provoked the need for defensive measures. A hierarchical structure of local lords and powerful overlords emerged. At the same time monks built big abbeys, and expanded the fertile territory by winning land on the sea, by draining swamps, by cleaning waste lands, and by cutting forests.
The warm climate produced enough food on the new and the old land for the population to multiply. More people meant more need for land. The good climate made it possible for people to specialize in non-farming activities: e.g. commercial weaving, commercial brewing, trading. The abundance of food supported artists to paint, write and make music. The onset of the cities of today's Belgium happened during this warm period. By the 12th century major cities like Bruges, Gent, Brussels, LiÃ¨ge, Tournai, Lille were in full swing. Gent was as big as Paris, considered the largest city in Europe at that time. The kings were weak, and thus the people ruled. In Bruges, international merchants created the first stock exchange ever. In this free Flanders, traders from all over Europe came to make money. Free enterprise Capitalism was invented in Flanders.
Fast forward. The Low Countries were so rich that the kings of the neighboring regions always wanted to conquer it. Especially France was constantly the biggest menace for the Low Countries.
A most devastating shift developed in the 16th century: the Religious wars. The Low Countries, as part of the Spanish empire, enjoyed a kind of independence, because of their richness and their rate of literacy, which was the highest in the known world. Most people could read and write! The printing press was invented. Luther, Calvin and others attacked the Catholic Church. The bible was translated in the local languages. The people of the Low Countries became Protestant. The Spanish Catholic army had to react, and occupied the Low Countries with a bloody repression. People were burned at the stake. Lords were decapitated.
A revolution in the second half of the 16th century split the North of the Low Countries from the South. The Northern border of today's Belgium is plus minus where the Spanish Catholic army came in balance with the Protestants armies from the North. Indeed, all surviving Protestants had fled to the North. What is now Belgium remained Catholic. The devastating result for the people in the Southern Low Countries was the loss of its intellectuals, and its most energetic, free spirited people. Thanks to this influx of dynamic Protestants the Netherlands became a world power in the 17th and 18th century.
Spaniards, Austrians, and the French rule the territory that is now Belgium, up to 1815. So, now we are back where we were in our third paragraph.
The new country, Belgium becomes a liberal country, whereto writers from other neighboring countries come to flee prosecution: Karl Marx is one example. It is however dominated by the French speaking elite, and it will take until the early 20th century before the Flemings, the majority people are able to get schooling in their native language, Dutch. University teaching in Dutch is only allowed just before WW II.
The recent history.
The history of Belgium is full of discrimination against the Flemings. Many Flemings died in the street or in prison while defending their linguistic, cultural and economic rights over the last 150 years. The years after each World War of the 20th century were used by the Belgian Regime to kill, ban, put in prison, abolish the civil rights, and rape leading Flemings and their spouses. The queen in 2010, Her Majesty Paola, living in Belgium for 50 years still doesn't speak the language of the majority of her subjects. Most French speaking people moving into Flanders refuse to speak the local language, Dutch, and want to be able to deal with the local government (town, Flanders) in French. Flemings consider this a sign of the conscious or unconscious racist mentality against them of the French speaking population.
In the 1970's and 1980's the unitary Belgian politically landscape was federalized to ease some of the tension between the two cultures. Out of this process emerged two states and the capital, Brussels. This put Flanders in a one-against-two situation. Brussels and Wallonia are both dominantly French speaking, and both depend on the transfer of a lot of money from Flanders.
The best trick the Belgian Regime came up with is not to allow the states to raise taxes. The Belgian federal level collect the taxes, and donates part of it back to the States, effectively creating the conduit for the huge money transfers from Flanders to Brussels and Wallonia. The largest money stream is in the social security (retirement, healthcare, unemployment), and again this is kept on the Federal level. The Belgian mechanism transfers every year 10% of Flanders' Gross National Product to Wallonia, the most Socialist inspired region in Europe. Flanders has been a net donor to Wallonia since the founding of Belgium! The power of the States limits itself to culture, education, agriculture and some minor issues, and it has to pay for it with money coming from the Belgian level.
The actual situation.
But in 2010, the Flemings have only themselves to blame. Flanders is the most dynamic of the two Belgian states, producing 85% of the Belgian export. Some scholars believe the Religious wars of the 16th century, are still to blame. The Flemings lost their free spirited forebears, their intellectuals, their best people, and have been subdued for 400 years. The result is: the Flemings are a submissive people afraid to declare independence. Something they could easily do if they just got the guts. A declaration by the Flemish Parliament would suffice. Nobody outside Belgium, with no knowledge of the previous and the following information, can honestly understand why the Flemings, the majority people, are so weak politically.
Half of the Walloons (thus 15% of the total Belgian population) have veto power on every decision in the Federal Parliament. They effectively stop progress in Belgium. Even in 2010 they are able, and that since many decennia to block the correct execution of what the constitution, and the highest court of the land orders (the BHV situation). Walloons willfully violate the constitution, and nobody does anything about it. Walloons need fewer votes than the Flemings to get a seat in the National Parliament: just another discrimination ploy to consolidate the Walloon dominance.
How is this all possible? The reason is the undemocratic way representatives and senators are elected in the Belgian Parliament. There is no democracy in Belgium, but Particracy. This means the party bosses decide who will be elected in the parliament. The voters vote for the party. It is extremely difficult to get a person elected that is not approved by the party leaders. It may have happened only 5 times since WW II! All elected officials in the Parliament will always vote as ordered by the party leaders, or, comes next election they will not be put up for reelection any longer.
The three regime-parties are all three statist in nature: the Socialist party, the Christian Democrat Party, and the Liberal Party. These three parties have ruled Belgium mostly in coalition governments since it inception in 1830. Correction: the Socialist party arrived on the scene only at the end of the 19th century. There is no fundamental difference in the platforms of these three parties. They handle themselves as three similar clans trying to get a maximum of power and money for their clan. All three parties have their own labor union, and their own health cost reimbursement bureaucracies. Healthcare is nationalized in Belgium. Unbelievable for non-Belgians, but the political parties through their proxies pay out the benefits, not the government. The government gives the money first to the three parties! Thus people need the party to get unemployment benefits, and to get the cost for healthcare reimbursed.
The government pays the expenses for the elections. Private or corporate donations to parties are not allowed. The Regime, the establishment can decide to take the money away from a party that becomes a real menace to the existence of Belgium. The establishment, through its politically appointed judges banned the largest of the Flemish secessionist parties, the Vlaams Blok, in November 2004, under the false pretence that it was a racist party! Defending your constituents and your Flemish-Dutch culture is racist in Belgium.
And the press? The Belgian press is, or nationalized (main TV stations), or subsidized by the regime, or simply to afraid to question the powers. Independent and critical voices are pushed to smaller outlets.
However, in 2009 more than one third of the Flemings voted for three other political parties in favor of independence. This group of voters is growing. If officials of these three parties were smart, they would join together in one party, become the strongest force, and immediately declare independence.
It is possible that Belgium cease to exist in the future and gives way to an independent Republic of Flanders, part of the EC, and that the French speaking Wallonia becomes part of France. It will be a peaceful split somewhat similar with the split of the Czech republic from Slovakia on January 1, 1993.
As you visit Belgium for a short time, you will not, or seldom come in contact with the above mentioned political battle. Why would you? The Walloons and the Flemings are extremely welcoming. Having being ruled by the Burgundians for a few centuries, the Belgians know how to have a good time, and eat and drink well. They have the best beer and the best chocolates of the world. Belgian parties are phenomenal, and only end at the dawn of the day. History left many beautiful cities, abbeys, chateaus, cathedrals, belfries, mansions, etc. The museums are many and full of amazing artifacts.
Best English language book on the history of Belgium (1830 â€“ 2008):
'A throne in Brussels', by Paul Belien.