Belgium is a hereditary constitutional monarchy. The current monarch is King Albert II, who took the oath of office on August 9, 1993. As titular head of state, the King plays a largely ceremonial and symbolic role in the nation.
Geographically and culturally, Belgium is at a crossroads of Europe, and during the past 2,000 years has witnessed a constant ebb and flow of different races and cultures. Consequently, Belgium is one of Europe's true melting pots with Celtic, Roman, Germanic, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Austrian cultures having made an imprint.
Belgium is the world's leading manufacturer of industrial carpets, playing cards, and billiard balls, and is known worldwide for its fine crystal glassware, coffee appliances, chocolate, and breweries. In fact, the world's largest brewing company to date is Belgian.
Belgium is divided into two very autonomous regions--Flanders in the north, and Wallonia in the south. The language spoken in each region is totally different--a form of French is spoken in Wallonia, while Flemish (a variant of Dutch) is used in Flanders. In both regions people are well educated and predominantly Catholic
Following the Belgian Revolution of 1830 the British and French worked out a compromise establishing an independent and perpetually neutral Belgium. In 1867 Napoleon III had sought to bolster his popularity in France by annexations at the expense of Belgium. However, Britain, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, successfully pressed Prussia and France to reaffirm treaties guaranteeing Belgian neutrality.
It was moving to watch 100,000 Belgians from around the country pour into the streets of Brussels to demonstrate against violence and administrative inefficiency following the shocking discovery of a ring of sex perverts and murderers in 1996. It is hard to imagine two murders, no matter how brutal, bringing an equivalent percentage of the American people, 3.5 million, into the streets for a peaceful manifestation of concern. It is a credit to the people of Belgium that they are still capable of being shocked, and have not yet been completely anesthetized by mass society.
It is divided between 4.5 million French speakers, who live mainly in Wallonia in the south, and 6.5 million Dutch speakers, who live mainly in Flanders, the wealthier northern region. The union of the two groups has grown increasingly shaky. In June 2010, a movement to break up Belgium gathered pace as a separatist won an emphatic election victory in Flanders. But despite the stunning electoral success of Bart de Wever’s Flemish nationalist party, which won the most parliamentary seats, a stalemate ensued, as Wallonian parties combined with rival Flemish groups to deny Mr. de Wever the majority needed to form a government.
The stalemate lasted 18 months — believed to be a record for a modern democracy. In the end, it was the bond markets that broke the deadlock.
A credit downgrade and the threat of being engulfed in the euro debt crisis brought new urgency to negotiations, and six parties with enough combined Parliament seats to govern reached a coalition agreement in early December 2011. Elio Di Rupo, the leader of the country’s Socialists, became the new prime minister.
After a long history of occupation by foreign powers, Belgium has emerged as a site for European nations to come together. Brussels--which hosts the headquarters of both the European Union and NATO--is now home to the world's largest concentration of international diplomats.
Folklore still plays a large part in Belgium's national daily life, with local myths giving rise to some of the country's most colorful pageants and festivals, such as Ypres's Festival of the Cats, Bruges's Pageant of the Golden Tree, and the stately Ommegang in Brussels. In Belgium's renowned puppet theaters, marionettes based on folkloric characters identify their native cities--Woltje (Little Walloon) belongs to Brussels, Schele to Antwerp, Pierke to Ghent, and Tchantches to Liege.