7 min read

#17 Belgium

This week is about Belgium.

Welcome to the 195 series, where I take you on a mini-tour of every country (and maybe some places that want to be countries). Each week I'll feature a new location. Some you may have heard of, while others may be new to you. The point is to learn and nurture our curiosity about the wider world. Maybe you'll find a new artist or musician you like, too.

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Country Info:

Population: Roughly 11.6 million.

Current government: Like the United Kingdom, Belgium is a constitutional monarchy. King Phillipe of Belgium is currently the head of state and has a largely ceremonial role.

The current Prime Minister is Alexander de Croo, who has led a seven-party coalition government in power since 2020. The current government is an assortment of Greens, Socialists, Christian Democrats, and Liberals.

The seven political parties in government are:

Belgium is famous for having a hard time forming a coalition government because of the longstanding linguistic and political differences between the Dutch and French-speaking regions of the country.

Due to these differences, a lot of power has been transferred from the federal level to the regional and municipal governments, making smaller provincial governments much more powerful than in many other European countries.

Languages spoken: French/Walloon, Dutch/Flemish, and German/Ostbelgien.

The country has three official languages. The most common is Dutch, also called Flemish, which people speak in the Flanders region of northern Belgium.

French is the second most widely spoken language and is predominant in the southern Wallonia region and the capital, Brussels.

There's also a small German-speaking minority in the eastern part of the country.

According to this post from the London School of Economics, linguistic divisions have manifested in cultural and political divisions within Belgium.

Under that regulatory division, even theatres are separated according to communities within Brussels. The divide is also economic, as Flanders today has the upper hand with not just its trading ports, but also its biotech, medical, and service industries.
Linguistic divisions have sharp political consequences. From 2010-2011, it took a record-breaking 584 days to form a coalition government. A similar reminder, the 2019 elections demonstrated that as the Green wave spread through Brussels, Socialists took over Wallonia, and the far-right separatist group Vlaams Belang emerged victorious in Flanders.

Religion: The majority of the country is Roman Catholic.

If you ever wondered why the Netherlands is a protestant country, but its next-door neighbor is predominantly Catholic, this book on Reformation in the Low Countries might explain.

Standout artist: Félicien Rops, who produced satirical lithographs and etchings featuring sex, death, Jesus, and the devil.

From Creative Commons

Standout film: Chantal Akerman's 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It's a masterpiece.

A surprising thing: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in Brussels. Marx lived in Brussels from 1845 until 1847. Who knew?! Certainly not me.

Story of the week: The Belgium Times has a good piece attempting to explain the state of the country's government. It reads:

As has been made clear on many occasions, Belgium's political structures are fantastically intricate for a nation with a population smaller than some cities. With reports of Wallonia's parliament blowing its budget, Flemish parties threatening to pull out of Belgium's federal power-share, Brussels being both home to the Federal "Vivaldi" Government and having its own local administration, and that German enclave conspicuously silent when it comes to making national news, you'd be forgiven for rolling your eyes and turning away from the whole affair.

What I'm writing:

• I wrote about how this year's National Defense Authorization Act will shake up defense companies and prepare the U.S. to continue arming Ukraine for the long haul. This story is unlocked and free to read.

• Here's a look at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that the Biden administration hosted this week and what it means for Washington's relationship with the continent.  

• And a deep dive into what is actually in this year's $857.9 billion defense bill:

What I'm reading:

• Russian President Vladimir Putin canceled his annual press conference for the first time in a decade, the Associated Press reports.

• Ukrainian forces struck the headquarters of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, the BBC reports, citing the governor-in-exile of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

• Ukrainian forces carried out the biggest attack on the illegally occupied Donetsk region since 2014, according to a Russian-installed official. CNN has a blurb on its live blog.

• The U.S. plans to send Ukraine advanced “smart bomb” equipment that would allow it to target Russian military positions with better accuracy, the Washington Post reports.

• The U.S. is finalizing plans to send its most advanced ground-based air defense systems - the Patriot missile system – to Ukraine, CNN reports.

• The Kremlin said that U.S. Patriot missile defense systems would be a legitimate target for Russian strikes should they be sent to Ukraine, Reuters reports.

• Ukraine’s Parliament passed legislation expanding the government’s regulatory power over the news media, the New York Times reports. The measure gives Ukraine’s state broadcasting regulator, the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting, authority over the online and print news media. Press freedom groups criticized the move.

• Poland’s police chief Jaroslaw Szymczyk was hospitalized with minor injuries after a gift that he received in Ukraine suddenly exploded, CNN reports.

• Pro-Russian propaganda efforts are under way in Turkmenistan, with officials in the authoritarian state vilifying the West for supporting Kyiv and whitewashing Moscow's image amid its unprovoked attack on Ukraine, Radio Free Europe reports.

• A Turkish court sentenced Istanbul’s mayor and rival of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to more than two years in prison for "insulting public figures," the Washington Post reports. Ekrem Imamoglu will remain in office while the sentence is appealed, but a conviction could bar him from seeking public office. The verdict and sentence have highlighted concerns that Erdoğan's government will prevent opposition figures from fairly competing in upcoming elections.

• EU countries agreed to freeze €6.35 billion in funds from the regular EU budget for Hungary. The decision marks the first time the EU is using its new conditionality mechanism to fend off the rule of law risks linked to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s dismantling of democracy. But Orbán’s tactical vetoes succeeded in getting EU countries to lower the proposed funding suspension, Politico Europe reports.

• Four people were charged as part of an investigation into suspected bribes from Qatar to current and former officials and lawmakers in the European Parliament, the New York Times reports.

• The highest-ranking politician accused of corruption is one of the EU parliament's Vice Presidents, Greek politician Eva Kaili. She has been charged with corruption, money laundering, and criminal organization. Politico Europe has the report.

• Kosovo Albanians expressed discontent about the verdict handed down on Friday by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague convicting former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Salih Mustafa of war crimes and sentencing him to 26 years in prison, Balkan Insight reports.

• Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić met with his national security council amid growing tensions in Kosovo between the authorities and ethnic Serbs, the BBC reports.

• Serbia officially requested that NATO’s Kosovo peacekeeping force allow the return up to 1,000 Serbian military personnel to Kosovo, Defence Minister Miloš Vučević said, due to tensions in the mainly Serb north. Balkan Insight has the report.

• The Georgian government released controversial footage of jailed former president Mikheil Saakashvili in the hospital, as pressure continues to mount on the authorities to allow his treatment abroad, EurasiaNet reports.

• U.S. officials are planning to expand a program creating a legal process for Venezuelan asylum seekers to include Nicaraguans, Cubans, and Haitians, the Wall Street Journal reports. The program would allow migrants from those countries to apply from abroad to fly to the U.S.

• Supporters of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attempted to invade the federal police headquarters in Brasilia, Reuters reports. Violence erupted after police detained a Bolsonaro supporter for allegedly organizing violent “anti-democratic acts.”

• After months of debate and massive demonstrations, Mexico’s Congress moved to pass legislation that will reduce the powers of the National Electoral Institute, a government agency that won praise internationally for putting an end to decades of blatant voting fraud, the Washington Post reports.

• Global Voices has a piece on Russia's information war in Latin America.

• Violent protests spread across Peru over the ouster and arrest of leftist former president Pedro Castillo, the Washington Post reports.

• The Biden administration has dispatched high-level officials to Equatorial Guinea in a quiet campaign to convince the country to cut its ties to China, Foreign Policy reports.

• Lawmakers from South Africa’s governing African National Congress voted not to hold impeachment hearings of President Cyril Ramaphosa, the New York Times reports.

• President Biden is planning a multi-country trip to Africa next year, Axios reports. Biden will also highlight his support for an African seat on the United Nations Security Council and announce that he wants the African Union to join the Group of 20 as a permanent member.

• The U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of legislation that would allow Puerto Ricans to decide the future of the territory, the New York Times reports. The legislation would establish a binding process for a referendum in Puerto Rico that would allow voters to choose from three options: independence, becoming the 51st state, or a third approach whereby Puerto Rico would be a sovereign government.

What the State Department says:

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