Belgium is named after the Belgae, a Celtic people whose territory was conquered in 57 BC by Julius Caesar and was organized by him as Gallia Belgica. In 15 BC , Augustus made Gallia Belgica (which at that time included much of present-day France) a province of the Roman Empire. In the 5th century AD , it was overrun by the Franks, and in the 8th century, it became part of the empire of Charlemagne. But this empire soon fell apart, and in the 10th century there emerged several feudal units that later would become provinces of Belgium. These included the counties of Flanders, Hainaut, and Namur, the duchy of Brabant, and the prince-bishopric of Liège. During the three following centuries, trade flourished in the towns of the county of Flanders. Antwerp, Bruges, Ypres (Ieper), and Ghent in particular became very prosperous. In the 15th century, most of the territory that currently forms Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg— formerly called the Low Countries and now called the Benelux countries—came under the rule of the dukes of Burgundy as the result of a shrewd policy of intermarriage. Through the marriage of Mary of Burgundy with Archduke Maximilian of Austria, those same provinces, then collectively known as the Netherlands, became part of the Habsburg Empire in the early 1500s. When Maximilian's grandson Emperor Charles V divided his empire, the Netherlands was united with Spain (1555) under Philip II, who dedicated himself to the repression of Protestantism. His policies resulted in a revolt led by the Protestants.
Thus began a long war, which, after a 12-year truce (1609–21), became intermingled with the Thirty Years' War. Under the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War, independence was granted to the northern Protestant provinces. The southern half remained Roman Catholic and under Spanish rule. By this time, the southern Low Countries (the territory now known as Belgium) had become embroiled in Franco-Spanish power politics. Belgium was invaded on several occasions, and part of its territory was lost to France.
Under the Peace of Utrecht (1713), which concluded the War of the Spanish Succession, Belgium became part of the Austrian Empire. The country was occupied by the French during the War of the Austrian Succession (1744) but was restored to Austria by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748). Belgium entered a period of recovery and material progress under Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II. The latter's administrative reforms created widespread discontent, however, which culminated in the Révolution Brabançonne of 1789. Leopold II, successor to Joseph II, defeated the Belgians and reoccupied the country, but his regime won little popular support. In 1792, the French army invaded the Belgian provinces, which were formally ceded to France by the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797). This French regime was defeated by the anti-Napoleonic coalition at Waterloo in 1815.
Belgium was united with the Netherlands by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This action caused widespread discontent, culminating in a series of uprisings. The Dutch were compelled to retreat, and on 4 October 1830, Belgium was declared independent by a provisional government. The powers of the Congress of Vienna met again at London in June 1831 and accepted the separation of Belgium and the Netherlands. However, William I, king of the United Netherlands, refused to recognize the validity of this action. On 2 August 1831, he invaded Belgium, but the Dutch force was repulsed by a French army. In 1839, he was forced to accept the Treaty of the XXIV Articles, by which Belgian independence was formally recognized. The European powers guaranteed Belgium's status as "an independent and perpetually neutral state."
In 1831, the Belgian Parliament had chosen Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as ruler of the new kingdom, which was already in the process of industrialization. In 1865, Leopold I was succeeded by Leopold II (r.1865–1909), who financed exploration and settlement in the Congo River Basin of Africa, thereby laying the foundations of Belgium's colonial empire. Leopold's nephew, Albert I, came to the throne in 1909. At the outbreak of World War I, German troops invaded Belgium (4 August 1914). The Belgian army offered fierce resistance, but by the end of November 1914, the only Belgian towns not occupied by the Germans were Nieuport (Nieuwpoort), Furnes (Veurne), and Ypres. Belgium, on the side of the Allies, continued to struggle to liberate the kingdom. Ypres, in particular, was the scene of fierce fighting: nearly 100,000 men lost their lives at a battle near there in April and May 1915 (during which the Germans used chlorine gas), and at least 300,000 Allied troops lost their lives in this region during an offensive that lasted from late July to mid-November 1917.
Under the Treaty of Versailles (1919), Germany ceded to Belgium the German-speaking districts of Eupen, Malmédy, St. Vith, and Moresnet. The country made a remarkable recovery from the war, and by 1923, manufacturing industries were nearly back to normal. After a heated controversy with Germany over reparations payments, Belgium joined France in the occupation of the Ruhr in 1923. In 1934, Leopold III succeeded Albert.
Belgium was again attacked on 10 May 1940, when, without warning, the German air force bombed Belgian airports, railroad stations, and communications centers, and Belgian soil was invaded. Antwerp fell on 18 May and Namur on 23 May. By the end of the month, British, French, and Belgian forces were trapped in northwestern Belgium. King Leopold III surrendered unconditionally on 28 May and was taken prisoner of war. The Belgian government-in-exile, in London, continued the war on the side of the Allies. With the country's liberation from the Germans by the Allies and the well-organized Belgian underground, the Belgian government returned to Brussels in September 1944. During the Allied landings in Normandy, King Leopold III had been deported to Germany. In his absence, his brother Prince Charles was designated by parliament as regent of the kingdom.
The country was economically better off after World War II than after World War I. However, a tense political situation resulted from the split that had developed during the war years between Leopold III and the exiled government in London, which had repudiated the king's surrender. After his liberation by the US 7th Army, the king chose to reside in Switzerland. On 12 March 1950, 57.7% of the Belgian electorate declared itself in favor of allowing Leopold III to return as sovereign. The general elections of 4 June 1950 gave an absolute majority to the Christian Social Party, which favored his return, and on 22 July 1950, Leopold came back from exile. But the Socialists and Liberals continued to oppose his resumption of royal prerogatives, and strikes, riots, and demonstrations ensued. On 1 August 1950, Leopold agreed to abdicate, and on 17 July 1951, one day after Leopold actually gave up his throne, his son Baudouin I was formally proclaimed king.
In 1960, the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), a major vestige of Belgium's colonial empire, became independent. The event was followed by two years of brutal civil war, involving mercenaries from Belgium and other countries. Another Belgian territory in Africa, Ruanda-Urundi, became independent as the two states of Rwanda and Burundi in 1962.
Belgium was transferred into a federal state in July 1993. The country is divided into three regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels) and three linguistic communities (Flemish, French, and German). Voters directly elect members to the regional parliaments. The French-speaking branch of the Socialist party dominates Wallonia while the Dutch-speaking faction of the Christian Democratic Party governs Flanders. As a participant in the Marshall Plan, a member of NATO, and a leader in the movement for European integration, Belgium shared fully in the European prosperity of the first three postwar decades. Domestic political conflict during this period centered on the unequal distribution of wealth and power between Flemings and Walloons. The Flemings generally contended that they were not given equal opportunity with the Walloons in government and business and that the Dutch language was regarded as inferior to French. The Walloons, in turn, complained of their minority status and the economic neglect of their region and feared being outnumbered by the rapidly growing Flemish population. In response to these conflicts, and after a series of cabinet crises, a revised constitution adopted in 1970 created the framework for complete regional autonomy in economic and cultural spheres. In July 1974, legislation provided for the granting of autonomy to Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels upon a two-thirds vote in Parliament. However, the necessary consensus could not be realized. In 1977, a Christian Social–Socialist coalition proposed to establish a federal administration representing the three regions, but could not obtain parliamentary approval for the proposal. In 1980, however, following several acts of violence as a result of the dispute, parliament allowed the establishment in stages of regional executive and legislative bodies for Flanders and Wallonia, with administrative control over cultural affairs, public health, roads, and urban projects.
Labor unrest and political violence have erupted in recent years. In 1982, as a result of an industrial recession, worsened by rising petroleum prices and debt servicing costs, the government imposed an austerity program; an intensification of the austerity program, announced in May 1986, aimed to cut public sector spending, restrain wages, and simplify the taxation system. Vigorous trade-union protests have taken place to protest the freezing of wages and cuts in social security payments. Belgium has one of the largest national debts in Western Europe. Since 1995, however, unions have gone along with a pay freeze to restore profitability and improve labor market performance.
A riot in May 1985, at a soccer match between English and Italian clubs, caused the death of 39 spectators and precipitated a political crisis. The government coalition collapsed over charges of inefficient policing, and a general election returned the Christian Social–Liberal alliance to power in November 1985. This in turn accelerated terrorist attacks on public places as well as NATO facilities, responsibility for which was claimed by an extreme left-wing group, Cellules Combattantes Communistes (CCC). Security was tightened in 1986. Linguistic disputes between the French- and Dutch-speaking sections have continued to break out. Extremist parties have sought to capitalize on antiimmigrant feeling among the general population. The Flemish Block is the third-largest party in Flanders and openly advocates an independent Flanders in order to get rid of French-speakers and foreigners.
Economic performance was buoyant from 1996, with growth rates averaging close to 3%; however, with the global economic downturn of the beginning of the 21st century, Belgium's growth rates have lowered. As of 2002 Belgium had a balanced budget. Belgium joined the European economic and monetary union in January 1999 with no problems. Actual unemployment is around 11% as of 2002 but is closer to 20% if elderly unemployed people and people in special government-sponsored programs are included.
Parliamentary elections were held on 18 May 2003, and the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD) finished first in the Flemish elections, defeating the Socialists and Christian Democrats, and the far-right Vlaams Blok. In Wallonia, the Socialists came in first. In both elections, the Greens suffered. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, in office since 1999, was expected to form a center-left coalition of Liberals and Socialists after the May elections. Under Prime Minister Verhofstadt's leadership, Belgium by 2003 had legalized euthanasia and the use of marijuana, and had approved gay marriages.
Under Belgium's "universal jurisdiction" law, enacted in 1993, Belgian courts can hear cases involving war crimes and crimes against humanity even if the crimes were not committed in Belgium and did not involve Belgian citizens. Amendments to the law in April 2003 made it harder to bring a case where neither victim, plaintiff, or accused are Belgian. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former US president George H. W. Bush were charged with war crimes under the law, relating to the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon, and the bombing of a civilian shelter in the 1991 Gulf War, respectively.
The European Union was divided over the use of military force by the United States and UK in the months leading up to the war in Iraq that began on 19 March 2003. Belgium stood with France and Germany in opposing a military response to the crisis.