Belgium has been an independent state since its territories were detached from the Dutch kingdom in 1830, with the exception of the periods in which it was occupied by Germany during the First and Second World Wars. The nation was initially created as a strongly centralized unitary state that operated linguistically almost entirely in French. At this time, only 1% of the adult population could vote – the French speaking nobility, bourgeoisie, and high-ranking clerics. This was unacceptable to the Flemish population who viewed the country as bilingual and bi-cultural. Pressure from the Flemish Movement resulted in the passing of the 1898 De Vriendt-Coremans Law that enforced formal legal equality of the French and Flemish languages within Belgium.
Federalism was enshrined in law in the 1970 Belgian Constitution, and can be seen as form of ‘evolving federalism’ which aims to hold the country together despite its internal divisions.
Federalism is relatively new to Belgium but linguistic differences have long characterized this country nestled between France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Belgium’s defining political feature is its multilingual character, with the country divided into three linguistic communities: Flanders (in the north) is home to the majority of Belgian Dutch speakers, known as the Flemish; Wallonia (in the south) is predominantly populated by French-speakers; and a small German community inhabits a modest area at the eastern tip of the country. The capital, Brussels, is a separate, bilingual entity.
Belgium is a federal, parliamentary, representative, democratic, constitutional monarchy consisting of three communities (based on language) and three regions. These two types of constituent unit operate at the same level, meaning that one does not take precedence over the other. The Flemish and Walloon Regions are divided into 5 provinces each, which are further sub-divided into municipalities.
The King of the Belgians is the Head of State, and the Prime Minister of Belgium is the Head of Government. Executive federal government power is exercised by the Prime Ministers and ministers, who form a Council of Ministers. The number of French and Flemish speaking ministers must be equal (with the exception of the Prime Minister). The Belgian Federal Parliament is comprised of a Senate, and a Chamber of Representatives. The 150 members of the Chamber of Representatives are elected directly via a system of proportional representation, while 50 of the 60 total senators are elected by the parliaments of the communities or regions, with the remaining 10 co-opted by others.
Each of the components of the federal system (i.e. the Communities and Regions) has their own directly elected unicameral council or parliament that vote on decrees that have the same value and are on the same juridical level as federal laws. The regional and community parliaments and governments have jurisdiction over a number of policy areas, including transportation, public works, education, public health, and economic policy. However, these regional and community government entities have relatively limited powers over spending and revenue generation with the federal government largely maintaining control over this area.