At long last Belgium, it seems, has come of age. This little country recently celebrated its 175th anniversary of independence and, following several years of big, bold moves to shake off a mousy image, life is now on a pretty even keel. Sure, there are ups (tennis greats) and downs (don’t mention the Red Devils or national debt), but most Belgians are more than happy with their spot in the world, and wouldn’t change it for quids.
For a hearty dose of the medieval architecture and atmosphere in time-capsule condition, Bruges is a lovely spot, despite the fact that hordes of tourists would agree. Brussels and Antwerp are both dynamic cities, or scale down the pace a touch in Ghent, once a medieval city to rival Paris and today one of the swingingest towns in Belgium
On the moral freedom front, Belgium is a world leader. Much has been done recently to grant gays and lesbians equal rights to heterosexuals. Euthanasia was legalised in 2002, though recent proposals to broaden the laws to include adolescents and dementia sufferers are being fought by religious leaders.
Plenty of other subjects are hotly debated over a Duvel or two, not least the 2007 federal election, which may see Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt returned for a third term. If the results of 2006’s municipal elections are any indication, however, Verhofstadt’s Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (VLD) party, plagued by infighting during the last few years, should be worried. So, too, should the Green parties, whose support has plummeted recently due to the major parties incorporating environmental issues into their own platforms.
Many are also discussing the future of ultraright-wing party, Vlaams Belang (VB). VB leader Filip Dewinter failed in his bid to become Antwerp’s burgomaster during the municipal elections.
The vexed question of separatism – should Flanders go it alone? – forever simmers under the surface. It reignited recently when a controversial manifesto setting out why Belgium should split in two was made public. Put together and endorsed by movers and shakers in Flanders, the manifesto was quickly quashed by King Albert during his 2006 New Year’s speech. But his criticism of Flemish separatism went down badly in parts, and calls for the king to be stripped of most of his powers ensued.
This state of play is relatively new to Belgium’s monarchy which, for the most part, enjoys broad public approval. Disenchantment grew in 2006, however, when heir to the throne Prince Philippe led a trade mission to South Africa, after which the Flemish press criticised his so-called ineffective conduct.
On the street, security is once again a public issue following the stabbing in early 2006 of 17-year-old Joe Van Holsbeeck, who was killed for his MP3 player during peak-hour in Brussels’ Central Station. Some 80,000 people marched through Brussels in memory of the young man and to put pressure on the government to curb street violence. The march was the biggest since the White March a decade earlier, when 300, 000 people took to the streets to commemorate the victims of paedophile Marc Dutroux (who is serving a life sentence for the rape and murder of several young girls).
Other challenges facing Belgium, like many Western European countries, include an ageing population, affordability of social security, integration of migrant workers, the issue of asylum seekers and sustainable development.
Benelux is an economic union comprising three neighbouring monarchies, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The name is formed from the beginning of each country's name. It is a precursor of the European Union
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