Belgium: People and Culture

Few countries are so equally divided by language and other aspects of culture as Belgium. Yet, despite the conflicting interests of the two main population groups, the country has achieved a unity that does not appear to be seriously threatened. Although there have been, and still are, significant separatist and nationalist movements, especially among the Flemings, the likelihood that Belgium will split in two, at least in the immediate future, is slim. The way of counteracting this nationalism has increasingly been to introduce greater federalism for the country as a whole.

There is indeed a belief that all the talk of separatism and the division of the country into independent parts is just that—talk. The Belgian people appear to like one another and to relish their nationhood. That, for the majority of Belgians, is more important than being a Fleming or a Walloon. It is, many will say, just the politicians who squabble endlessly and play with separatist fire. Separatism is still a minority viewpoint, however, even in Flanders.

During the months that passed after the 2007 general election in Belgium and the failure of the politicians to form a government, there were many quiet displays of national unity. Belgian flags appeared all over Brussels, and one could often see the black, gold, and red tricolors hanging from windows and wroughtiron balconies. Although some flags are seen at national festivals, nothing like this had happened since the time of the late King Baudouin's death in 1993.

This recent display seemed intended as a rebuke to Belgian politicians and a message that they should form a new government. Other patriotic signs were also in evidence. A substantial crowd turned out to march in a parade that commemorated the martyrs of the Belgian independence movement. This is an annual parade organized by a small monarchist group, Pro Belgica. In addition to the usual old-timers—men with formidable mustaches carrying flags and fierce old ladies with Belgian tricolor rosettes—there
were many younger people in the march.

All were keen to see an end to the political crisis and a return to normality and national unity.


Belgium is home to more than 10 million people, an estimated 10,392,226 in mid-2007. The population is growing at a slow 0.12 percent annually. Deaths (10.32/1,000) exceed births (10.29/1,000) each year. The fertility rate—the number of children to which the average woman will give birth during her lifetime—is 1.64, well below the replacement level of 2.1. Therefore, Belgium's small annual population gain is the result of immigration, which is about 1.2/1,000. This amounts to approximately 10,000 immigrants entering the country each year.

As is true throughout most of Europe, Belgium has an aging population. Life expectancy is nearly 79 years, 82.24 for women and 75.75 for males. Only 16.5 percent of the population is under 14 years of age, whereas 17.4 percent of Belgians are 65 or older. The median age of 41.1 years ranks Belgium's population (along with several other European countries) among the world's oldest. An aging population imposes a number of problems upon a country's social structure and economy. Providing for the needs of an aging population, including retirement programs and increased medical care, places an added burden on the country's economy. Fewer people are available to take entry-level jobs, a condition most
often solved by increased immigration. Health care surpasses education as a national priority. These are just some of the population-­related issues that Belgium, along with most other European states, faces.

Language and Ethnicity

As we have already seen, more than half of the 10 million people of Belgium are Flemings who speak Dutch or, more correctly, Flemish. These 59 percent live principally in the north, and most of the rest are French-speaking Walloons (40 percent) who live in the southern and eastern provinces. Small numbers of German speakers live in the eastern districts of Liege province. The Brussels-Capital region, comprising about a million people, is 85 to 90 percent French speaking. Certainly French, rather than Flemish, is the language that the majority of immigrants tend to speak when they first come to Belgium.

In the year 2000, the country's foreign residents constituted 8.8 percent of the total population. This figure does not include foreigners who reside illegally in Belgium or Belgians of foreign origin who gained Belgian nationality through various means. About 63 percent of these foreigners come from EU countries, and the other 37 percent are from countries outside the EU. These figures from the National Institute for Statistics (2000) also show an uneven distribution of foreigners by region. The greatest proportion of foreign residents (28.5 percent) lives in the Brussels-­Capital region, whereas only 4.9 percent of the population in Flanders is foreign. The figure in Wallonia is 10.0 percent.

The foreign population in Flanders is particularly concentrated in the provinces of Limburg and Antwerp. In Wallonia, it is mainly concentrated in the old industrial provinces of Liege and Hainaut. Italians, who total about 200,000 people, are the most numerous of the legal foreign residents in Belgium. Moroccans are the second-­largest group, with around 121,000 people mostly concentrated in Brussels. The French, a population that is often ignored in studies on immigration, are in third position, with over 107,000 people. They are followed by the Dutch, with more than 85,000 residents. Turks are in fifth place, with more than 69,000 people. The Spanish number more than 45,000, the Germans more than 34,000, and the British about 26,000. Americans and Congolese (i.e., those from what was previously the Belgian Congo, or later Zaire now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) number nearly 12,000 each. Contrary to what many believe, a majority of foreigners living in Belgium are originally from either a member state of the European Union or from other developed Western countries. The immigrant nationals from Africa and some Asian countries are still a minority, even if their concentration in the large urban centers gives them a certain visibility.


The great majority of Belgians are Roman Catholics (about 75 percent), but there is also a small Protestant minority, mostly in Wallonia. A 2006 inquiry in Flanders, long considered more religious than either the Brussels or Walloon regions of Belgium, showed that 55 percent of its inhabitants considered themselves religious. Additionally, 36 percent of those polled in this inquiry claimed to believe that God created the world. Roman Catholicism is traditionally seen as Belgium's majority religion. By 2004, however, weekly Sunday church attendance was reported to have dropped to between 4 and 8 percent of membership. Yet many people who almost never attend Mass still have their children baptized in a Roman Catholic Church.

Another religion practiced in Belgium is Islam (3.5 percent), which is principally the result of immigration by Muslims.

There are also small minorities of Protestants, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Jews (each of them constituting less than 1 percent). Belgian law officially recognizes those denominations, as well as certain secular organizations that are organized in the same way as religions. Buddhists have also applied for legal recognition.

Historically, religion was one of the causes of the Belgian Revolution of 1830 and the declaration of an independent Belgian state. Following the defeat of the French at Waterloo, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands split apart to form Belgium and what is now the Netherlands. This was mainly due to the differences between the Roman Catholic south, which became Belgium, and the largely Protestant Dutch in the north.

Since 1830, Roman Catholicism has played a very significant role in Belgian politics. An example of this was the “school wars.” This ideological conflict took place from 1879 to 1884, and later from 1954 to 1958, between the political parties that were philosophically to the left (at first Liberals, and later Liberals and Socialists) and Catholics. These “wars” were a result of defiance of Catholic authority in matters that related to education in Belgium.

Another controversy occurred in 1990 when Baudouin, the Roman Catholic and deeply religious king of the Belgians, refused to sign and officially ratify an abortion bill that had already been approved by parliament. Prime Minister Wilfried Martens was asked by the king to find a constitutional solution. Martens achieved this by having Baudouin declared unfit to fulfill his constitutional duties as a monarch for some days, while government ministers signed in his place.

Famous belgians

In this brief chapter about the Belgian people and what makes this country so distinctive culturally, we should not ignore one of the most inspirational aspects of its national heritage. That is Belgium's fine art and the magnificent collection of paintings and other treasures that are to be found in its many museums and galleries. Much of this art was produced well before modern Belgium came into being in 1830. Many of the earlier Renaissance paintings were sacred art inspired by religious themes, but there is much more as well.

One the country's greatest artists was undoubtedly Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c. 1525–1569). He was a Flemish/Dutch Renaissance painter known for his striking landscapes and peasant themes. Although there was no such country as Belgium in his day, Belgium can safely claim him because he was accepted as a master in the painters' guild of Antwerp. He traveled to Italy soon after, and then returned to Antwerp before settling in Brussels permanently 10 years later. He died there in 1569. The subjects of his paintings include meals, festivals, dances, feasts, and games. Certainly he paid extraordinary attention to detail, showing a vivid tapestry of life in those times. Some of his works can be found in the Musee des Beaux-­Arts in Brussels.

An earlier Flemish artist who can also be claimed by Belgium is Jan van Eyck (1385–1441), one of the greatest painters of the late Middle Ages. He was once held to have been the inventor of oil painting, but the fact is that he developed new and highly successful techniques in this medium, with magnificent results. One such masterpiece is his Arnolfini Portrait, which shows the merchant Arnolfini and his bride. This work, which is full of religious symbolism, has been analyzed again and again by art historians. The painting has become something of a cult image, rather like Grant Wood's American Gothic has in the United States. It was painted in 1434 in Bruges, where van Eyck spent the final 14 years of his life.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) was a seventeenth-­century Flemish and European painter. He was known for his exuberant Baroque style that emphasized movement, color, and sensuality. He is well known for his portraits, landscapes, and paintings of mythological and symbolic subjects. His studio in Antwerp produced considerable numbers of paintings that were popular with the nobility and art collectors alike. Rubenesque is a term that has entered the language to describe corpulent and beautiful women of the kind that the artist frequently portrayed. Such was his fame that he was made a knight by both Philip IV, king of Spain, and Charles I, king of England.

A more contemporary Belgian artist is the surrealist Rene Magritte (1898–1967), whose strange and amusing images often placed everyday objects out of context. Born at Lessines, he studied at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels for two years, until 1918. His paintings presented paradoxes that might at first seem superficial but were frequently thought provoking. Good examples are his The Son of Man and The Treachery of Images. Rene Magritte described his paintings by saying: “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?' It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either; it is unknowable.”

Cesar Franck (1822–1890) was a composer, organist, and music teacher. Though born in Liege, he later lived in France. Although Franck's work was neglected during his lifetime, he has had a profound influence on music, including his role in resurrecting and giving renewed vigor to chamber music.

Henry van de Velde (1863–1957) was one of the main influences on Art Nouveau. His “New Art” was international in flavor and was extremely popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Van de Velde was gifted, being able to work with ease as a painter, an architect, and interior designer. He studied painting under masters both in Antwerp and Paris. By 1892, he had abandoned painting and turned his attention to interior design and decoration. Bloemenwerf, his own home located in Uccle near Brussels, was his first attempt at architecture. Much of his career was spent in Germany, where he had a strong influence on early twentieth century architecture and design. His Weimar School of Arts and Crafts in central Germany was the predecessor of the Bauhaus school.

The Bauhaus greatly influenced modern architecture, the industrial and graphic arts, and theater design. During World War I, van de Velde left Germany and returned to Belgium. He continued his practice in architecture and design. By this time, however, he had abandoned the Art Nouveau phase of his career. The style had lost much of its popularity. During the chaotic years of World War I, van de Velde lived in Switzerland and the Netherlands. While in Holland, he designed the Kroller-­Muller Museum. This well-­known art museum, near the town of Otterlo, is home to the world's second-­largest collection of paintings by Vincent van Gogh. Late in his career, van de Velde was a professor at Ghent University. While there, he was the architect of the Boekentoren, or Book Tower, the university's library.

When it comes to sports, there is one distinguished Belgian whose achievements top all others. Eddy Merckx, regarded as the greatest and most successful cyclist of all time, established several world cycling records, some of which remain unbroken to this day. He was elected Belgium's Sportsman of the Year an unprecedented six consecutive times in the years 1969 to 1974. He won the international Tour de France cycling race five times and would most likely have won a sixth had he not been attacked and punched by a Frenchman during the race. Many Frenchmen were upset that a Belgian might beat the record of five wins set by Frenchman Jacques Anquetil and regarded it as a matter of national honor to stop this from happening. Merckx was nicknamed “The Cannibal” because he seemed to devour his competition, and wanted to win every single race he participated in.

Merckx could be considered a perfect ambassador for Belgium, because he did not favor either Flanders or Wallonia but supported the unity of the country. This, together with his achievements in sports, pushed him to high rankings in both the Flemish (third) and Walloon (fourth) editions of the “Greatest Belgian” contest, held in 2005. In 1996, the Belgian king awarded him the title of Baron. In 2000, he was chosen Belgian “Sports Figure of the Century.” Now retired, Merckx has become a good friend of U.S. Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong in recent years. After Armstrong won only his third Tour de France, Merckx predicted that the American would go on to win as many as seven Tours.

Two of the world's best female tennis champions, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, are Belgian. Kim Clijsters became the first Belgian player, man or woman, to reach the number one spot, and is also one of the few women to be number one in both singles and doubles. Considered one of the most likeable players by her peers, she has beaten many tennis records and earned numerous awards, including Belgian Sportswoman of the Year five times. Clijsters retired May 6, 2007.

Due to her rare combination of power and grace, Justine Henin has been successful on the four main types of courts—clay, grass, indoor, and hard courts. Ranked number one in 2007, she has been described as “the Roger Federer of women's tennis” (Federer is considered the best player of his generation and one of the greatest male tennis players of all-­time). She has won 39 career titles and has been named Belgian Sportswoman of the Year four times.