Belgium and Luxembourg were two of the six founding members of the European Community in 1957. They are neighbouring countries lying on lowland across the Ardennes plateau in north-western Europe. Both are bordered by France and Germany, whilst Belgium also has a border on the North Sea and with the Netherlands. The countries share many elements of common history, having experienced repeated periods of cross-border conflict, co-operation and government during their history. The most modern example of this is the Benelux Economic Union, founded in 1958, which has acted alongside the European project to bring these countries' economies, along with that of the Netherlands, closer together. This tradition of co-operation has contributed to their keen support for the concept of European integration.
Both countries were seriously affected by the European wars of the first half of the twentieth century. This shaped their political systems after 1945, which placed a strong emphasis upon consensus. Politics in both countries has been dominated over the past half century by the twin forces of Christian and Social democracy. In recent years, this has been supplemented by the rise of Green Parties and the resurgence of radical nationalism in Belgium. In Luxembourg, the Christian Social Party has been the dominant political group since World War II and has played a role in all governments.
Belgium is culturally divided between the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south. This has led to prolonged tension in recent decades, often fanned by the ultra-nationalist Vlaams Blok party, which was deemed racist by the Belgian High Court in 2004 and stripped of any funding, however the party re-established itself the same year as the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party. Tensions culminated in 1993 with the reform of the Belgian constitution to make the country a federal state, with three separate administrative regions: southern, French-speaking Wallonia; northern, Dutch-speaking Flanders, and Brussels, where both languages are considered official. Several governments have collapsed due to the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the northern and southern regions, and political instability is commonplace. In 2007, an inconclusive general election led to prolonged negotiations to form a coalition government and the resulting weak government collapsed in 2008. Divisions in Belgium lingered and the government of centre-right Prime Minister Yves Leterme collapsed again in April 2010 over constitutional disagreements between the Flemish and French parties. Subsequent elections in June 2010 failed to produce a clear winner: the New Flemish Alliance (a Flemish separatist party) won the most seats, but not enough to hold a majority. Huge disagreements between French and Flemish-speaking parties have led the talks on the formation of a government to break down numerous times. After a record breaking 541 days without a government, French-speaking Socialist Elio Di Rupo was sworn in as Prime Minister on 6 December 2011, and is the first French-speaking Belgian Prime Minister for more than thirty years. Belgium's political instability was particularly worrying for the EU because it coincided with the country taking over the rotating 6-month Presidency of the EU Council of Ministers between July and December 2010.
In Luxembourg, conversely, stability and long-serving governments are the norm. However, in 2008 a minor crisis occurred when Grand Duke Henri refused to sign into law a bill which approved euthanasia. The crisis was resolved with a constitutional amendment which removed the requirement for the monarch to approve all laws, making the monarch's role primarily ceremonial.
Belgium and Luxembourg operate under constitutional monarchies. In Belgium the monarch, King Albert II has a mainly symbolic position. Political power is divided between the national government, led by the Prime Minister, currently Elio Di Rupo, and the regional governments.
In Luxembourg, power is shared between the monarch, Grand Duke Henri, the cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who has been Prime Minister since 1995, and the Parliament. The current government has been in power since 2004, having been re-elected in 2009, and is formed by a coalition between the Christian Social People's Party (CSV) and the Luxembourg Socialist Workers' Party (LSAP).
Both countries have always maintained a close relationship with the EU. As founder members they have been at the forefront of pursuing European integration. They are fully signed up to key measures of closer co-operation including the Euro and the Schengen Convention. However, attitudes towards the EU project have altered in recent years. Nevertheless, politicians in both countries remain keen supporters of the EU. Luxembourg's Prime Minister Juncker was a particularly strong voice in support of the EU constitutional project, which led to the signing of the Lisbon Treaty (2007).
- Belgium is a European transport hub, largely thanks to the major port at Antwerp.
- Belgium hosts the headquarters of the EU and NATO in its capital city Brussels.
- Luxembourg has the third wealthiest population in the world, with a GDP per head of $80,119 in 2011, according to the International Monetary Fund.
- Many of Luxembourg's inhabitants are tri-lingual, speaking French, German, and Luxembourgish, which is a mixture of the two.
Benelux: a compound title made up of the first syllables of the three member countries' names (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg).
Coalition: a formal agreement between political parties to share power in government.
Consensus:general political agreement around a majority opinion.