Belgium has been a part of the EU since the very beginning, being a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951.
As a small, neutral state, close to the then geographic centre of what became the EU Belgium was deemed a good location for the EU institutions and most are based in Brussels. While the Parliament is officially based in Strasborug, MEPs spend around three out of every four weeks in the city.
Belgium came to exist in 1830, becoming independent from the Netherlands after a revolution principally over religion (Belgium is majority Catholic, the Netherlands was ruled by a Protestant elite).
Since then Belgian politics has been marked by a strong lingual cleavage between speakers of French (the majority in the Southern half of the country, Wallonia, and in Brussels) and speakers of Flemish (a dialect of Dutch, primarily spoken in the Northern half, Flanders).
Wallonia was initially very wealthy, being the second most industrialised part of Europe after England. Wallonia accounted for 80% of Belgium’s GNP compared to rural, impoverished Flanders. Belgian elites in the early country were principally French-speaking and Flemish was largely repressed and the country made officially monolingual French, despite around half the country speaking Flemish as a first language. A Flemish Movement began hoping for the equalisation of Dutch; though it took around a century before Flemish got to a status that could be described as equal with French. Even then, there were still occasional lingual flashpoints such as protests at the Catholic University of Leuven (in Flanders) in the 1960s over French-only classes, resulting in the historic institution being split. Additionally it wasn’t until 1967 that the Flemish version of the constitution had equal status to the French one.
Starting from the 1960s the Flemish economy began to become very wealthy as it became perfect for the burgeoning services industry. Meanwhile, as in much of the West, Wallonia’s industrialised economy began to collapse. Hence the positions flipped and Flanders became the wealthy half. This only served exacerbate the conflict as the Flemish began to resent ‘subsidising’ Wallonia.
In the late 1960s Belgian political parties began to split into Flemish and French-speaking parties. There are no parties in the federal parliament that run in both regions of Belgium.
Belgian politicians have generally approached the lingual divide through a mixture of devolving ever-more powers down from the federal state to the regions and communities and passing them upwards to the EU in an attempt to hollow out the federal government to make it as inoffensive as possible.
A short, but informative description of the basic structures of the Belgian state can be seen in this excellent YouTube video:
Belgium is one of the most pro-EU European countries.
Today around 59% of Belgians speak Flemish as a first language, 40% speak French as a first language and 1% speak German. The German-speakers have their own parliament in the East of Wallonia. Flemish and French-speakers have also come to differ politically. As a wealthy, religious region Flanders is much more conservative, whereas poorer, much more secular Wallonia has come to be more left-of-centre.
After the 2010 election Belgium infamously experienced a 541 day coalition negotiation, believed to be a world record. The end result was a coalition of the Flemish and French-speaking socialist, Christian democratic and socialist parties, reliant upon the two green parties for outside support on constitutional reform.
There is frequent speculation that Belgium will eventually split into Flanders and Wallonia. The inevitability of this somewhat overegged, though it is certainly possibly.
Belgium will elect 21 MEPs (down from 22 in 2009). Belgium uses a semi-open party-list system where parties get seats broadly in line with their percentage of the vote. Seats are normally filled by candidates in their order on the ballot paper. Voters may vote for candidates, if they achieve enough votes they may be ‘elected out of order’, moving to the top of the list.
Belgian elects candidates in three lingual ‘colleges’. 12 MEPs are elected by the Flemish college, 8 by the French-speaking college and 1 by the German-language college (thus de facto by First Past the Post). These are not ‘regions’ per se. In bilingual areas, such as Brussels or the border between Wallonia and Flanders voters may choose which college they vote in. With less than 40,000 voters voting in the German-language college in 2009 the German lingual MEP has by far and away the lowest number of constituents of any MEP in the entire EU.
Voting is compulsory in Belgium, and this election will be held alongside elections for the federal, regional and German community parliaments, meaning turnout will likely be amongst the highest in the EU. Turnout in 2009 was 90.4%.
2009 Election Result
It appears, looking at the polls that not much, if anything, will significantly change in the Francophone college. The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) appears likely to romp home in Flanders, perhaps even taking 4 seats. Libertarian, Direct, Democratic (LDD) will almost certainly lose its single seat, and Vlaams Belang (VB) is looking weak. As in 2010, it may be the case that almost all Flemish parties lose something to the N-VA onslaught.