Its national motto is “Unity provides strength,” and a student can expect the country to embody this in almost every way. Lying between France, Germany, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the North Sea, Belgium may be a small country, but it also happens to be one of the most densely populated in the world. Dutch, French, and German are all considered official languages of the country. In fact, many of Belgium’s major cities tend to have multiple names to accommodate each- Brussels is also known as Brussel and Bruxelles. One might easily hear any number of accents as they are walking through the country’s historic streets. This might appear to be overwhelming at first, however the Belgians manage the range of cultures particularly well. Often referred to as the “Crossroads of Western Europe,” Belgium has exemplified diversity throughout Europe’s history, and will undoubtedly continue along this path into its future. Through this, Belgium, in turn, manages to provide students with a uniquely diverse range of opportunities that would easily rival those of its neighbors. But perhaps “rival” is not the best word to use, as Belgium is also noted for its exceptional ability to welcome and host a myriad of cultures all at once.
Not surprisingly, Belgium serves as the center for both NATO and the EU. One of the founding members of the EU, Belgium has been at the very forefront of European integration and unification (it became one of the first countries to adopt the Euro). The capital city of Brussels, which is recognized as one of the safest capital cities in the world, is also the seat of the European Commission. In addition, it is the residence of the Council of Ministers, which hosts meetings of the European Parliament, and holds all summits of the European Council. In many ways, Brussels acts as the unofficial capital of the EU. As a result, the city stands only behind Washington DC in its number of accredited journalists. Also, many major corporations choose to base their European headquarters in Belgium. Students taking an EU study abroad focus, or perhaps applying for Fulbright grants for EU studies will rank Belgium as a top choice. Overall, Belgium would be an excellent opportunity for students majoring in international relations, politics, economics, peace studies, art history, journalism, or business.
Although Belgium takes a friendly approach to outside influences, it also maintains its own identity. Many characterize Belgium as “one of Europe’s best kept secrets.” Europeans themselves flock to the country for its beautiful art, gorgeous medieval castles, and decadent chocolate (it is the home of Godiva). Artists will find inspiration in the works of prominent Belgian artists such as the baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, surrealist Rene Magritte, and painters Jan van Eyck, Pieter Brueghel, and Paul Delvaux. The famous Art Nouveaux architect, Victor Hugo also hails from Belgium. In addition, Belgium happens to be the home of popular comic strips such as Tintin and The Smurfs.
Historically, Belgium, which traces Celtic, Roman, Germanic, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Austrian influences, has held a central role in Europe. In the 12th and 17th centuries, Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Antwerp each became European capitals for commerce, textiles, and art. Flemish paintings and tapestries were coveted throughout Europe. When Napoleonic France invaded Belgium after the French Revolution, Belgium defeated Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Waterloo in 1795. Later, it briefly became a part of the Netherlands, but won its independence in 1830 after an uprising. In the 20th century, Belgium was twice invaded by Germany, in 1914 and 1940. In 1944, Belgium was liberated by the Allied Forces and has been secure since.
Today, the politics of the country tend to lean more towards the left. Belgium, which is governed by a constitutional monarchy and a federal state made up of communities and regions, is very politically active. So much, in fact, that voting is compulsory. Notably, in 2003, Belgium became the second country to recognize gay marriage.
Those who wish to expand their travel options will find a strategic home in Belgium to base their study. The country has an excellent transportation system (it developed Europe’s first train line) and is also linked to the European railway system. Paris, Cologne, London, and Amsterdam are all less that a 3 hour train ride away!