Brussels, city, capital of Belgium. It is located in the valley of the Senne (Flemish: Zenne) River, a small tributary of the Schelde (French: Escaut). Greater Brussels is the country’s largest urban agglomeration. It consists of 19 communes, or municipalities, each with a large measure of administrative autonomy. The largest commune—which, like the greater metropolitan area, is named Brussels—contains the historic core of the city and the so-called “European Quarter,” where the institutions of the European Union (EU) are located.
Greater Brussels officially became the Brussels-Capital Region in 1989, during the federalization of Belgium. Along with the much larger regions of Flanders and Wallonia, the Brussels-Capital Region constitutes one of the country’s three main political divisions. As the seat of the EU, Brussels is known as the “capital of Europe,” and its significance as a centre of international governance and business makes Brussels a true global city—a status shared with such metropolises as New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo. Area Brussels-Capital Region, 62 square miles (161 square km). Pop. (2022 est.) Brussels-Capital Region, 1,222,637; Brussels commune, 188,737.
Character of the city
(From left to right) Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán attending a ceremony marking the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at NATO headquarters, Brussels, March 16, 1999.
Brussels is the administrative, commercial, and financial heart of Belgium, and the majority of services and institutions of national importance are based in the city. Brussels is, in addition, a major European tourist and cultural attraction, functioning simultaneously as a regional metropolis and an international centre. The last-named role has flourished since the city became host to the European Communities (ultimately succeeded by the EU) as well as to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters.
The ethnic and linguistic composition of Belgium.
The city lies just a few miles north of the invisible “language boundary” separating Belgium’s Flemish-speaking region of Flanders in the north from the southern, French-speaking Walloon Region. Brussels is thus surrounded by Flemish territory. Although historically it was a predominantly Flemish-speaking city, at present the majority of residents in the Brussels agglomeration speak French, which is also the preferred language of the city’s growing international labour force. The city is bilingual, and in all spheres of public life Flemish and French are used side by side. Nevertheless, in the 20th century Brussels became the principal venue for political and cultural clashes between Flemings and Walloons. Partly as a result of these conflicts, the Belgian parliament reorganized the country’s structure on the basis of the Flemish, Walloon, and Brussels-Capital regions. Although the Brussels-Capital Region maintains a separate political identity, the city of Brussels also functions as the capital of the Flemish Region and as the capital of the country’s French- and Flemish-language communities. Britannica QuizCountries and Capitals Quiz
Although the average visitor to Brussels might remain unaware of the various governmental powers vested there, the interdigitation of municipal, national, and European politics has contributed to many of the city’s problems. It has, for example, impeded the harmonious development of the city’s spreading built-up areas as well as its public transportation infrastructure, already hindered by an automobile-friendly street plan. Moreover, national and transnational interests have at times taken precedence over the interests of local residents.
There is no question that Brussels is a polarized place. Dilapidated neighbourhoods in the centre-west and west stand in stark contrast to manicured lawns, restored townhouses, and posh suburban villas in the east and southeast. Dated industrial infrastructure lies a few miles from the astringent glass-and-steel administrative district of the EU. Yet, its urban pathologies aside, Brussels is not a city in decay but a place of great vibrancy and multicultural depth—a much more exciting and cosmopolitan place than it ever was during its centuries-long history.
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Brussels lies in the Central Plateaus of Belgium. Located between the Atlantic oceanfront of sandy lowlands and polders to the north and the rugged Ardennes highlands to the south, Brussels has long played the role of economic and transportation nexus for the broader region that spans the valleys of the Schelde, Sambre, and Meuse rivers. During the medieval period, Brussels was enclosed by two successive circuits of fortification walls, constructed in the 11th and 14th centuries. The latter circuit, which encompassed the commercially important Senne and a significant escarpment to the east, was roughly in the shape of a pentagon, the trace of which is still visible from the air.
Over time, villages surrounding the pentagon were aggregated, and, together with historic central Brussels, they ultimately constituted Greater Brussels. Today, the metropolitan area of Brussels, girded by a beltway (the so-called grande ceinture), extends beyond the footprint of the 19 communes to encompass a fringe of the province of Flemish Brabant.
Its relative proximity to the North Sea gives Brussels a mild maritime climate, with summer daytime temperatures usually between 68 and 77 °F (20 and 25 °C) and winter temperatures rarely dipping below 32 °F (0 °C). With rain falling on more than half the days of the year on average, Brussels experiences a high mean annual precipitation (more than 32 inches [810 mm]) and has no discernible dry season. Snowfall rarely occurs more than two or three times a year. As Brussels is distinctly automobile friendly, noise and air pollution are notable problems.
The historic Old Town of inner Brussels forms the centre of the modern metropolis, but the pentagonal walls that once surrounded it were replaced by a ring of tree-lined boulevards in the early 19th century. Since 1830, when Belgium became an independent kingdom, Brussels has continued to be transformed, in the Old Town as well as in the surrounding communes. The determining factor in this metamorphosis has been incessant population pressure, which caused a building boom and the development of an ever-widening network of streets, avenues, and roads crisscrossing the countryside and urbanizing the neighbouring villages.
At first the urban tentacles pushed forward only along the seven or eight routes radiating from the tollgates along the old city walls, but after the toll system was abolished in 1860, they also spread along new roads. The suburbs expanded rapidly beyond the town gates, and by the end of the 19th century several of the first ring of communes were almost completely covered by residential buildings. Much like Paris, which was radically redesigned in the second half of the 19th century by the urban planner Georges-Eugène, Baron Haussmann, Brussels of this period was physically transformed. Influenced by French urban planning and architecture, Brussels’s authorities demolished medieval and Baroque-era neighbourhoods, created new beaux quartiers (“beautiful districts”), and cut wide boulevards through the city—diminishing its historically Flemish character. Modernization also brought improved sanitation to the city. In the 1860s and ’70s the highly polluted Senne was diverted around the western edge of the historic city. Its traditional course through the city centre was integrated into a new system of sewers and covered over with apartment-lined boulevards.
Map of Brussels (c. 1900), from the 10th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica.
Expansion continued into the 20th century, in all directions: north and south along the valley of the Senne River, and east and west on the undulating plateaus separated by tributaries of the Senne. But as affluent, mainly French-speaking people increasingly moved into leafy communities on Brussels’s periphery, many Flemish speakers viewed the metropolitan growth as an incursion into their territory. Thus, in the latter half of the 20th century, legislation strictly confined the city within the limits of its 19 constituent communes.
Night view of the Grand’ Place, Brussels.
Historically split by topography into a riverside merchant district and an elevated elite area to the east, central Brussels today remains divided between the western commercial quarter, or lower town, and the eastern upper town, where the principal government buildings are situated. The commercial quarter extends from the western outer boulevards to a little east of the central boulevards and includes the medieval marketplace known as the Grand’ Place (Flemish: Grote Markt), the city’s premier architectural tourist attraction. This square, with its elaborately decorated 17th-century guildhalls, lies at the heart of the Old Town. It is occupied on its south side by the imposing Town Hall (French: Hôtel de Ville; Flemish: Stadhuis) and on its north by the ornate King’s House (Maison du Roi/Broodhuis; almost entirely rebuilt during 1873–95), which contains the Brussels City Museum. The area surrounding the Grand’ Place, known as the Îlot Sacré (“Sacred Isle”), includes the late 19th-century Stock Exchange. Perhaps the most famous curiosity of this quarter is the Manneken-Pis Fountain (1619), noted for a small bronze statue of a boy urinating and known to the people of Brussels as their oldest “citizen”; the statue is adorned in various costumes throughout the year to mark festivals, holidays, and other events. Other highlights of the lower town include two preserved 18th-century squares, the Place du Nouveau Marché aux Grains (Nieuwe Graanmarkt) and the Place des Martyrs (Martelaarsplein), located northwest and northeast of the Grand’ Place, respectively.
The upper town is the remaining eastern area of the inner city. On the rue Royale (Koningsstraat) stand the Royal Palace and, to the north, the Palace of the Nation. The Royal Palace is flanked to the west by the late 18th-century Place Royale, a symmetrical Neoclassical square conceived by French architects Nicolas Barré and Barnabé Guimard to evoke the royal squares of France. The Palace of the Nation was erected (1779–83) when Belgium belonged to the Austrian Netherlands; after independence it became the home of the Belgian Senate and Chamber of Representatives. The two palaces stand at either end of Brussels Park, in an area that has become a symbol for the national government. North of the Palace of the Nation, and dominating the northeastern end of the historic city, is the Cité Administrative, built between the late 1950s and early ’80s and originally intended for national government functions. The complex’s austere international style drew much criticism, however, and its buildings were largely abandoned by the early 21st century. At that time, in a public-private venture, Brussels made plans to transform the Cité Administrative from an obsolete modernist monument into a mixed-use complex featuring renovated offices, expanded green space, recreational facilities, and a substantial amount of housing, thus reintegrating the site into city life.
The headquartering of the European Communities in Brussels in 1958 breathed new life into the city centre, especially east of Brussels Park in the Léopold Quarter, where the offices were established. The first large-scale building dedicated to the city’s European functions was the European Commission’s headquarters, the Berlaymont—a vast cruciform high-rise building designed by Lucien de Vestel and constructed during 1967–69. The Berlaymont (or “Berlaymonster,” as its critics call it) has become an icon of European integration. Although the expansion of the European quarter has provoked controversy, as it necessitated the demolition of architecturally important Neoclassical streetscapes, the EU infrastructure now encompasses dozens of buildings and reinforces Brussels’s identity as the capital of Europe.
The population of the Brussels agglomeration grew steadily from 57,000 in 1755, when the first census was held, to 104,000 in 1830, 626,000 in 1900, 892,000 in 1930, and approximately 1,000,000 in 1970. The population of the Brussels-Capital Region remained just above 1,000,000 into the early 21st century, when it represented about one-tenth of the population of Belgium. Meanwhile, the population of the inner city increased in line with that of the total agglomeration until about 1890, when it stood at 160,000. It then decreased sharply during the first half of the 20th century, falling to about 60,000 by the 1960s. By the early 21st century, however, the population of the Brussels commune had reached nearly three times that number.
Immigration has had a significant impact on the demographic and linguistic evolution of the city. In the 19th century, newcomers usually came from either Flanders or Wallonia, although there was also a large expatriate community from France and, to a lesser extent, Germany. Until then, Brussels remained the Flemish city it had always been, with only about one-third of its inhabitants speaking French. The new Flemish inhabitants, however, belonged on the whole to the lower strata of society (domestic servants, labourers), whereas Walloon newcomers were predominantly middle-class employees and civil servants. Largely as a result of social pressure and the prestige of the language, by the mid-20th century a large majority of Bruxellois spoke French.
The economic expansion of the post-World War II era necessitated the introduction of labourers from a number of countries in the Mediterranean region—including Italy, Spain, Greece, Morocco, Turkey, and Yugoslavia—during the 1950s and ’60s. Immigrants of various origins, notably the Democratic Republic of the Congo, continued to arrive in subsequent decades. Significant numbers of immigrants from outside western Europe and their descendants now inhabit central Brussels, notably in the communes of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean (Flemish: Sint-Jans-Molenbeek), Saint-Gilles (Sint-Gillis), Schaerbeek (Schaarbeek), and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode (Sint-Joost-ten-Node). All these immigrant groups brought increased ethnic and religious diversity to the historically Roman Catholic city. Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, for example, boasts an important Turkish community, and Schaerbeek has a relatively large number of mosques and several Eastern Orthodox churches. Geographic segregation, economic disparity, and, on the part of some groups, a lack of assimilation into Belgian society occasionally have contributed to tensions between immigrant groups and the native Belgian population.
Meanwhile, the arrival from western European countries of personnel for the European Communities and, later, the EU also altered the composition of the population of Brussels. By the turn of the 21st century, more than one-fourth of the inhabitants of the Brussels-Capital Region had been born outside Belgium, and the majority of them hailed from other EU countries. Many European functionaries have settled in affluent areas within the Brussels-Capital Region, especially in the communes of Ixelles (Flemish: Elsene), Etterbeek, Woluwe-Saint-Lambert (Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe), and Woluwe-Saint-Pierre (Sint-Pieters-Woluwe). Many others have moved into municipalities on its periphery, such as Sint-Genesius-Rode (French: Rhode-Saint-Genèse) and Tervueren, both within the Flemish Region, and Waterloo, in Wallonia. A number of these peripheral communes are classified as “communes with facilities” (French: communes à facilités; Flemish: faciliteitengemeenten), meaning that the Belgian constitution grants their residents the right to access government services in a minority language, notwithstanding the official language of the commune. Thus, even though the borders of the Brussels-Capital Region are fixed, those limits have not constrained its largely French- and English-speaking international population, whose settlement in the Flemish hinterland has contributed to rancor between the country’s language communities.
While Brussels remains officially bilingual—and the dual capital of the country’s Flemish- and French-speaking communities—French is undoubtedly the lingua franca of the region, with more than nine-tenths of the population speaking it “well to fluently” in the early 21st century. As the use of Flemish has declined, English has overtaken it as the most common second language of the people of Brussels, with more than one-third of the population making that claim—although the use of English is associated with school and the workplace, rather than the home.
Economy of Brussels
The capital has been the financial heart of Belgium and a major commercial centre ever since the private and powerful holding company the Société Générale de Belgique was established there in 1822. Today Brussels’s rank as the most populous region in the country, its status as the federal capital and the seat of the EU, and its great concentration of service industries make it the most important growth engine of Belgium. Its economic footprint extends beyond the boundaries of the Brussels-Capital Region, well into the regions of Flanders and Wallonia. Plainly speaking, more than one-tenth of the jobs in Belgium are tied to the Brussels economy. Within the region, both the standard and cost of living are relatively high; the average income per person is higher than in Flanders and Wallonia, although the gap has narrowed. Yet, as in other global cities in the 21st century, the concentration of highly compensated executives and the loss of well-paid manufacturing employment have contributed to socioeconomic polarization, expressed by high levels of unemployment, occasional animosity between the Belgian majority and the non-European immigrant communities, and the deterioration of neighbourhoods untouched by Brussels’s international functions.
Belgium became an important manufacturing centre during the Industrial Revolution, a development aided by the expansion of Belgium’s canal system and new port and railway facilities in the city. Industrial activities largely developed along the north-south valley of the Senne River and became concentrated in the western parts of the city. In the mid-20th century food processing and the manufacture of machinery, electrical products, chemicals, and textiles were the leading industries.
Since the 1970s Brussels has followed the rest of Belgium and the industrialized West in shedding a considerable part of its manufacturing activities. Today manufacturing in Brussels has a substantially leaner profile, represented by some remaining heavy industry—machine parts and automobile manufacture—as well as industries characterized by intensive research and development, such as pharmaceuticals, chemical products, and electronics. Because manufacturing accounts for less than one-tenth of the total economic output of the region, 21st-century Brussels can be appropriately described as a postindustrial city.
Finance and other services
Concentrated in the eastern parts of central Brussels, the service sector constitutes the largest segment of the regional economy and employs about three-quarters of the workforce. Leading the list are public and government services, which include the international governance institutions. Next in importance are financial services and commerce; other significant service industries include law, insurance, real estate, and consultancies. The size of the contribution made by international governance—especially the EU’s institutions—to Brussels’s economy is a matter of some controversy; estimates of the number of people employed in the international sector range from about 4 to 10 percent of the region’s workforce. Nevertheless, its economic impact is quite visible in the real-estate market: nearly a third of Brussels’s office space is occupied by EU-related entities, and elite neighbourhoods, especially those adjacent to the EU zone, are heavily populated by international service workers and their dependents. Britannica QuizCapital Cities by Continent Quiz
Tourism is another important component of the service sector. The city’s easy accessibility and central geographic location in western Europe have proved beneficial to its tourist trade. Many visitors to the Continent use Brussels as a convenient base or starting point for their travels.
Brussels is the focal point of the Belgian railway system, one of the densest in the world. In 1911 the city began building a series of railway tunnels and viaducts connecting the North (1841) and South (1869) railway stations by way of the underground Central Station (1952). This so-called North-South link was completed in 1956. To alleviate worsening traffic problems caused by the city’s large number of commuters, in 1965 the city began developing a comprehensive subway and regional railway network that now extends to all parts of the Brussels-Capital Region. In the early 21st century an expanded regional network, linking the city with Flemish and Walloon communities on its periphery, was constructed. At the same time, the national railway company added high-speed rail links between Brussels and other major European cities such as London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Cologne.
The Brussels national airport is at Zaventem, to the east. A beltway (the grande ceinture) surrounds Greater Brussels, forming a hub of radiating highways that connect the major cities of Belgium. Vital canals also link the capital to Charleroi, to the south, and Antwerp, to the north.
Administration and society
A major political centre since the 15th century, Brussels was the historic capital of the duchy of Brabant. The city became the capital of independent Belgium in 1830; it also continued as the capital of the Belgian province of Brabant until 1995, when the latter was divided into separate provinces, Walloon Brabant and Flemish Brabant. (Wavre and Leuven, respectively, are now the capitals of those provinces.) Today the Royal Palace, the Palace of the Nation, and other national government buildings remain within the historic city centre.
Belgium’s national authorities share power with the country’s three regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and the Brussels-Capital Region) and with the major language communities of the country (Flemish, French, and German). Besides constituting one of the country’s three federal regions, Brussels also is the capital of both the Flemish- and the French-language communities.
The Brussels-Capital Region is governed by legislative and executive branches. The legislature, the Council of the Region, comprises several dozen regional representatives, each elected for a five-year term by eligible voters in the 19 communes. Every five years the Council of the Region elects the executive branch, composed of a number of executive officers, one of whom serves as minister-president.
In 1836 the Belgian parliament passed the “organic” communal law, which provided for the autonomy of each commune. This explains why Greater Brussels was long governed by 19 separate communal authorities and not by one single authority. Today, although together they constitute the Brussels-Capital Region, the 19 communes of Brussels continue to have their own councils and municipal establishments.
In addition to hosting national, regional, and communal government institutions, Brussels is home to the executive components of the EU: the European Commission and the Council of the European Union. Moreover, Brussels hosts the committee sessions of the EU’s legislative branch, the European Parliament. (Plenary sessions are held in Strasbourg, France.) Brussels is also the seat of the EU’s Committee of the Regions and its Economic and Social Committee.
Brussels’s communal services proliferated after 1830 as the city’s population grew and became more mobile. The effect of larger scale and greater mobility meant growth in existing administrative departments as well as the creation of many new ones, such as water, gas, and electricity administrations and departments for youth and sports, the aged, burial services, and education and the fine arts. In many areas, however, individual communal interests and priorities held sway over those of the integral Brussels agglomeration until the latter part of the 20th century.
With the federalization of Belgium, the Brussels-Capital Region became responsible for providing many public services to the residents of the entire region. Among its many competencies, the region has jurisdiction over land-use regulations, housing, road and waterway networks, the port and its ancillary facilities, regional public transit, vocational training and workers’ unemployment compensation, environmental protection, and cultural preservation. Since Brussels is the home of the federal government, the regional government consults with federal authorities on questions of urban-regional planning, public works, and transportation. The Brussels-Capital Region also has assumed responsibility for fire and ambulance services, which used to be under the jurisdiction of the prefederal Brussels agglomeration. Police services, however, are carried out by federal and local police forces, and local forces are each responsible for a number of communes within the region.
Since 1989 the management of education in the Brussels-Capital Region has been largely in the hands of the country’s French- and Flemish-language communities, which oversee parallel systems of primary and secondary public schools. Families of any linguistic background may send their children to either Flemish-language or French-language public schools. There is also a system of state-subsidized religious schools, known as “free” schools, as well as a network of elite private schools, many of which cater to the international community. Notable providers of public higher education in the region include the Free University of Brussels (founded 1834; divided since 1970 into separate French- and Flemish-speaking universities) and some faculties of the French-language branch of the Catholic University of Leuven (Université Catholique de Louvain).
Hôtel Tassel, Brussels, designed by Victor Horta.
The two outstanding periods in Brussels’s cultural history were the late medieval flowering under the Burgundians (most of the town’s Gothic churches date from this era) and the late 19th to early 20th century, when Brussels was a centre of innovation in literature, theatre, architecture, and painting. The Art Nouveau architects Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta and the Surrealist painters Paul Delvaux and René Magritte were among the most influential figures of the latter period. Brussels in the early 21st century remains a cultural centre with a cosmopolitan feel.
In addition to the Free University, the royal academies of science, medicine, French language and literature, and Flemish language and literature are based in Brussels, as are various other institutes of higher learning, including the largest branch of the National Archives, the Royal Library of Belgium, and many museums of national or local importance. Foremost among the city’s theatres are the French-language National Theatre and the bilingual national opera house, La Monnaie (Flemish: De Munt). The Palace of Fine Arts, designed by Horta and opened in 1928, provides a cultural centre for those interested in the visual arts, film, music, literature, and the theatre. Most of the city’s large-scale art exhibitions are presented there, and it is also the headquarters of the Philharmonic Society. The Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition of Belgium, in which prizes are awarded for piano, voice, and violin performances, as well as for new compositions, attracts worldwide interest.
Historically, Flemish and French speakers had their own cultural circuits in Brussels. Broadly speaking, Flemish-language cultural life remains more in evidence in the northwestern part of the agglomeration and French-language culture in the centre and southeast. As with education, cultural policy in the Brussels-Capital Region has been directed since 1989 by the country’s French- and Flemish-language communities. Alongside the 19 communes, they organize cultural events and provide financing. The federal government, however, is responsible for the national opera and orchestra companies, as well as the Palace of Fine Arts.
Not far from the urban centre are scenic walks in the magnificent beech groves of the Soignes Forest (Zoniënwoud) and its offshoot, the Cambre (Ter Kameren) Woods. The city’s main sports stadium is located in Heysel (Heizel), a northern district of the Brussels commune where the 1958 World Exhibition was held and where the iconic Atomium, a structure built for that exhibition, still stands.
History of Brussels
Early settlement and growth
Although the region has been inhabited since prehistoric times, the oldest known reference to Brussels dates to the 10th century, when it had the Frankish name Bruocsella, which means “settlement in the marshes.” The settlement at that time was a part of Lower Lotharingia, or Lower Lorraine, which later became known as the duchy of Brabant. Brussels owes its development to its location on the Senne (Flemish: Zenne) River, which flows from south to north, and an east-west economic route linking towns on the Rhine, such as Cologne (now in Germany), with Brugge (French: Bruges), Ieper (French: Ypres), and other towns in the county of Flanders. At the point where road and river crossed, a market and bartering place developed under the protection of the dukes of Brabant. By the 12th century, Brussels was surrounded by defensive ramparts with towers and fortified gateways.
During the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, Brussels grew to become one of the major towns of the duchy of Brabant. Its economic mainstay was the manufacture of luxury fabrics, which were exported to fairs in Paris, Venice, the Champagne region of France, and elsewhere. The cloth trade made fortunes for a few enterprising merchant families, who developed into seven dynasties that, with the help of the duke of Brabant, acquired a position of complete political mastery. In control of business and municipal affairs, they also exercised power as magistrates, giving rulings on disputes arising among the inhabitants, as well as acting as a court of appeal for neighbouring areas. The prevailing regime was, in fact, strongly plutocratic in nature.
Abuse of such powers provoked violent popular uprisings in 1280, 1303, 1360, and 1421. This last upheaval led to a more equitable system of government, with local powers divided between the patrician families and the emergent guilds of craftsmen and other workers. Gradually, however, the patrician elite regained political control; as late as 1719 a popular revolt led by Frans Anneessens ended with his public execution.
Centuries of occupation
Events of particular significance in the 14th century were the invasion of the duchy of Brabant by troops of the count of Flanders, their brief occupation of Brussels, and the construction—immediately after the town’s liberation—of huge fortified walls (1357–79), which survived until the first half of the 19th century.
In 1430 the duchy was merged with the possessions of the duke of Burgundy. The Burgundian period, which lasted until 1477, was one of political and artistic prestige. Brussels became the seat of the central administrative bodies for the ducal possessions in the Low Countries, which constituted a rich centre of art and culture. Pictures by Rogier van der Weyden (the officially appointed town painter), sculptures in wood, large tapestries with historical motifs, plate, jewelry, and other products by Brussels craftsmen came to be exported in all directions. Brussels began to beautify itself: near the marketplace, the Town Hall (1402–54) rose proudly, with its tall perforated steeple surmounted by a statue of the archangel Michael, the city’s patron saint. Various Gothic churches and cathedrals and the ducal Coudenberg Palace (destroyed in the 18th century), with its extensive park, added to the architectural splendour.
After a prolonged political crisis caused by an abortive rebellion against the future Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I at the end of the 15th century, Brussels regained its position as a capital during the reign of Charles V (1519–56), who as Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain ruled a vast empire that included the Low Countries. Charles’s three government councils (the Council of State, the Privy Council, and the Finance Council) were established permanently in Brussels, and the city’s population grew to nearly 50,000 by the mid-16th century. In 1561 a canal linking Brussels with Willebroek was dug, providing direct access to the Rupel and the Schelde rivers and thus to the port of Antwerp and the North Sea. Replacing the sandy little Senne River, the Willebroek Canal played an important commercial role.
The Reformation did not leave Brussels untouched. Two Lutheran preachers, the first Protestant martyrs in the Low Countries, died there at the stake in 1523, and many more Lutherans, Anabaptists, and Calvinists followed. During the revolt of the Low Countries against their Spanish Habsburg rulers (see Eighty Years’ War), Brussels was under Calvinist rule from 1578 until 1585. By the latter date, however, the southern provinces of the Low Countries (which included modern-day Belgium) had separated from the northern provinces (now the Kingdom of the Netherlands), surrendered to the Spanish Habsburgs, and returned to the Roman Catholic fold. Brussels thus remained part of the Spanish-held southern provinces, or Spanish Netherlands, into the 18th century.
The Counter-Reformation and the reign of Archduke Albert VII and Isabella (1598–1633) left their mark on the urban surroundings with the construction of a series of fine churches in the Italo-Flemish Baroque style, nearly all of which are still in existence. In the second half of the 17th century, there were repeated invasions by the armies of Louis XIV of France. During a bombardment by his troops in 1695, hundreds of buildings were destroyed by fire, including the various craft headquarters. Out of this catastrophe there arose new guildhalls, the architectural landmarks now surrounding the Grand’ Place (Grote Markt).
With control of the Spanish Netherlands passing to the Austrian Habsburgs in 1713, Brussels became part of the Austrian Netherlands. Under Austrian rule the city suffered a brief but costly occupation by French troops in 1746–48 but profited from the general economic recovery in the latter half of the 18th century, becoming a financial centre and gaining new industries. The upper part of the town was the scene of urban planning on a large scale, which resulted in the Place Royale and Brussels Park.
Following the Brabant Revolution (1789–90) against the government of Holy Roman emperor Joseph II, the French republican armies made their appearance, and the Belgian principalities were annexed to France. During the Napoleonic era, Brussels was reduced to the rank of chief town of the French département of the Dyle, losing in addition all authority over its satellite villages. (See French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.)
One of the consequences of Napoleon I’s defeat at Waterloo (1815) was the creation of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This reunion of the southern and northern provinces, which had been separated in the 16th century, lasted 15 years (1815–30). During this period Brussels shared the status of capital with The Hague. Its appearance changed appreciably, above all because of the demolition of the city walls (1810–40) and their replacement by tree-lined boulevards, as well as the digging of the Brussels-Charleroi Canal, which from 1832 onward made waterborne transport possible from as far as the province of Hainaut to the port of Antwerp via the capital.
In 1830 came revolution; Belgium won its independence, and, in the constitution adopted by the newly elected National Congress, Brussels, which had played a major role in the uprising against the Kingdom of the Netherlands, was named the capital of Belgium and the seat of government. The Brussels elite remained predominant in Belgian national politics throughout the 19th century. Meanwhile, the city’s growing political and administrative role enhanced its importance as an economic and financial centre. With a population of more than 123,000 in 1846, it became the central node of Belgium’s road and railway network. Its material infrastructure was greatly improved by means of a modern sewerage and water-supply system, the introduction of public transport, and the development of new residential districts. However, as suburban areas were incorporated into the agglomeration, the fragmented local administration was streamlined only partly and gradually.
The 20th century
German troops marching through the triumphal arch in Cinquantenaire Park, Brussels, 1914.
The German occupation of Belgium during World War I lasted from August 1914 to November 1918. Numerous social relief movements were instituted; among them, the National Committee for Relief and Food had its headquarters in Brussels and, with U.S. aid, organized the feeding of the Belgian population. Adolphe de Max, the burgomaster of Brussels, acquired fame for his resistance to the abuses of the German occupiers. The Belgian army reoccupied the capital on Nov. 18, 1918, and four days later King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth reentered the city. After the war the administrative expansion of metropolitan Brussels that had begun in the 19th century continued. The area grew from 9 municipalities in 1878 to 16 in 1932 and to 19 in 1954. The metropolis, known as Greater Brussels, became an officially bilingual city in 1932.
In World War II, Brussels fell to the invading German army on May 18, 1940. The city did not suffer extensive physical damage but was subjected to harsh terms of occupation. To facilitate control Gen. Eggert Reeder, chief of the German military administration for Belgium, decided to follow the Nazi policy of creating large urban zones by amalgamating the communes. In order to crush the spirited opposition to this measure, Reeder dissolved all municipal councils and dismissed Joseph van de Meulebroeck, the leader of the opposition, from his post as burgomaster of Brussels. Reeder then appointed a governing council headed by Jan Grauls, a pro-Nazi Flemish nationalist. As in World War I, Germany tried to divide the nation by supporting partisans of Flemish autonomy. Although few Flemings actually collaborated with the enemy, anti-Flemish feelings ran high in metropolitan Brussels. The city was liberated on Sept. 3, 1944, by the British. Five days later the legitimate Belgian government returned to its capital from London.
After World War II, Brussels became decidedly more international, with the establishment of the headquarters of the European Communities (the predecessors of the European Union [EU]) in Brussels’s Léopold Quarter (1958) and the move of the NATO headquarters from Paris to the northeastern commune of Evere (1967). The city also was host to a successful world’s fair in 1958, which helped to rejuvenate the weakened postwar economy.
As the second half of the 20th century progressed, the Brussels region experienced suburbanization and deindustrialization, accompanied by the physical decline of the historic city centre. The city also stood at the centre of tensions between the Flemish and Walloon communities of Belgium. The Flemings pressed for effective bilingualism in the public services in Brussels itself and opposed any further expansion of the mainly French-speaking metropolis into neighbouring Flemish areas. Massive Flemish demonstrations against “Frenchification and territorial annexation” were held in the streets of Brussels in 1961 and 1962.
In an attempt to settle the issue, the Belgian parliament passed a law in 1963 that restricted the capital to its 19 officially bilingual municipalities but extended language facilities to French-speaking minorities in several suburban boroughs. The Francophone countermobilization against what was regarded as Flemish interference in city affairs led to the formation of the Brussels-based Francophone Democratic Front in 1964. Whereas the Flemings were intent on preventing the Francophone influence from spreading further, the French-speaking residents of Brussels resented the imposition of a legal carcan, or “straitjacket,” on the city. The front’s rapid growth gave it a firm political hold in the late 1970s, but its demise in the early 1980s was equally rapid, as the deepening national and international economic crisis drew attention away from the language conflict. The faltering economy also temporarily halted the reforms begun in 1962 devolving power from the central government to the communities and regions.Louis VerniersTheo Jozef HermansAlex Papadopoulos
In the last decades of the 20th century, as a result of constitutional and administrative reform, Belgium became a federal state, with the Brussels-Capital Region established in 1989 as one of three autonomous regions, along with the regions of Flanders and Wallonia. Meanwhile, as the European Communities and their successor, the EU, expanded in size and scope, Brussels developed as the capital of the “new Europe,” hosting many of the EU’s institutions, including the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament (committee sessions), the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions.
The 21st century
By the turn of the 21st century, modestly sized Brussels had mutated into one of the most significant cities in Europe, economically and politically. Brussels was located squarely inside the EU’s “blue banana” corridor, a highly developed economic region that extended, in the curved shape of a banana, from the southeastern United Kingdom, across parts of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, into northern Italy. Moreover, the name Brussels had entered the public imagination as the preeminent icon of a powerful EU.
The international valorization of Brussels notwithstanding, the inner city—essentially the central, northern, and western communes of the agglomeration—was experiencing the deterioration of its infrastructure, reduced public services, falling numbers of middle-class residents, and a decline in private investment in enterprises and employment. Booming areas within the city—such as the neighbourhoods dominated by EU institutions—were experiencing a crisis of their own: the expulsion of local residents and nongovernmental businesses, the loss of local character, and unprecedented damage to the architectural patrimony of Brussels. Communes on the periphery of the Brussels-Capital Region attracted many among the middle class and the international cadre, thus reducing Brussels’s tax base.
The authorities’ response to these problems included a mixture of regulation, financial intervention, and public relations—such as a campaign to attract research and development enterprises to the city. Regional development plans met with some success in the revitalization of housing and the urban environment, integrated economic development, and the promotion of environmentally sustainable practices. For example, in 2002 the Brussels-Capital Region committed to a plan to improve air quality and to meet the requirements of international conventions on climate change. The Brussels authorities also focused on improving public safety, local and regional transportation, education, and public health. These efforts to reinvigorate Brussels, it was hoped, would enhance the city’s prosperity and complement its prestige as the acknowledged capital of Europe.
While some areas within the Brussels-Capital Region thrived thanks to these reforms, others, such as the Molenbeek district, continued to suffer from persistent high unemployment and limited social engagement. The fragmented nature of the capital area’s administrative structure—19 mayors oversaw six police departments, and language-based political patronage acted as a bottleneck on government services—meant that vulnerable residents often fell through the cracks. Terrorism experts noted that Molenbeek had produced a disproportionate number of foreign fighters participating in the Syrian Civil War, and attention was focused on the area in the wake of the November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris. It was believed that organizers of those attacks were Molenbeek natives, and the main surviving suspect, Salah Abdeslam, was captured there after four months at large.
Shattered windows in the main terminal of Brussels Airport at Zaventem after a terrorist bomb attack on March 22, 2016.
On March 22, 2016, four days after Abdeslam’s arrest, Brussels was shaken by a trio of bomb blasts that claimed at least 30 lives and injured more than 250 people. A pair of bombs were detonated in the crowded check-in area of the main terminal at Brussels Airport, killing at least 10 and injuring 100. A little more than an hour later, a bomb exploded on a train as it departed the metro station at Maelbeek. Scores were injured and at least 20 people were killed in an attack that occurred just blocks from the headquarters of the European Commission and the Council of the European Union. European leaders rallied to express their solidarity with Brussels in the face of an assault on the very heart of the EU.