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Diplomatic archive

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History of Foreign Affairs

On 18 November 1830 a Diplomatic Committee was set up, to be succeeded by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 25 February 1831.

Between 1830 and 1880 (50 years during which the young neutral Belgian state endeavoured to defend and consolidate its international position), the remit of the ministry focussed on key domains that would stand the test of time, namely political affairs, foreign trade and consulates.

Most members of Belgium’s diplomatic corps, which at the time comprised mostly aristocrats, officers and wealthy individuals from bourgeois backgrounds, were recruited on the basis of simple recommendations.

Desirous of conquering essential new markets, the small, newly independent country set up numerous consulates to guarantee the expansion of its trade and economy.

Between 1880 and 1914, Belgium was the first country on the European continent to undergo an ‘industrial revolution’. The ministry’s organisational chart illustrates this growth, featuring policy, foreign trade and chancellery departments, which subsequently became directorates-general.

The consular function was considerably improved and carefully structured. Belgium’s consulates abroad were veritable figureheads of the country’s extraordinary economic and commercial dynamism throughout the period in question. The ministry managed major investments throughout the world, especially by the Belgian railways and tramways which were successfully exported, conducted bilateral trade negotiations and signed the country’s first trade agreements, and Belgium’s number of diplomatic representations duly multiplied.

During the two World Wars (1914-1918 and 1940-1945), the ministry was moved abroad, to Le Havre during World War One and to Eaton Square, London, as from October 1940.

During the inter-war years, the duties of the ministry’s representatives also expanded to cover peace treaties, reparations, problems associated with the Rhine, and Locarno, all policy domains that include economics, monetary affairs and finance.

In 1934, the government department was officially renamed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade.

During the 50 years after World War Two, the nature of the ministry’s work changed tremendously, as did its remit and duties.

The ministry’s organisational chart went on to develop in line with the new issues that emerged, such as Europe, wholesale multilateralism and development cooperation.

When Belgium became a federal state, its Communities and Regions became involved in the country’s international relations.

The diplomatic corps became more demographically representative, comprising more Flemish and female members.

In 1997, the move from the central building in rue des Quatre-Bras to its new home in the Egmont I building was accompanied by another restructuring of the ministry, with traditional bilateral diplomatic relations giving way to multilateral and topical sectors (arms control, monitoring of sensitive exports, human rights, and scientific, nuclear and environmental affairs).

The Copernic reform in 2000 completely remodelled the ministry’s organisational structure, introducing support directorates alongside the established Directorates-General for European Affairs and Coordination, Multilateral Affairs and Globalisation, Development Cooperation, Bilateral Affairs, Consular Affairs and Legal Affairs. One such new body was the Support Directorate for Information and Communication Technology, reflecting the ministry’s fresh priorities and concerns.
The tone changed too, as reflected by the choice of the new denomination Federal Public Service, instead of ministry, and its top civil servant, previously known as its secretary-general becoming its ‘chairman’, or more specifically the chairman of its Executive Committee.

The Diplomatic Committee

The Provisional Government of Belgium was officially constituted on 26 September 1830 and remained in place until the Regent’s appointment in February 1831.

This Provisional Government was composed of members/general administrators, formed into a Central Committee, each chairing a Special Committee.

In December 1830, there were Special Committees for War, Internal Affairs, Finance, Justice, Public Safety and Diplomacy.

The Special Committee for Diplomacy (Foreign Affairs), which was set up on 18 November 1830, was chaired by Sylvain Van de Weyer, a member of the Provisional Government. It comprised four members, all from the National Congress: Count Philippe de Celles, Count Philippe d’Arschot Schoonhoven, Pierre Destriveaux and Jean-Baptiste Nothomb.

Belgium’s first ‘ministries’ emerged later on, mainly under Baron Surlet de Chokier, who was elected the first Regent of Belgium on 25 February 1831.

Sylvain Van de Weyer was born in Leuven on 19 January 1802 and became a lawyer and member of the Provisional Government. On 18 November 1830 he was appointed Chairman of the Diplomatic Council, and on 1 January 1831 he was sent to the Conference of London as a negotiator, and from 26 February 1831 to 27 March 1831 served as Belgium’s first ‘minister’ for foreign affairs. In July 1831 he was appointed minister plenipotentiary and special envoy to Britain’s King William IV.

Jean-Baptiste Nothomb was officially appointed secretary-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 1 March 1831 and focussed primarily on resolving the dynastic question, i.e. the choice of sovereign. Discharged from his duties in January 1837, he took on the new portfolio of minister for public works. On 5 April 1840 he was appointed minister plenipotentiary and special envoy to the German Confederation.

Political correspondence

A collection of 900 fully leather-bound or leather-clad volumes bearing Belgium’s royal coat of arms in gold leaf containing hand-written general political correspondence with diplomatic representations and consulates, starting in 1830.

Each volume begins with a chronological table with the names of the sender and recipient and a summary of the contents of the dispatch or report.

The vast undertaking of compiling this correspondence took from 1875 to 1914.

It was primarily the work of a true organiser, Emile Banning (1836-1898), who served as director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and first director of the ministry’s archives before being appointed an advisor to King Leopold II.

Emile Banning was also Belgium’s first foreign policy theoretician, pointing out that neutrality is the best policy for small countries, especially when surrounded by powerful neighbours.

Belgian diplomatic documents from 1920 to 1940

La Politique de sécurité extérieure (Foreign security policy), by Visscher, C., and Van Langenhove, P,. Palais des Académies, Brussels, 5 volumes, 1964-1966

The interwar years marked a turning point in Belgian foreign policy, since the regime of guaranteed, mandatory neutrality was shattered by the Great War (1914-1918).

“The overriding concern in all Belgian foreign policy at the end of the war and during the ensuing period of peace was that of security, necessarily allied with independence.”

Paul Hymans served four times as Belgium’s foreign minister between 1918 and 1935 and took part in the Peace Conference, being particularly active in connection with the revision of the 1839 treaties with the Netherlands. Hymans was the main advocate of Belgian diplomacy emancipated from neutrality (the Franco-Belgian Military Accord of 1920, the Locarno Agreements, the Treaty of Friendship with the Netherlands, etc.). He was involved in drafting the Covenant of the League of Nations and chaired its first Assembly.

Fernand Van Langenhove was another emblematic figure at the Ministry, serving as its Secretary-General from 1929 to 1946.

In that capacity he is most remembered for being the chief architect of Belgium’s ‘policy of independence’, in which 1936 marked a major turning point, since it was in March of that year that the then Foreign Minister Paul van Zeeland, told parliament: “Our foreign policy since the war has remained dominated by a few clear and simple principles like independence, realism, loyalty to our commitments and friendships, and balance in all respects. This government … has taken pains to prevent our international attitude from giving the impression of a leaning tower. In actual fact, to repeat what I deem to be an appropriate image, it always has been, still is and always will be a tower that stands straight and tall“. (Parliamentary Annals, Chamber of Representatives and Senate sessions on 11 March 1936).

Another watershed in his career as secretary-general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came in 1940, with the ministry’s evacuation and the saga surrounding the constitution of the Belgian government-in-exile in London. For months, during which the ministry’s administrative efficiency was seriously hampered by problems, Fernand Van Langenhove wavered between a de jure and de facto position, without ever abdicating his responsibilities, both in Belgium and abroad.

Charles De Visscher: Professor of international law at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL).


The British equivalent of the Belgian rank of secretary-general is permanent secretary.

The post of secretary-general is an administrative job without any political mandate.

The duties of the secretary-general are set out in arrangements adopted by the respective ministry.

Hierarchically speaking, a secretary-general ranks between a minister, to whom he/she reports, and directors-general, who report to him/her.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has had only the following 18 secretaries-general since 1831:

J.B Nothomb (1 March 1831)
Baron E. de T'Serclaes (13 January 1837)
C. Materne (26 June 1847)
Baron A. Lambermont (30 April 1860)
Chevalier L. van der Elst (20 May 1905)
P. Orts (assigned the duties normally attributed to the Secretary-General on 17 August 1917 and appointed temporary Secretary-General on 9 December 1918)
H. Costermans (31 December 1919)
F. Van Langenhove (21 March 1929)
Count de Romree de Vichenet (temporary Secretary-General, 23 July 1946)
Baron H. de Gruben (1 October 1947)
L. Scheyven (10 April 1953)
Baron J. van den Bosch (1 July 1959)
L.C.Platteau (temporary Secretary-General from 15 December 1965 to 21 April 1966)
R. Vaes (22 April 1966)
R. Grandry (4 April 1972)
F. Roelants (1 March 1980)
J. De Bock (1 August 1997)
J. Grauls (19 June 2002)
D. Achten (temporary Secretary-General from June 2008 to 20 July 2009) - (20 July 2009 -     )

Under the Copernic reform launched in 2000, all this terminology, which had for a very long time been part and parcel of the lives of all Belgian federal civil servants, became totally obsolete. The rank of secretary-general was replaced by chairman of the Executive Committee of the federal public service (the ‘new incarnation’ of what had previously been referred to as a ministry).