The earliest traces 

The origins of economic activity in Wallonia can be traced back to Neolithic mining in Spiennes which attest to mass, organised production of flint, shaped on site and "exported" from the 5th to the 3rd millennium B.C. Even before Romanisation, the Celts were renowned for their metal working (bloomeries), forging and high-quality crafts that were part of genuine trade channels.

A first industrial boom at the end of the Middle Ages (15th century)

Henri Blès : Paysage avec travaux de la mine - Landscape with work of the mine, fabric of Henri Blès (beginning of the 16th century)

The late Middle Ages saw several industries prosper with some of the resulting production being exported outside the Walloon territory. Dinant was an important centre for brass working. Based on a model of commercial capitalism, the brassware industry, which imported its raw materials from England and Germany, spread across a significant section of Europe. In Nivelles and in the west of the Comté de Hainaut, the linen industry developed rurally basis before experiencing a capitalist-type, European expansion, particularly from the city of Ath. Furthermore, master ironworkers developed new reduction procedures for iron ore. Records of blast furnaces date back to 1320 and the Walloon refining method significantly increased the factories' outputs. Coal mining, which began in the 18th century in the Borinage, Centre, Charleroi and Liège basins gave rise to entrepreneurs' associations providing large investments to modernise coal mining processes.

The expansion of the metal working industry (16th century)

Industries that had developed in the previous century continued to prosper in Wallonia, but it was iron working which demonstrated the greatest momentum. Through technical progress, the Walloon country established itself as one of the densest steel regions in western Europe. In 1566, two hundred factories operated in the Walloon territory, the whole of France only had double that. Coal production increased considerably in the Liège and Hainaut collieries. The textile industry began its expansion in the Verviers region. New glass factories were opened in the east of the Comté de Hainaut and in the Roman part of Brabant. During the last third of the century however, these industries bore the brunt of the political, military and religious conflicts that crossed Europe.

J. Wierix. Portrait de Jean Curtius (1607). Gravure. Bruxelles, Bibliothèque Albert Ier – Diffusion Institut Destrée © Sofam

J. Wierix. Jean Curtius (1607).

Towards an industrial pre-revolution (17th century)

While the war was the source of a crisis that struck all business sectors, it also contributed to the revival of several of them. In the principality of Liège, a "true capitalism" developed, supporting what it is no exaggeration to call an "industrial pre-revolution". Liège's neutrality encouraged the development of industries which won fame through Walloon entrepreneurs such as Jean Curtius. The manufacture of nails, gunpowder and weapons took off and coal exports increased. After the crises of the last third of the 16th century, steel production recovered, mainly in Luxembourg and Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse. The same applied to the glass industry where, from 1650 around Charleroi and Jumet there was a recovery which displayed remarkable momentum.

Répartition géographique des industries wallonnes vers 1680 - D'après HANSOTTE, Georges, Pays de fer et de Houille, dans HASQUIN, Hervé (dir.), histoire-économies-sociétés, TOME I, des origines à 1830, Bruxelles, La Renaissance du Livre, 2e édition revue et corrigée, 1979, p. 269-294.

Geographical distribution of Walloon industries around 1680.

First transformations and expansion (18th century)

The first half of the 18th century was marked by significant technical progress. The spread of the atmospheric engine invented by the Englishman Newcomen in the Liège and Charleroi basins solved the problem of water extraction in coal mines. In order to take on the costs of such investments, the number of capitalist companies in the sector increased. Furthermore, in the Principality of Liège as well as in all the Walloon Provinces governed by the Austrian Netherlands, the authorities began to develop modern roads that were needed for the purposes of trade. At the same time, the momentum of the glass industry was illustrated in the Charleroi region.

MACHINE À FEU DE TYPE NEWCOMEN. Ce dessin représente la machine que fit édifier Jean-Jacques Desandrouin sur ses charbonnages de Fresnes, dans le nord de la France. C'est une machine du même type qui fut construite en 1735 sur sa houillère du Fayal à Lodelinsart (Vincennes,Archives de la guerre, Mémoires et Reconnaissances,n° 1055)

Machine with fire of the type “Newcomen”

 A pioneering land during the continent's industrial revolution (19th century)

After England, the industrial revolution gained a foothold on the European continent through the Walloon country. During the last decade of the 18th century and the first half of the 20th century, entrepreneurs began an unprecedented modernisation and mechanisation of the production machine. The leading figure of this movement was the English engineer William Cockerill who, having supported the mechanisation of the woollen mills in Verviers, established factories in Liège that would carry out the industrial production of machines to revolutionise a range of sectors. His son John bought coal mines, rolling mills and began to construct a blast furnace. Other Liège residents were involved in this vast movement, which in less than two decades made the Meuse-Vesdre region one of the most dynamic industrial centres on the continent. Also influenced by the English engineers, the Borinage mining industry underwent a genuine revolution, triggered by the resolution of the water evacuation problem. The metal industry also saw an impressive wave of modernisation, which also affected the glass sector. From the early 19th century, Wallonia established itself as one of the continent's leading industrial regions, from 1810 to 1880, it was the world's second industrial power in relation to its population. The 1830 Belgian revolution rudely interrupted the pace of this growth by cutting industry off from its traditional markets. This break would however be offset by the development of the railway network, which revitalised production. The 1850s and 1860s recorded impressive growth rates, particularly in the iron, mechanical machines and wool industries. Coal production grew by 65% and their exports by 75%. The steel companies increased their production by 2.5. This was the golden age of industry! A golden age in harsh contrast to the poor living conditions of the workers, prey to an unchecked liberalism. The region's natural riches, the availability of labour and capital, coupled with a development policy for the road, rail and river infrastructures supported the scale of this movement.

Le haleur, c. 1931, huile sur toile de Pierre Paulus, coll. du Musée de l’Art wallon

Le haleur, c. 1931, oil on canvass by Pierre Paulus, coll. du Musée de l’Art wallon

John Cockerill Liège. Centre d’Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques – Diffusion Institut Destrée © Sofam

John Cockerill Liège

In this context, the last third of the 19th century was marked by a profusion of technical advances. Etienne Lenoir lodged a patent for a combustion engine, Ernest Solvay developed an industrial production process for caustic soda and Zénobe Gramme invented the dynamo, paving the way for the industrial use of electricity. Julien Dulait founded a general electricity company and set off to conquer Europe and Russia, before establishing the Ateliers de Construction Electrique de Charleroi (ACEC) the influence of which would be impressive. Georges Nagelmakers founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Walloon entrepreneurs and engineers literally spread throughout Europe and beyond. Nestor Martin exported his iron and copper productions as far as China, glassmakers founded production centres in the United States, Jean Jadot built power plants, tram lines and railways in China, while Edward Empaincreated the Paris metro. Based on an ancient artisan activity in the Liège region, weapons production reached a decisive milestone in 1888 with the creation of the Fabrique Nationale d'Armes weapons factory which, from Herstal, developed an undeniable international expertise.

Zénobe Gramme, extrait des Inventeurs célèbres


The global depression from 1874 to 1893 affected this growth but continued technical innovation, foreign expansion and the development of new sectors led to an economic recovery from 1895.

 The aftermath of the Great War

At the very end of the 19th century, the first signs of inertia began to appear in the Walloon economy. Slow to move to electric energy and suffering from the initial effects of maritimization, the First World War would have catastrophic consequences. The metal working industry was almost entirely destroyed or dismantled by the occupying German forces who plundered at will. During the reconstruction period, Walloon companies were unable to refocus their activities towards more technologically advanced fields such as chemistry, the electrical industry or consumer goods. The favourable situation in the 1920s made it possible to revive investments but the Great Depression of 1929 and the collapse of world trade in the 1930s arrested the momentum. Falling under the control of major financial groups set up in Brussels, Walloon industry saw an accumulation of under-investment that would cost it dearly. From this time, Walloons were calling for a clear diagnosis and appealing for a response. Thus, in 1937, the Economics Professor from Mons, Max Drechsel recommended "the specialisation of industry through the development of applied research [as well as] a reallocation of capital from heavy industries to the industries of the future: plastisols, special steel, ceramics, scientific apparatus".

1945-2010: 65 years of Wallonia's economic history (Walloon Region Economic and Social Council - CESW)

1945-1963: Disengagement concealed... by growth


At the end of the Second World War, Wallonia healed its wounds and revived its industry more quickly than other regions in western Europe. It is true that, unlike the First World War, where the entire industrial apparatus ground to a halt, industries continued to produce from 1940 to 1945. In terms of infrastructure, the Walloon position after the conflict (with the notable exception of Liège) was not as catastrophic as in neighbouring areas and the economic potential remained "relatively" unaffected. In view of its situation, Wallonia, like the rest of Belgium would benefit relatively little from the Marshall Plan implemented by the United States from 1947.

From the early 1950s, the picture was less bright and the first indications appeared that Belgium was losing ground in Belgium compared with its neighbours. Leading the way for years, it had now been caught up then overtaken by its neighbours and trading partners. Growth was strong and unemployment low, but things were systematically better beyond its borders. The need to modernise our industrial apparatus seemed essential.

In this mixed national context, Wallonia encountered serious difficulties. Its economy suffered and its decline worsened. The Walloon share of national employment continued to fall and Wallonia's influence in Belgian production reduced. So, between 1948 and 1958, the growth in GDP per capita and at constant price was 2.4% for Belgium and only 1.9% in Wallonia. In 1963, the GDP per Walloon resident was exceed by its Flemish equivalent. Curiously, this was the same year that the so-called language laws were voted in.


1963-1973: The Golden sixties, a contrasting reality

Nationally, this new decade was the golden age which saw the country make up its economic backwardness in relation to its primary trading partners. The number of jobs increased, unemployment was at its lowest and economic growth was strong.

The "golden sixties" were characterised by a strong increase in productivity and salaries, newfound stability in the Belgian franc and the arrival of mass foreign investment which boosted growth.

However, this analysis hides a complex and contrasting reality. The differences between the country's north and south grew, prosperity did not spread across the whole country in the same way. From 1965, investments in Wallonia were in decline and created few jobs. Over the 1961-1967 period, only 20% of private foreign investment in Belgium was made in Wallonia. Over the same period, 64% of national jobs due to these investments were created in the country's north.

1973-1988: Crises, growth and ambiguity

On 18 October 1973, OPEC announced a doubling in the oil price, a measure that was repeated two months later. This quadrupling in the oil price hit European economies hard. Belgium and Wallonia were not immune to the phenomenon.

Despite sometimes respectable growth rates, the period was one of a deteriorating business climate, particularly international business and a slippage in public finances.

In Wallonia, 1975 saw a considerable fall in industrial production. Unemployment continuously increased. From a general and national perspective, a second blow affected this already volatile situation with the second oil shock in 1979, which plunged the Walloon economy into turmoil. Industrial production fell once more while the rise in unemployment increased. The number of industry jobs fell by almost 35%.


1988-1995: Towards a difficult exercise of new powers

1988 was a transitional year. This was the year of the vote on institutional reform legislation, for transferring new powers and establishing real Walloon decision-making power on the key drivers of the regional economy (economy, public works, foreign trade, employment, etc.).

Economically, the 1980s ended with a widespread, short-term upturn. Growth was strong and unemployment fell. However, from 1990, progress stalled. Belgium and Wallonia both suffered from the slowdown in the American economy and uncertainties related to the Gulf War. GDP growth fell below the 2% mark. Unemployment rose again for the first time since 1987 in Wallonia. All this led Belgium and Wallonia into a recession in 1993.

In the mid-1990s, the Walloon economy presented a radically different face from the one it had forty years earlier. As in many other European regions, Wallonia experienced a strong "tertiarization" in its economy. Once an industrial land, in 1995 saw just 27.8% of the 4 billion euros of its added value produced by the secondary sector. Services were now the core of the Walloon economy.

1995-2010: End of systematic disengagement and redeployment programmes

Liège Airport

From 1995, the gap in economic growth between Wallonia and Belgium was not systematically unfavourable to Wallonia. Economic activity varied: favourable until 2000, in decline in the early 2000s, then a recovery which ended with a major economic and financial crisis in 2009. The Walloon share of Belgian GDP stabilised around 23.5% while the Walloon GDP per capita followed the same trajectory with a slight recovery to arrive at an index of 73.8 compared with the Belgian average of 100 in 2010. The development of the economy was still insufficient to observe a significant closing of the gap left after several decades. Between 2008 and 2010, Wallonia was more resilient than many countries to the economic crisis.

IBMN Charleroi

During the period in question, Wallonia developed several programmes aiming to boost its economy and employment, notably through the Future Contract for Wallonia and its update, the Marshall Plan. While these probably helped to stabilise the economic and social situation, they have not yet enabled Wallonia to begin to catch-up.

2010-2015: A faltering rebound

Backed by a rise in activity and international trade, Wallonia returned to growth from 2010. However, the bright spell only lasted a short time and in mid-2011, the international situation underwent a sudden and long-term downturn until the first quarter of 2013. During this period, Wallonia and the country's other regions had to deal with a marked slowdown in economic activity. From spring 2013, following the recovery seen in the eurozone and renewed consumer and business confidence, the Walloon economy recovered, almost all of the 2014 recovery can be attributed to the commercial sector and in particular the pharmaceutical sector. In 2015, Walloon economic growth, estimated at 1%, remained slightly below that of Flanders and Brussels. Between 2010 and 2015, economic growth deficits were reduced in Wallonia compared with Flanders.

The sixth State Reform significantly increased the Region's powers by transferring the instruments for fiscal policy, employment, health and families.

In late May 2015, the Walloon Government decided to refocus on a certain number of basics by adopting the "Marshall Plan 4.0" in reference to the fourth industrial revolution, that of digital (after steam, electricity and automation).

The hope is that by concentrating the financial resources of the new redeployment plan on specific sectors, Wallonia will be able to catch-up with Belgian or European averages in reality.