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Why is it so special to turn 18 in Belgium?

18 years old is the age of the legal majority in most Western countries (apart from half of Canadian where it is 19, New Zealand where it is 20, and some US states, where it is 19 or 21). In Asian countries it can vary a lot, from 15 in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Myanmar and Indonesia, to 20 (in Japan, Thailand and Taiwan) or 21 (Singapore). In most of the world, however, the age of majority is 18 and turning 18 makes it special in itself, because it means that someone has reached the official threshold of adulthood, which means that they are free to act without their parents' consent, sign contracts (e.g. job) by themselves, vote at elections...But in Belgium, turning 18 means much more than that.

In Belgium 18 is also the minimum legal age to drive and to obtain a driving licence. This is also the case in half of Europe (except notably in France, the UK, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Slovenia and Hungary), but this is later than in the USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, where, depending on the state, it is usually between 14 and 16 years old. So that age is far from universal.

Belgium is one of the few countries in the world with compulsory voting at elections. As a result, 18 does not only become the age when one can vote, but when one must vote (if elections are held that year, but chances are quite high with all the levels of government in Belgium).

Belgium is also one of the rare countries to have compulsory education until the age of 18. So not only do 18-year-olds become "free" from the the tutoring of their parents, but also free to quit school if they choose to.

One major difference with other countries is that the age of criminal responsibility (different from the legal responsibility conferred by majority) in Belgium is also set at 18 years old. In the vast majority of countries around the world that age is lower. In the United States, 33 States have no minimum age, while for federal crimes, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is barely of 11. The lowest age in Europe is 8 years old in Scotland, followed by 10-11 years old in Ireland. The second highest after Belgium is 16 years old in Portugal. Other countries set the age somewhere between 12 and 15 years old. This means that if a 17-year old Belgian kills someone, commit arson or a robbery, he or she is not considered responsible of their acts, and thus cannot be sentenced by a criminal court, and will usually be purely and simply acquitted. This is probably abusive and it would be more reasonable to set the age set around 14 or 15, if not lower.

18 used to be the age for compulsory military service for Belgian men, but this was abolished in the early 1990's.

There are only a handful of legal rights which do not coincide with the age of 18 thanks to Belgium's permissive laws. These includethe right to purchase alcohol (16 years old) or drink alcohol (no minimum age), to buy tobacco (16 years old, although there is no legal age for smoking), or have a debit card (12 years old). The legal age of sexual consent and marriage is 16 both for boys and girls.

In short, the age of 18 in Belgium is synonymous with:

  • Legal adulthood/majority
  • Legal responsibility
  • cCiminal responsibility
  • The right and obligation to vote
  • The right to be elected (except for Senate)
  • The legal age for driving
  • The minimum age to stop school

The points in bold indicate what makes 18 very special in Belgium compared to the rest of the world, and particularly by European standards.


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