Belgium country brief
Australia enjoys positive and constructive relations with Belgium, with a growing bilateral commercial relationship. Australia and Belgium share similar approaches to many international issues, including arms control, whaling and Antarctica. Belgium is a member of the Australia Group on Chemical Weapons. The capital of Belgium, Brussels, is home to the European Union (EU) and NATO.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Mr Herman Van Rompuy took up his role as the inaugural permanent President of the European Council on 1 January 2010. He was re-elected in March 2012 for an additional term through to November 2014. Concurrent with his position as President of the European Council, he was appointed President of the Euro Summit (bi-annual meetings of Eurozone heads of state and government to discuss governance issues). Within the European Commission, former Belgian Foreign Minister Mr Karel De Gucht currently serves as Commissioner for Trade.
System of government
Belgium is a constitutional monarchy. HM King Philippe, who acceded to the throne on 21 July 2013 after his father HM King Albert II’s 20-year reign, is Head of State. The country became a federal state in 1995. There are three main forms of government in Belgium: the federal government, regional governments and community councils. The Federal government is responsible for issues such as justice, the interior, foreign policy, defence, social security and some health matters.
Belgium is divided into three regional government areas. Flanders comprises mainly Dutch speakers while Wallonia is French speaking. The Brussels-Capital Region has bilingual status. A small German-speaking community also exists. Significant power has been devolved to the regions and they retain jurisdiction over a wide range of policy areas, including economic, transport, public works, and industrial policy. Education and other 'cultural issues' are devolved to three community councils that have similar levels of authority to regional governments. These are divided along linguistic, not geographic, lines representing the Dutch, French and German speaking peoples.
A critical issue facing the Belgian federal government in recent years has been the political and cultural divisions between the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders and francophone Wallonia. Belgium’s provincial, municipal and district elections of 2012 showed overwhelming support throughout Flanders for the centre-right New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which supports a gradual secession of the region – the country’s most populous and traditionally wealthiest – from Belgium. The party’s leader, Mr Bart De Wever, was elected Mayor of Antwerp, the country’s second largest city. In Wallonia, the francophone Socialist Party (PS) did traditionally well and also received the most votes in eight of the nineteen districts of Brussels-Capital Region.
Tensions between the regions and major parties contributed to Belgium taking 541 days to form a six-party coalition government after the June 2010 federal elections. The coalition government was led by Socialist Prime Minister Mr Elio di Rupo, the first time since 1972 that a French-speaking Walloon had assumed the role. He was sworn in on 6 December 2011. Mr Didier Reynders, Francophone Liberal (MR) was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and European Affairs. The coalition did not have the support of the country’s largest political party, the N-VA. In the May 2014 federal and regional elections the N-VA consolidated its position as the Belgian Parliament’s largest party, followed by the Socialist Party. On 11 October a new four-party centre-right coalition government was sworn in, led by Mr Charles Michel as Prime Minister. The coalition represents the first time the N-VA has been part of a Federal Government. Mr Reynders retained his portfolio of Foreign Affairs; Mr Kris Peeters was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Employment, Economy, Consumers and Foreign Trade.
Belgium is a major trade gateway to the European Union’s Member States, but in particular to the three countries with which it shares a border – Germany, France, and the Netherlands. These three countries are Belgium’s principal export destinations and import sources. More than two-thirds of Belgium's GDP is derived from foreign sales, one of the highest percentages among industrialised nations.
The Belgian economy initially weathered the global financial crisis well but key pillars of its economy, in particular the banking sector and the manufacturing sector, have been severely affected by the downturn. Belgium’s debt/GDP ratio of nearly 100 per cent remains one of the highest in the Eurozone. Low levels of domestic demand resulted in negative growth – -0.3 per cent – in 2012. While Belgium’s GDP is projected to remain flat in 2013, it is expected to reach 1.1 per cent growth in 2014. Unemployment currently stands at 8.5per cent. . The government remains committed to cutting its public sector deficit in line with EU obligations and aims to reach a balanced budget in 2015.
The contemporary bilateral relationship is underpinned by strong historical ties stemming from World War I. Many Australians served in Belgium between 1916 and 1918, notably during the Battle of Messines, on 7 June 1917, and the Third Battle of Ypres, from 31 July to 6 November 1917. Of the approximately 12,500 AIF men who died, half have 'no known grave'.
Australia has two bilateral MOUs with Belgium on the shared history of the world wars of the twentieth century – signed in 2009 and 2012. The Centenary of World War I (2014-2018) is increasingly providing a focus for bilateral commemorative activities. The Australian Government's Western Front Interpretive Trail has developed seven key sites in France and Belgium, in partnership with local authorities, to honour the courage and sacrifice of the more than 290,000 Australians who served on the Front. In Belgium Remembrance Trail sites have been inaugurated at Ploegsteert, Zonnebeke, and Ieper.
In the 2011 Census there were 5,762 Belgium-born people in Australia, and just over 10,000 who claimed Belgian ancestry.
Australia and Belgium have concluded a number of bilateral agreements. A Working Holiday Maker Arrangement took effect in November 2004. Australia and Belgium have had a Double Taxation Agreement since 1977 (amended in 1984). An Agreement between Australia and Belgium on Social Security entered into force in 2005, providing improved social security protection to people who have lived and/or worked in both Australia and Belgium. The social security agreement also exempts Australian employers from the need to provide Belgian social security support for Australian employees sent temporarily to work in Belgium, provided the employee remains covered in Australia, by compulsory superannuation arrangements.
A bilateral reciprocal Agreement on Health Care Insurance entered into force on 1 September 2009. A bilateral Air Services Agreement was signed in 2012.
High level visits
Regular high-level visits and meetings are important in promoting cooperation and understanding between Australia and Belgium. Recent visits of Australian officials to Belgium include:
- Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Senator the Hon Michael Ronaldson, visited Belgium in July 2014, undertaking a bilateral program of commemorative activities, including in Brussels, Ieper, and Ploegsteert.
- Governor-General HE General the Hon Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Ret’d) visited Belgium in July 2014, undertaking commemorative activities in Ieper, Harelbeke, and Ploegsteert.
- Former Governor-General, Dame Quentin Bryce AD CVO, led a European Australian Business Council (EABC) delegation on a visit to Belgium in June 2013 to promote trade and investment between the two countries. She honored Australia’s war dead at Ieper (awarding an OAM in the General Division and Honorary RSL membership to two Belgians) and Belgium’s war dead at the Monument of the Unknown Soldier in Brussels.
- Then-HRH Crown Prince Philippe (now HM King Philippe) visited Australia in November 2012 leading a 147-strong business delegation. The Belgian Minister for Defence also participated, meeting his Australian counterparts, and signing a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding on World War I Centenary commemorations in Canberra.
- Former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon Warren Snowdon MP, visited Belgium in October 2012 to progress projects and programs relating to the Centenary of the First World War.
- Former Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Senator Bob Carr, met his Belgian counterpart Mr Didier Reynders, at the NATO/ISAF Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brussels on 18 April 2012.
Bilateral economic and trade relationship
In 2013 Belgium was Australia’s 24th largest trading partner (total two-way trade was worth A$3 billion). Australia has traditionally maintained a strong investment relationship with Belgium. The value of Belgium’s total investment in Australia was A$8.3 billion in 2013, with FDI of A$5.3 billion over the same period. Total outwards investment from Australia to Belgium has remained stable at around A$2 billion. The Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union (BLEU) is one of Australia’s largest investors, with combined inward investment valued at A$23.8 billion as at December 2013.
The Macquarie Group owns 75 per cent of Brussels International Airport. The European headquarters and regional headquarters for the Middle East and Africa of Ansell Limited (formerly Pacific Dunlop) are located in Brussels. Rio Tinto Diamonds NV and BHP Billiton Diamonds sell their rough diamonds throughout the world via offices in Antwerp. The Belgian branch of De Bortoli Wines (Europe) NV distributes the company's wines throughout continental Europe. Amcor has two manufacturing sites in Belgium and a corporate office near Brussels International Airport. Nyrstar is a Belgian publicly-listed joint-venture between Australian zinc miner Zinifex and Belgian metals company Umicore.