Belgium is one of the smallest EU member states (with a landmass less than half the size of Tasmania) and one of the most densely populated countries in Europe with a population of over 11 million (2015). The capital of Belgium, Brussels, is home to the European Union (EU) and NATO.
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, counter-terrorism, whaling and Antarctica. Belgium is a member of the Australia Group on Chemical Weapons.
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, the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels-Capital regions. The Flemish region comprises mainly Dutch speakers while the Walloon region 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, industrial policy, transport and public works. Education and other 'cultural issues' are devolved to community councils, in the Walloon and Brussels-Capital regions, that have similar levels of authority to regional governments. These are divided along linguistic, not geographic, lines representing the Dutch, French and German speaking populations.
A critical issue facing the Belgian federal government in recent years has been the political and cultural divisions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish region and francophone Walloon.
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 centre right New Flemish Alliance (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 2014 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.
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.
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, were severely affected by the regional downturn. Notwithstanding these challenges, Belgium’s GDP grew by 1.4 per cent 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 Ieper, from 31 July to 6 November 1917. Of the approximately 12,500 AIF men who died in Belgium, 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 include:
- Trade and Investment Minister, the Hon Steven Ciobo MP, visited Brussels on 28-29 April 2016 where he met with Belgian business representatives.
- Minister for Finance, the Hon Mathias Cormann MP, led the official Australian party at ANZAC Day commemorations in Flanders, Belgium on 25 April 2016.
- Foreign Minister, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, visited Belgium on 22-25 April 2015 where she met with Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders and Belgian Minister for Security and Home Affairs, Jan Jambon. Minister Bishop also participated in the Anzac Day commemorative events at Ieper.
- Former Minister for Defence, the Hon Kevin Andrews MP visited Ieper during the Anzac Day commemorations on 25 April 2015.
- Former Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Hon Bronwyn Bishop MP, led a Parliamentary Delegation to Belgium 7-9 October 2014. The group met with European Parliament counterparts and visited World War I cemeteries, as well as the Menin Gate Memorial at Ieper.
- Governor-General HE General the Hon Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Ret’d) visited Belgium 27-28 July 2014, undertaking commemorative activities in Ieper, Harelbeke, and Ploegsteert.
- Former Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Brett Mason visited Belgium 24-26 June 2014, participating in the Global Partnership for Education replenishment conference, and meeting with a range of EU officials.
- 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 former 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.
Bilateral economic relationship
Total merchandise trade between Belgium and Australia in 2015 was A$2.9 billion. Belgian foreign direct investment (FDI) in Australia was approximately $2.2 billion in 2015. Australia has traditionally maintained a strong investment relationship with Belgium. Belgian investment into Australia includes infrastructure (dredging); mining and resources; financial services; agribusiness; food technology; transport; ITC; biotech and medical devices sectors.