Belgium & Spain: a century of cordial relations

In 1921, the diplomatic missions of Spain and Belgium in Brussels and Madrid, respectively, were elevated to embassies. For all this time, both countries have maintained a warm relationship, which they intend to continue into the future.

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Plaza de España

The Plaza de España in Seville. © iStock

On 21 January 1921, the diplomatic "legations" (envoys) of Spain in Brussels and of Belgium in Madrid were upgraded to full embassies. Shortly afterwards, King Albert and Queen Elisabeth made a state visit to Spain. So in 2021 we celebrate an important anniversary!

Guardian angel of Belgium

Both countries have maintained highly cordial relations for over 100 years. This is partly down to the character of the former Marquis of Villalobar, the very first Spanish ambassador to Belgium. As early as WWI (1914-1918), he represented Spain's solidarity with occupied Belgium. This ‘guardian angel of Belgium’ is said to have saved or protected thousands of lives through his diplomatic and humanitarian actions. He even managed to prevent a bombardment of Antwerp and Brussels.

Los niños de la guerra

Belgium, in turn, showed its solidarity with Spain during the Spanish civil war (1936-1939). Then, thousands of Belgian households took in over 5,000 Spanish children, etched into memory as ‘los niños de la guerra’ or ‘the war children’. Some returned home, while others remained. Belgium also acted as a host country for a great many Spaniards who wanted to leave their country behind during the civil war and the Franco regime.

In 1950s and 60s, thousands of Spaniards emigrated to our country looking for work. They settled down in Liège, Charleroi, Vilvoorde and Hasselt, among other places. Many of them returned to their homeland from the 1980s onwards, but a large proportion remained. It is presently estimated that over 100,000 Spaniards or citizens of Spanish origin are living in Belgium.

For Belgians, Spain is of course much sought-after as a holiday destination. In 2019 – so just before corona – no less than 2.5 million compatriots visited Spain. 31,800 Belgians are registered with the 4 Belgian consulates in Spain who are actively living there.

Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain

The sun-drenched beaches and rich cultural offerings, among other things, make Spain a coveted holiday country for many Belgians. On the photo: postcards of the Alhambra in Granada.​ © iStock

Major economic player and like-minded

As should now be clear, Belgians and Spaniards take a warm view of one another. This can also be seen in trade relations. In 2020, Spain was our country's 7th biggest customer, accounting for 11 billion euros. We mainly supply chemical substances, transport equipment and machines. We chiefly buy transport equipment, chemical substances and base metals from them. At 8 billion euros, Spain ranks 11th in the top 15 major suppliers (2020). For Spain itself, Belgium is the 9th most major export nation. This means Spain offers a great many opportunities for economic diplomacy (see box).

The Mediterranean country is also important to Belgium as a ‘like-minded’ actor. After all, both countries have a shared vision and standpoints on a whole raft of topics on the world agenda. These include human rights (LGBT+, etc.), initiatives against the death penalty, an effective gender policy, climate change, the Sustainable Development Goals, the battle against terrorism and so on. That makes Spain a true ally within the EU and the international institutions.

Eviva España

Although diplomatic relations are more than smooth already, this anniversary nonetheless presents a unique opportunity to highlight our bond even further. Despite COVID-19, several actions are being planned by both sides. For example, our embassy in Madrid is posting a photo (Facebook and Twitter) illustrating 100 years of relations on social media every Monday. The Belgian world hit ‘Eviva España’ (Samantha, 1971), which also became popular in Spain, was dusted off. There will also be a series revealing who the Belgians living in Spain are. In addition, a meeting has been arranged between both Ministers of Foreign Affairs, namely Sophie Wilmès and Arancha González Laya, in which they will commit to regular consultation.

Belgium and Spain are clearly minded to take this century of friendship, solidarity and collaboration further in a spirit of cordiality.

Economic diplomacy

Belgium is one of the world's largest export nations. This makes foreign trade crucial for us, hence the importance of economic diplomacy at our Federal Public Service for Foreign Affairs. The aim: making the best use of economic opportunities to increase our prosperity.

The regions are at the core of foreign trade, however. Each region has its own agency, which support companies in promoting their foreign trade and attracting investments. These agencies are: FIT (Flemish region), (Brussels-Capital region) and AWEX (Walloon region).

Our Federal Public Service acts in a supporting role in a number of specific domains. Our role can be summarised with 4 Is: (1) informing (a smooth flow of information on economic opportunities); (2) introducing (making use of our network abroad); (3) intervening (such as with the EU's Advisory Committee on Market Access or on the theme of sustainable chain care); and (4) promoting Belgium's image through all kind of projects. The federal services also take care of the coordination of state visits and royal economic missions.

Further explanation of our economic diplomacy can be found here.