Last updated on
King Willem-Alexander signs the golden book at the Royal Palace. © SPF Foreign affairs
The incoming state visit by the Dutch royal couple to Belgium in June 2023 set the stage for even closer collaboration between the two countries. Prominent themes included renewable energy, sustainable mobility, innovation and security. Our FPS played an important role.
There are two outward state visits annually – one within Europe and one outside. This involves our royal couple making an official visit to a country and meeting with the head of state. The King and Queen are always accompanied by political representatives from our country – including the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Prime Ministers of regions and communities – and a broad delegation of business people and academics. After all, a state visit always includes an important economic component and also has regard to academic and cultural collaboration. Recently, our royal couple travelled to South Africa, followed by a visit to Germany later in the year.
But did you know that incoming state visits also take place? In this process, the King and Queen invite a foreign head of state for an official visit to our country. Last year, for instance, the Presidents of Austria and Switzerland visited, along with their spouses. From 20 to 22 June 2023, it was the turn of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands.
More than helpful
Belgium and the Netherlands share centuries of history. The two countries also work closely together, including within the Benelux. A 'Thalassa Summit' also takes place regularly, most recently last year in Ghent. In the process, delegations from the Dutch and Belgian federal governments meet.
Still, this incoming state visit – seven years after the outward state visit to the Netherlands – was more than helpful. Belgium and the Netherlands may be good neighbours as well as friends, but it is certainly necessary to strengthen those bonds of friendship on a regular basis. However well the two countries get along, there is still a different political and business culture. Moreover, in areas such as innovation and ports, they are competitive colleagues.
Belgium shares a 458 km border with the Netherlands – the largest border area after France. Such close proximity can sometimes lead to friction, such as around PFAS pollution or the installation of nuclear power plants. Rail corridor 3RX (formerly called the Iron Rhine) is also a difficult affair. This is a freight rail link that would connect Antwerp to the Ruhr area in Germany and would run partly over Dutch territory.
A state visit provides an ideal opportunity to interact in a convivial, relaxed atmosphere at the highest level and transcend any frictions. Cultural activities are invariably on the agenda. For example, both Queens visited the famous Queen Elizabeth Music Chapel in Waterloo, where exceptionally talented young people receive a high-level education. The delegations also visited the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) and a comic strip wall in Charleroi. Extensive informal discussions were also possible at various luncheons.
Both sovereigns visiting the port of Antwerp. © Belga
Even closer collaboration
Furthermore, both countries are strongly motivated to work even more closely together. After all, the great challenges we face – including the much-needed energy transition – have created a realisation that we cannot do it alone as an individual country. Even closer collaboration making us both stronger was therefore the tenor of the state visit.
This is clearly true for the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, for example. Essentially, they are each other's rivals – they both want to become a global hub – yet they benefit from working together more. A major point of discussion during the state visit therefore dealt with how both countries can make the port infrastructure suitable for cross-border transport of green hydrogen. As it happens, North Sea Port – the merger of the ports of Ghent, Terneuzen and Vlissingen – is already today a success story of far-reaching cross-border cooperation.
Water management – flood prevention – was also a focus. After all, rivers, and thus floods, know no borders.
Driving force behind European energy transition
Mutual reinforcement should help both countries become more self-sufficient. For example, in terms of semiconductors (visit IMEC in Leuven), aerospace (AeroSpaceLab in Mont-Saint-Guibert) and biotechnology (BioPark in Charleroi). 'Strategic autonomy' is, moreover, a priority of the EU in a context of greater tensions between the major powers.
Together, Belgium and the Netherlands want to be the driving force behind Europe's energy transition to a climate-neutral society. As such, both countries are building new offshore wind farms and focusing heavily on hydrogen. During the visit, the neighbouring countries also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on CO2 storage in the North Sea. To make the North Sea a green power plant for the future, ports play an important role. It will also require extensive interconnection of the electricity grids and hydrogen networks of both neighbouring countries.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo also had a meeting with the Dutch royal couple. © Serch Carrière
The Netherlands is also an important partner for our security. Today, the two armies are already working closely together. They guard the airspace together and have both navies tied together with the Benelux Admiralty. Belgium and the Netherlands are also building naval vessels together. During the visit, both Defence Ministers signed an MOU to enable the renewal of the joint fleet. There are 12 minesweepers and 4 frigates in the pipeline.
In addition, Belgium and the Netherlands are allies in terms of military support to Ukraine. The two countries are also mostly on the same page when it comes to sanctions against Russia. A police treaty is being worked on within the Benelux that should come into force after the summer. The treaty will give the police greater clout against cross-border drug crime.
The Low Countries in 2050
On the occasion of the visit, a book was published with some 14, sometimes critical, essays on the ties between Belgium and the Netherlands: 'De lage landen anno 2050 – een verleden met toekomst [The Low Countries in 2050 – a past with a future]'. In their forewords, both Prime Ministers show extreme optimism about the engine that both countries – along with Luxembourg – want to be within the EU. 'I see the Belgian-Dutch relationship closer than ever in the coming years,' Prime Minister Alexander De Croo wrote. '(...) People often talk about the Franco-German axis in Europe, but in 2050, I sincerely hope that it is the Benelux engine that will continue to inspire Europe.'
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte put it this way: 'The Netherlands and Belgium demonstrate daily how European collaboration leads to mutual benefit. Every reason, then, to be confident that this collaboration will be just as good – or even better – in 2050.’ The state visit has already given a solid start to that lasting, increasingly close collaboration.
What role did our FPS play in the state visit?
The FPS Foreign Affairs played a prominent role in this state visit. For instance, our FPS was closely involved in designing the programme. It also wrote several memoranda for the Royal Palace and the Prime Minister with background information on the visits and the topics to be covered.
Besides that, we organised numerous consultation sessions, both within Belgium and with Dutch colleagues. In order to prepare the visit to perfection, it was also necessary to go on-site and see for ourselves. Our press attachés had their hands full escorting the numerous Dutch and Belgian journalists present.
These were also busy days for our Protocol management in meticulously drawing up and implementing the packed programme. Our royal couple participated in all the activities of this special state visit, which made the whole exercise a bit more spicy. Good consultation with the Royal Palace's protocol service was an important key to success.
The state visit also provided another opportunity for Minister for Foreign Affairs Lahbib to meet at length with her Dutch counterpart, Wopke Hoekstra. Both Ministers discussed the current geopolitical context, including EU-China relations, Russian aggression in Ukraine, its impact on Africa and the battle against impunity. The priorities for the Belgian EU Presidency were also discussed.