Trading nation of Belgium cannot get by without economic diplomacy

  1. Last updated on
Princess Astrid on an economic mission in Morocco

The presence of the royal family opens doors! Princess Astrid
during an economic mission in Morocco in 2018. © FOD BZ/SPF AE

Belgium runs on trade. For example, our country exported over 367 billion euros in goods in 2020 – a tough corona year. Imports amounted to around 346 billion euros. When measured against the world, that makes our country the 13th largest exporter and the 14th largest importer (2019). The majority of exports (76.7%) go to Europe, including Turkey (2020).

That makes networks abroad crucial to our prosperity. In Belgium, supporting foreign trade and attracting investment is mainly the task of the regions. To this end, they each have an agency, namely FIT (Flemish region), (Brussels-Capital region) and AWEX (Walloon region).

The Foreign Trade Agency also plays a prominent role. It was founded in 2002 as a forum where the federal jurisdictions concerning international politics and the regional jurisdictions concerning international trade can meet. This agency's services include economic studies, foreign trade statistics and legal advice. It has also developed the Trade4U app, which sends information on trade opportunities through to companies. Finally, it also has jurisdiction over the organisation of economic missions (see box).

This same FPS (Federal Public Service) also has a range of crucial tasks within Belgian trade policy. These are mainly to do with the unique position that our diplomatic missions (embassies, consulates) have abroad. Thanks to their excellent contacts, they open doors for Belgian companies. They are always working closely with the representatives from the regional agencies. For convenience, our FPS' tasks can be summarised as “4 I’s”. We will run through these below.

1. Informing

Our FPS brings together a range of information flows. After all, the diplomatic missions maintain strong networks and are constantly hunting for trade opportunities within their remit. These include all manner of public tenders that Belgian companies can compete for.

Our missions pass on those opportunities, including via the Trade4U app (see above). Information is also passed on via the ‘investment connections unit’. This is a consultation platform comprising the regions, the FPS Economy and the FPS Finance, alongside our FPS. Our FPS also maintains close contact with a range of sectoral organisations, such as Agoria (technology federation), (pharmaceutical industry) and Essenscia (chemistry and life sciences).

For example, there is currently a shortage of semiconductors, an indispensable material for chips in electric cars, among other things. Along with the regional representatives, our diplomatic missions go out in search of alternative manufacturers, or they review how production might be possible in Belgium.

Our ambassadors also roll up their sleeves for collaborations between our ports and foreign ports, or in the quest for synergies in the production of hydrogen – an important energy carrier for the future.

The diplomatic missions were brought in to search for manufacturers when there was a shortage of protective equipment such as face masks last year too. At present, there is a particular need for special injection needles.

2. Introducing

Our FPS also introduces Belgian companies to foreign enterprises. One of the ways it does so is by subsidising the operations (personnel, administration) of the Belgian Chambers of Commerce abroad. These Chambers are private initiatives that act as the first point of contact for Belgian companies abroad. The Belgian Ambassador is often a member of the Board of Directors too. He or she will regularly make their residence available for a business dinner or presentation.

In addition, our FPS appoints and manages a network of unpaid ‘advisers on economic diplomacy’. These are people with a lot of contacts in a particular country's business world. They give advice on all the potential issues of an economic or financial nature or on trade opportunities for this country.

In normal times, 2 state visits and 2 princely missions are organised every year (see box). These are of the utmost importance to our economy. After all, they provide the ideal opportunity for Belgian companies to conclude contracts and network abroad. Our FPS co-organises them.

Business lunch economic mission China

Business lunch during the princely economic mission to China in 2019. © FOD BZ/SPF AE

3. Intervening

Our FPS represents the Belgian voice within the European Commission's Market Access Advisory Committee (MAAC). This Committee discusses barriers to trade (levies, etc.) that our businesses face in non-EU countries.

For example, our FPS has put in a great deal of work as regards the African swine fever crisis. Several cases of African swine fever were identified in wild boars in the province of Luxembourg in September 2018. The result was that Belgian producers were prohibited from exporting pork. Our country was only declared free of the disease in late 2020. Thanks to a close collaboration between our FPS and the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FASFC), a range of countries have since reopened their borders to Belgian pork.

Our FPS is in permanent consultation with the FPS Public Health and the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products (FAMHP) on the export of coronavirus vaccines, including at the EU level. After all, the EU has developed a mechanism to prevent vaccines from being wrongfully exported.

4. Image

A positive image of this country abroad is of the utmost importance to our trade. That is why our diplomatic missions organise 200 image promotion events every year. These may range from a fashion show, presentation or concert, to a business dinner or presentation at the Ambassador's official residence.

The FPS is also closely involved in the development of the Belgian pavilion at the World Expo. The next World Expo will take place in Dubai from 1 October 2021 to 30 March 2022.

Goodieboxes drive-in cinema Pretoria

This year, during the week of the Francophonie, our embassy in South Africa organised a coronaproof drive-in cinema. Each spectator received a package with Belgian delicacies such as speculoos, waffles, chocolate and beer. © FOD BZ/SPF AE

Human rights and the environment

Belgium aims to conduct trade in a socially responsible manner. Fundamental values such as human rights and care for the environment are central to this policy. That is why Belgium also makes an active contribution to the introduction of systems that impose strict standards at a European and international level. These include the battle against corruptiontransparent mining and conflict-free diamonds.

Due diligence is also coming more and more to the fore. The EU Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, is currently developing regulations for this. Beyond Chocolate is a form of due diligence. This Belgian initiative aims to put an end to the extreme poverty, child labour and deforestation that lies behind our chocolate.

In short, economic diplomacy is a must for this country and it has been since Belgium's origins in 1830. To this end, the FPS Foreign Affairs is working closely with the regions, the Foreign Trade Agency and other federal government services.

State visits and princely economic missions

Our country organises 2 state visits and 2 princely economic missions every year. A state visit is led by HRH King Philippe and always contains an important economic dimension. An economic mission is always headed up by HRH Princess Astrid.

These missions have a great impact on our economy. It is crystal clear that the royal presence opens doors. Our companies are much better able to establish contact with other companies abroad (Business to Business or B2B), including with key high-level people. That allows them to capture new markets or reinforce their market position. This is why so many companies take part in such missions. A princely economic mission involves between 350 and 550 participants on average. 50 (Europe) to 100 (outside Europe) companies are invited to state visits.

The state visits and economic missions are prepared down to the tiniest detail. Our FPS plays an important coordinating role in this, along with the Palace, the FTA and the regions. There is room for countless seminars, workshops, networking events, corporate visits and B2B contacts.

The corona crisis has temporarily suspended the missions. Nonetheless, there is one economic mission planned for this autumn in October to the east coast of the US. The state visit schedule will be resumed as soon as possible.

Trade policy via EU and WTO

The common EU trade policy is one of the European Union's major powers. For this reason, the European Commission plays a key role in negotiating on behalf of the Union in EU trade negotiations with third countries or as part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This takes place under the supervision of the European Parliament and the EU Member States. The consultation with the Member States takes place within the Council's Trade Policy Committee. Our FPS – more specifically the Directorate-General for European Affairs (DGE) – represents the Belgian voice within that Committee. This is another way in which we contribute to the Belgian economy.