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During the economic mission to the UK, HRH Princess Astrid also met HRH Crown Prince Charles (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
Belgium is strengthening ties with the United Kingdom, a loyal ally for centuries. High point to date: a successful economic mission in May 2022.
Over 2 years ago – on 31 January 2020 – the United Kingdom (UK) officially left the European Union (EU), an event widely known as Brexit. One of the advantages of EU membership is that it allows for very smooth trade relations between Member States. Brexit therefore created a number of obstacles that Belgian companies had to adapt to: additional customs declarations, notifications to the UK food safety system and so on.
But these obstacles obviously did not lead to the cessation of collaboration. Our country also has solid relationships with other non-EU countries, such as Canada and Japan. So the key is to keep forging good economic and trade relations with the UK even after Brexit. This is overwhelmingly in the interest of both countries.
There are plenty of reasons to strengthen ties with the UK. For example, our region has maintained intensive relations with the UK for more than 1,000 years. For one thing, there is the expansion of the cloth industry and the import of wool from England in the Middle Ages. Even today, the UK is and will remain a neighbour, an ally and a friendly country. And Brexit will not change that.
In 2021, the UK was our largest non-EU trading partner: the 5th largest customer and the 8th largest supplier. Trade is mainly in the sectors of chemical products, transport equipment, machinery and food products. The UK is also in the top 5 largest foreign investors in our country.
Highly open economies
Both countries also exhibit a very similar economic fabric. This is because it is characterised by a dominant service sector, many SMEs, a high degree of globalisation and good collaboration between the private sector, government and academia. Precisely because of that strong globalisation and highly open economies, both Belgium and the UK have every interest in promoting free trade on the international stage.
It is striking how complementary the two countries are in a range of areas. Thus, for the UK, Belgian seaports are a unique access and supply gateway to and from continental Europe. There are also many opportunities for collaboration in the green transition and pharmaceutical sectors. British research and Belgian manufacturing facilities contributed to containing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Belgium and the UK also share many interests and values. We both defend human rights and democratic principles are high on our foreign policy agenda. Both countries are members of NATO and other intergovernmental organisations, such as the OSCE.
We also face many common challenges, which makes it very useful to be able to discuss these with a neighbour and friend like the UK. All the more so because the UK has strong expertise in a number of crucial policy themes, such as cyber security.
Last but not least, the ties between the populations are also very close. More than 30,000 Belgians live in the UK and more than 18,000 Britons live in Belgium. Many Belgians work in the UK and vice versa.
H.R.H. Princess Astrid inaugurates the site where a brand new research and development facility will be built by Belgian pharmaceutical company UCB (Windlesham) (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo signed a joint statement in November 2021. As such, they expressed their desire to build closer relationships in a range of areas: ports, renewable energy, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, the production and distribution of vaccines, including against COVID-19, etc.
Security is also an important field, including the battle against terrorism and organised crime, as well as human trafficking. The two countries also want to join forces to prevent irregular migration to the UK. Regular consultations, including at the highest levels, should embed that collaboration.
Royal economic mission
An economic mission in May 2022 marked the preliminary high point of the renewed partnership. Such missions led by HRH Princess Astrid are normally organised twice a year. The economic mission to the UK (8-12 May) was the first ever since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. It was also important for Belgian and British people to be able to physically restore contact after a 2-year hiatus.
With 402 participants, 164 companies and 64 organisations (including sectoral federations and Chambers of Commerce) and 4 days of activities, the mission was one of the largest ever organised. It shows at once how important the UK is to many Belgian companies, universities and research centres.
9 memoranda of understanding
During the mission, the regions organised as many as 200 B2B (business to business) meetings between British and Belgian companies. These laid the foundation for future collaborations.
In addition, 9 memoranda of understanding were signed during an official ceremony, including for the export of beer (De Halve Maan brewery) and chocolate (Millésime Chocolat). The Energy Technology Club, which brings together some 130 top players from Belgium's energy technology sector, will now work more closely with its British homologue to advance the energy transition. Partnerships were also established in the sectors of circular economy, cleantech (green technology), rail freight, data protection and laundry equipment.
2 major Belgian investments in the UK were also inaugurated: an integrated waste to energy site for Indaver in Rivenhall alongside the construction of a brand-new research and development facility for Belgian pharmaceutical company UCB in Windlesham.
Visit to the most powerful and largest nuclear fusion power plant in the world, the so-called Joint European Torus (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
Also notable was the visit to the largest and most powerful nuclear fusion energy facility in the world, known as the Joint European Torus. The research group recently achieved some groundbreaking results, in which 12 Belgian scientists were also directly involved. Nuclear fusion can become a safe, sustainable and virtually carbon-neutral energy source.
The economic mission made it abundantly clear that both countries are serious about continuing to collaborate with renewed vigour. The potential is huge.