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The 3 Benelux Heads of State at Mont des Arts in Brussels on the occasion of 60 years of Benelux in 2018. © Secretariaat-Generaal Benelux Unie
In the Benelux Union, the governments of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are working together to break down borders wherever possible. Why? Because this increases prosperity, mobility, safety and sustainability for everyone.
The foundation of the Benelux was laid during WWII. On 5 September 1944, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg signed an agreement on a customs union. This sowed the seeds for an open internal market in which people, goods and services could move freely in the 3 countries.
The agreement was not without its problems. For example, Belgian agricultural experts feared that our country would be flooded by Dutch agricultural products. But the situation after the war was so dramatic that the governments had to offer their citizens a spark of hope. This became an integrated internal market that could create prosperity again.
The founders also had the peace and security of the region in mind. After all, trade is an excellent tool for peace. Through trade, countries become dependent on each other. If a country goes to war with its trading partners, it only undermines itself.
It was never the intention to 'assimilate' the 3 countries completely or to make them uniform. The founders only sought to 'integrate': to merge into a new whole, leaving room for cross-pollination. Complementarity and solidarity were the cornerstones.
Laboratory for EU
The pioneers of European integration – Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Paul-Henri Spaak – were inspired by the Benelux. They, too, tried to establish peace through trade; they, too, strove for unity in diversity.
The creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 and of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957 did not mean the end of the Benelux – on the contrary. In 1958, the Treaty of the Benelux Economic Union was established. Aim: to further integrate the internal market by harmonising legislation.
The Benelux plays the role of a testing ground or laboratory within the European Union (EU). The EU Treaty even explicitly states that the Benelux is the only region that has the right to set up collaborations that go beyond what the EU does (art 350 TFEU).
A good example is the free movement of people. This was achieved between the 3 countries at an early stage. Along with France and Germany, the Benelux formed the basis of the Schengen Agreement in 1985. If something works in the Benelux, it can also be applied on the scale of the EU.
After 50 years, there was a need to update the Treaty in 2008. The 'Benelux Economic Union' became the 'Benelux Union'. Alongside the internal market, security is also addressed through judicial and police collaboration. Because the climate issue is so urgent, sustainability is a point of consideration in all projects. Digitalisation is another focal point.
We will give you some success stories below. What is striking is that the Benelux always strives for projects with a positive impact for citizens and entrepreneurs. Moreover, they are all based on trust in each other's institutions.
Automatic recognition of qualifications
Higher education qualifications (graduate, bachelor, master, doctorate) from one Benelux country are automatically recognised in the 2 other countries. This makes things much smoother for a Belgian economist, for example, looking to work in the Netherlands or Luxembourg. Previously, the recognition of a qualification took months and hundreds of euros. The project is based on trust in the quality of each other's education systems.
Such a thing is not feasible within the EU for the time being, although it remains a target. And yet, the movement is already spreading. For example, there is a treaty in the wings with the Baltic States to automatically recognise qualifications there as well.
Cooperation between Belgian and Dutch police in Knokke. © Secretariaat-Generaal Benelux Unie
Cross-border police collaboration
To make citizens' lives safer, the 3 countries' police forces work closely together. For example, the Belgian police are allowed to follow a criminal into the Netherlands and Luxembourg and carry out checks there. Joint police actions are regularly launched, for example against home break-ins in the border region.
A renewed police treaty with even closer collaboration is likely to enter into force in 2021. Among other things, this will make joint interventions aboard international trains possible. The police will also be able to exchange data from traffic cameras.
Benelux as the home of 'Regional Energy Collaboration' in Europe
The transition to renewable energy poses a huge challenge for the Benelux countries, with their closely interconnected energy networks. The Benelux Union plays a key role in meeting that challenge. For example, regular consultation takes place at the level of the Benelux and the 'Benelux Energy Expertise Network'. The General Secretariat of the Benelux has also been acting as the secretariat for the 'Pentalateral Energy Forum', as it is known, for more than 10 years. In addition to the Benelux, Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria are also involved.
This regional forum is a true trend-setter within Europe in the field of interconnection and market integration for electricity. It also recently expressed its strong support for green hydrogen as a building block for a climate-neutral EU. The 'Penta' also brings together the 10 coastal states around the North Sea to discuss offshore wind energy. Aim: to put the North Sea region to best use in producing renewable energy.
Joint road inspections for checking goods and persons
Thorough road inspections take place three times a year. This is when Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourg inspectors inspect lorries and buses together on motorways and in car parks. They make sure that the driving and rest times are being respected, that all technical matters are in order, that no dangerous goods are being transported, that the lorry is not overloaded and so on.
Carrying out the inspections together saves costs, while also making the roads safer. These are European regulations, but only the Benelux carries out the checks jointly.
Pilot project with digital waybill
Tests are underway to see whether the authorities in the 3 countries can check a digital consignment note as easily and reliably as a paper one. This waybill contains all information about the cargo of, for example, a lorry. This digital way of working represents a cost saving for transport companies and is also more sustainable.
The irregular border between Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau. © Secretariaat-Generaal Benelux Unie
Collaboration between municipalities
The Benelux 'Cross-border and Inter-territorial Collaboration' treaty aims to encourage cross-border collaboration between municipalities by giving it a solid legal basis. This leads to decent results that citizens can see.
For example, it enabled Baarle-Hertog (Belgium) and Baarle-Nassau (the Netherlands) – through which the border runs jaggedly – to arrange for the waste to be collected jointly. Collaborations between the fire brigades of the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam were also easy to establish thanks to the treaty.
Triple added value
In summary, the added value of the Benelux is mainly expressed in 3 areas:
- Financial: By joining forces, the 3 countries can work at a larger scale and therefore save costs. This includes the joint deployment of police equipment and the joint battle against fraud.
- Human: People benefit from it. This way, lives can be saved by deploying ambulances and the fire brigade across borders, thanks to Benelux agreements.
- Political: Within the EU, the Benelux carries more weight than the 3 individual countries. A joint declaration from the Benelux is always listened to with interest.
After all these years, the Benelux has lost none of its importance – on the contrary. During its presidency, Belgium therefore intends to continue energetically along this path.
The Benelux in a few figures
Surface area: 74,657km²
(approx. 2.5 times the surface area of Belgium)
Number of residents: approx. 29.5 million
(approx. 2.5 times the population of Belgium)
Gross Domestic Product: approx. 1,350 billion (or 1.35 trillion) dollars (2019)
(8;2% of EU GDP)
In the top 10 of the world ranking for logistical hotspots
37% of the EU's total number of cross-border workers are located in the Benelux region
The Benelux covers only 2% of the surface of the EU, but accounts for 78% of river transport, 24% of air transport and 21% of maritime transport.
With thanks to Thomas Antoine (former Secretary-General of the Benelux Union 2017-2019), Nick Van Haver (communications advisor for the Benelux Union), Rudy Huygelen (current Deputy Secretary-General for the Benelux Union for Belgium) and Michel-Etienne Tilemans and Paul Ghysbrecht (FPS Foreign Affairs) for their input.