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Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania)
Although Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are quite different from each other and have many peculiarities, they have many similarities in their relations with Belgium.
The three countries are young, dynamic states and are increasingly profiling themselves as the hub for transport between Western Europe, Russia and Asia. Belgian companies are showing increasing interest in the activities of the ports of Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia) and Klaipeda (Lithuania) and the surrounding areas. In doing so, they are continuing a tradition that arose from the trade cooperation between the Hanseatic cities (13th-15th centuries).
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have been occupied several times over the centuries. Admittedly, Belgium never recognised the Russian annexation of the Baltic States at the end of the Second World War.
We not only share historical similarities, but military cooperation also forms an important part of our bilateral relations with these countries. This is part of NATO's operations. In 2004, Belgium was the first NATO member state to express its willingness to take on the NATO Air Policing mission in Baltic airspace. Belgium also regularly provides support with its minesweepers when mines have to be swept in the Baltic ports.
Within the framework of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence, Belgium also takes part in the multinational battalion stationed in the region. All components of Defence, namely land, air, sea and cyber, have since been active in the Baltic States. Incidentally, the state visits of His Majesty the King to Estonia and Lithuania were particularly appreciated.
The European Presidency of Lithuania in the second half of 2013, of Latvia in the first half of 2015, and of Estonia in the second half of 2017, offered the opportunity to exchange expertise on European themes and to strengthen our bilateral relations.
On 26 January 2021, Belgium will celebrate 100 years of diplomatic relations with Estonia and Lithuania, and with Latvia on 27 December 2022. The three countries wish to celebrate this occasion jointly with us.
Estonia is a pioneer in the field of e-government or digital government. The broad 'cyber' field offers numerous cooperation opportunities for our two countries: security, combating cybercrime, the increasing importance of digitisation and its impact on the economy. Belgium's economic presence in Estonia is still limited, but there is certainly room for growth. In 2020, Estonia was Belgium's 62nd largest customer and 72nd largest supplier. Our exports to the country are rising continuously. Finally, we would like to mention that Estonia has also been elected as a temporary member of the UN Security Council (mandate 2020-2021).
Latvia was Belgium's 65th customer and 78th supplier in 2020. In 2018, exports to Latvia remained fairly stable (+ 1%) while imports increased (+ 17.9%). Imports then returned to the same level as in 2016. Both exports and imports then continued to increase, but in a more balanced way. By the way, during the interwar period, Belgium was Latvia's third largest trading partner. There is a great cultural exchange between our two countries in various fields, from classical music to the avant-garde. Belgium was one of the first countries to recognise Latvia's independence and was also one of the first to establish an embassy there.
Lithuania also maintains excellent bilateral relations with Belgium, which is evidenced by the ever-increasing cultural exchange. Although only about 60 compatriots live there, around 10,000 Belgians visit Lithuania every year, especially Vilnius and the Kursk. Lithuania is the Baltic state with which Belgium has the strongest trade relations, especially for chemical products and means of transport. Lithuania is Belgium's 45th largest customer and 48th largest supplier (in 2020).
Bulgaria is a member of NATO (2004) and of the European Union (2007). The Euro-Atlantic institutions provide an excellent framework for Bulgaria's relations with Belgium.
Bulgaria's EU membership has led to general economic and social development. The economy has been growing faster than the EU average for several years.
Major challenges remain a persistent negative demographic trend and emigration, the battle against corruption and organised crime and the battle against social inequality and poverty, the reform of the judiciary, the education and health systems and the media situation.
Bulgaria attaches particular importance to the enlargement process for the Western Balkans. This was the focus of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council during the first semester of 2018.
2019 marked the 140th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between Belgium and Bulgaria in 1879. In the same year, Bulgaria adopted a constitution inspired by the Belgian example, which is clear evidence of the good atmosphere in which these relations have been established.
In 2020, Bulgaria was Belgium's 47th most major customer (exports to Bulgaria: 705.4 million euros) and 36th most major supplier (imports from Bulgaria: 1.1 billion euros). Belgium recorded a negative trade balance of 443.7 million euros. There is a significant and diverse range of investments from Belgium in Bulgaria.
Several ministerial visits took place in the context of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council, including the visit by Prime Minister Charles Michel during the Summit of 17/05/2018. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev was granted an audience with King Philip on 01/02/2018.
Bilateral political consultations took place in Sofia on 15 June 2021. The Belgian delegation was led by the Director General for Bilateral Affairs Anick Van Calster.
Romania has made an economic leap forward since joining the EU in 2007. In 2019, Romania held a successful presidency of the EU Council. The country has been a member of NATO since 2004.
Diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Belgium and the Principality of Romania date back to 1880.
Romania considers Belgium to be a reliable partner within the EU and NATO and trade relations, as well as Belgian investments in Romania, are also on the rise.
Belgium holds 9th place as a foreign investor. In 2018, total Belgian investments in Romania amounted to 2.276 billion euros.
In 2020, Romania was Belgium's 27th most major customer (exports to Romania: 2.0 billion euros) and 37th most major supplier (imports from Romania: 1.1 billion euros). Belgium recorded a positive trade balance of 873.2 million euros.
On 1 October 2019, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis was received by His Majesty the King, on the occasion of the opening of Europalia Romania. During his visit, President Iohannis was accompanied by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramona Mănescu.
For more than twenty years now, bilateral relations have included a further aspect as a sign of solidarity between Belgian and Romanian citizens, namely the support given to Romanian villages in the countryside since the last years of Ceaușescu's dictatorship, which in recent years has mainly been channelled via Actie Dorpen Romania / Opération Villages Roumains (‘Romanian Villages Campaign’).
The first cracks in the so-called Iron Curtain appeared in Hungary. The disappearance of communism in Eastern Europe was an important step towards the reunification of Europe, reflected in Hungary's NATO and EU membership in 1999 and 2004 respectively. Bilateral relations between Belgium and Hungary also benefited from Hungary's reintegration into the Euro-Atlantic bloc.
There is a long tradition of solidarity between Belgium and Hungary. After the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary became independent. However, following the Trianon peace treaty in 1920, it lost two thirds of its territory as well as many millions of its citizens. During the interwar period, Belgium took in Hungarian children and provided work for thousands of unemployed Hungarians in our mining industry. After the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, 6,000 Hungarian refugees found shelter in Belgium. Just like the other Hungarians who settled in Belgium before, they integrated without any problems.
The peaceful revolution at the end of the Cold War and Hungary's EU membership broadened the scope of our relations. The joint EU presidency of Hungary, Belgium and Spain (2010-2011) ran smoothly. Hungary could call on our country's European know-how. In turn, Belgium became acquainted with Hungarian priorities such as the Hungarian minorities in Central Europe and cooperation with other states along the Danube. In 2023-24 Belgium will once again assume the EU Presidency together with Hungary and Spain. Bilateral relations between Belgium and Hungary are generally good. However, a number of developments relating to the rule of law and human rights in Hungary are the subject of regular discussions, albeit in a wider EU framework.
Thanks to its central location in Europe and a favourable investment climate, Hungary attracts many foreign investors. Some 300 Belgian companies also operate in Hungary. Belgium is in the top 10 of foreign investors. Hungary is the 24th export market and is the 28th supplier to Belgium.
Again, there is a tradition here. Belgian capital was involved in the expansion of the Hungarian mining industry and railways in the nineteenth century. In the Middle Ages, farmers from our regions participated in the development of viticulture in the Tokaij region. Today, this is, next to Budapest and Lake Balaton, one of the tourist assets of Hungary which is becoming more and more well-known to Belgians.
Poland is the largest country in Central Europe and has a rich past. The kingdom of Poland, founded in 1035, was divided in 1772-1793-1795 and annexed by the neighbouring states of Prussia, Russia and Austria. The Polish November Uprising of 1830-1831 played an important role in the success of the Belgian Revolution in that the Tsar could not send troops to Belgium and focused his attention on the Polish uprising. Only after the end of World War I did Poland regain its independence in 1918. The new Polish republic had to defend itself immediately against a Russian invasion in 1920 and was again divided and incorporated between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in 1939 under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The country was also hit hard during the Second World War. As a member of the Warsaw Pact, Poland came into the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The communist regime came to an end in 1989, partly due to pressure from the Solidarity trade union led by Lech Wałęsa, which enjoyed considerable support and sympathy in Belgium: the headquarters of the Solidarity Foreign Coordination Office was in Brussels. This history still shapes the Polish national psyche today.
After the disappearance of the Iron Curtain Poland sailed a Euro-Atlantic course which resulted in NATO membership in 1999 and EU membership in 2004 - and emphatically turned its back on Russia. Poland experienced a spectacular evolution in the social and economic field, which contributed greatly to the further development of political relations between Belgium and the Third Polish Republic. Through the EU, NATO, Benelux-Visegrad consultation, etc. there is consultation and cooperation in many areas. Economically speaking, Poland is an interesting market for Belgian companies due to its strong growth in recent years and its large consumer market (approximately 38 million inhabitants). Belgium is one of the top 10 foreign investors in Poland and bilateral trade continues to increase year after year.
Historically, Belgium has a relatively large Polish community dating back to Polish rebels from the 1830s revolutions and political refugees and anti-communist dissidents and Polish miners during the 20th century. After Poland became a member of the EU there was, in particular, economic migration to Belgium.
The good bilateral relations with Poland were put into extra focus in 2019: that year we commemorated 100 years of diplomatic relations; in addition, there was the 75th anniversary of the 1944 liberation of northern Belgium by the 1st Polish Armoured Division under the command of General Stanisław Maczek. As a result, Polish President Andrzej Duda paid an official visit in late September 2019 to H.M. King Philippe. In addition, Poland and Belgium also interact on a multilateral level, given that both countries will be sitting together on the UN Security Council as elected members in 2019.
Precisely because of its traditionally close political, economic and cultural-historical ties, Belgium is concerned about more recent developments relating to the rule of law (the increasing grip of the executive on the judiciary, restrictions on the editorial freedom of public broadcasters) and the negative perception of LGBT rights and diversity.
Slovakia became known as the "Tatra Tiger" after its independence in 1993. The country owed this name to its rapid economic growth against the background of structural reforms and many foreign investments, especially in the automotive industry and its ancillary companies. With around 1 million cars produced annually, the country is the world's largest car producer per capita.
15 years after joining the EU and NATO, Slovakia is beginning to raise its profile internationally. For example, in 2019 it chaired the OSCE and the Slovak Foreign Minister was the President of the UN General Assembly in 2018. Slovak policymakers also regularly express a desire to belong to the core of the EU.
The historical ties between Slovakia and Belgium may be less pronounced than with other countries in Central Europe. Nevertheless, the country has developed into a medium-sized economic partner of Belgium. Belgian investors appreciate the central location, well-educated workforce, moderate salaries and industrial past of Slovakia, which has also been a member of the eurozone since 2009.
As EU and NATO partners, Belgium and Slovakia enjoy good political relations. The two countries agree on various important issues and regularly support each other's international candidacies.
After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, with the dissident writer Václav Havel as a figurehead, Czechoslovakia was split up. Thus, in 1993, two independent states were created: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. By focusing on a stable democratic system and a dynamic market economy, the Czech Republic quickly became a partner of Belgium within NATO (in 1999) and then within the EU (in 2004).
The capital, Prague, is a very popular destination with Belgian tourists and boasts an exceptional heritage. The Czech industrial product which is most successful in Belgium is certainly the famous Škoda. Belgium is the twelfth largest investor in the Czech Republic, and about one hundred Belgian companies are currently based there. KBC in particular has grown into one of the largest banks there, under the name ČSOB. More and more Belgians have decided to live in the Czech Republic: there are almost 1,000 of them now.
The Belgian authorities attach great importance to further consultation and cooperation with their Czech counterparts. The fact that the Czech Republic (in the second half of 2009) and Belgium (in the second half of 2010) held the presidency of the European Union has enabled them to strengthen political ties. We think of the official visit of President Václav Klaus to Belgium in 2011 and that of Prime Minister Charles Michel to Prague in 2017.
Belgium and the Czech Republic maintain close historical and cultural ties. For example, the cities of Mons and Plzeň (Pilsen) shared the title of European Capital of Culture in 2015. Plzeň celebrated the 75th anniversary of its liberation in May 2020 by the 17th Fusilier Battalion, which was assigned to General Patton's Third US Army. In 1944 there were also Czechs (and Slovaks) involved in the liberation of Belgium.