The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania)
Though Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania certainly cannot be regarded as one and the same, we can identify some similarities, including in their relations with Belgium.
They are three young states with a dynamic image. Estonia, for example, is a pioneer of e-government and the first Baltic state to join the Eurozone (2011). Latvia and Lithuania do not want to be left behind and are implementing a policy to speed up their accession to the Eurozone too.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are increasingly profiling themselves as a transport hub between Western Europe and Russia/Asia. Moreover, there is increasing interest in Belgium related to economic activities in and around the ports of Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia) and Klaipeda (Lithuania). This harks back to a tradition that has its origins in trade dealings between the Hanseatic cities (13th – 16th centuries).
There are other points in common too: through the ages, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all been confronted with occupations, just like Belgium. The authorities in these countries appreciate the fact that Belgium never recognised its annexation by the former Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
Belgium’s positive image is not just rooted in the past, however.
Our military cooperation also contributes to this. In 2004, Belgium was the first NATO member state to declare it was prepared to undertake ‘NATO Air Policing’ to guard the airspace over the Baltic states. Furthermore state visits by His Majesty the King to Lithuania (2006), Latvia (2007) and Estonia (2008) won wide acclaim.
Lastly the Baltic states are very interested in our know-how related to EU dossiers. The EU Presidencies of Lithuania (2nd half of 2013), Latvia (1st half of 2015) and Estonia (1st half of 2018) will provide an opportunity for deepening bilateral relations.
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 2019, Bulgaria was Belgium's 46th most major customer (exports to Bulgaria: 835.8 million euros) and 41st most major supplier (imports from Bulgaria: 932.6 million euros). Belgium recorded a negative trade balance of 96.8 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.
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 2019, Romania was Belgium's 28th most major customer (exports to Romania: 2.2 billion euros) and 38th most major supplier (imports from Romania: 1.2 billion euros). Belgium recorded a positive trade balance of 976 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: 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 Visegrad Group (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic)
Hungary was the first to open the Iron Curtain between the East and the West in 1989: an important step towards the reunification of Europe and the restoration of old ties, including with Belgium.
There is a long tradition of solidarity between Belgium and Hungary. After World War I, when Hungary was struck by poverty, Belgium took care of Hungarian children, and its mining industry provided work for thousands of unemployed Hungarians. Six thousand Hungarian refugees were welcomed by Belgium after the oppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. They integrated seamlessly, just like other Hungarians who had settled in Belgium before them.
The peaceful revolution at the end of the Cold War and Hungary’s EU membership broadened the foundation for our relationship. The joint EU Presidency of Hungary, Belgium and Spain (2010-2011) was conducted with admirable ease. Hungary was able to call on our country’s European know-how. In turn Belgium learned of Hungary’s priorities such as Hungarian minorities in Central Europe and cooperation with other states along the Danube.
Thanks to its central location in Europe, Hungary attracts many foreign investors. There are also three hundred Belgian enterprises operating in Hungary, and Belgium ranks among the country’s Top 10 foreign investors.
This is also something of a tradition. In the nineteenth century, Belgian capital was involved in the expansion of the Hungarian mining industry and railways. In the Middle Ages, farmers from our regions contributed to the development of viticulture in the Tokay region. Today, this is one of Hungary’s tourist attractions alongside Budapest and Lake Balaton.
Poland is the largest EU Member State in Central Europe. Since the social revolution under the impetus of the independent trade union ‘Solidarity’, its evolution has been spectacular. The organisation of EURO 2012 (the European Football Championship in Poland and Ukraine) was a great showpiece for the development of Poland’s economy and infrastructure.
Even though Belgium failed to qualify for EURO 2012, we are a permanent player on the Polish market. Belgium ranks among the Top 10 foreign investors. This has undoubtedly contributed to Poland’s European integration.
Our country continues to respond to the potential offered by the Polish market with its thirty-six million consumers. Active Belgian economic diplomacy and the expansion of a network of Honorary Consulates in Gdynia/Gdansk, Krakow, Bydgoszsz and Poznan bear testimony to this. It is no small matter that the tallest skyscraper in Warsaw was built by a Belgian company.
At the political level the EU Presidencies of Belgium (2nd half of 2010) and Poland (2nd half of 2011) led to a deepening of relations. Poland expressed considerable interest in Belgium’s international experience. To Belgium, Poland is a point of reference for analysing the situation in its eastern vicinity (Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, etc.) and Russia.
Poland has played a significant role in Belgium for a very long time, however. Polish units led by General Maczek participated in Belgium’s liberation in World War II. Furthermore, in the first half of the 20th century, approximately 60,000 Polish nationals settled in the Belgian industrial basins. After our labour market was opened up, tens of thousands of Polish nationals who came to reside in Belgium on a permanent or temporary basis have contributed to our economy.
Following its independence in 1993, Slovakia became known as the ‘Tatra Tiger’. The country owes this name to the rapid economic growth it experienced against a backdrop of structural reforms and considerable foreign investments, e.g. in the automotive industry and its suppliers.
In 2009 Slovakia became the second new EU Member State in Central Europe to succeed in meeting the conditions for entry into the Eurozone.
The historic ties between Slovakia and Belgium may be less pronounced than those with other countries in Central Europe. Nonetheless, the country has evolved into a medium-size economic partner for Belgium. In 2006 a Belgian Honorary Consulate was opened in Kosice. On the one hand we wanted to respond to the economic potential offered by East Slovakia (which is also a springboard to Ukraine and Russia). On the other, the move appeared to be rather fitting in light of the developing tourist industry in the Tatra Mountains on the Slovakian border with Poland.
Political relations between Belgium and Slovakia are cordial and are characterised by similar positions with regard to various dossiers. Cooperation between our countries in European and international institutions is conducted with ease. This was demonstrated during our simultaneous membership of the United Nations Security Council (2007).
The Czech Republic
After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 led by writer/politician Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic became a popular destination. It is not only the Belgian tourists who flock to Prague: our companies also feel quite at home in Bohemia and Moravia. Belgium ranks among the Top 10 investors in the Czech Republic: the 200 or so Belgian companies located there provide 30,000 jobs. Belgium is a major player in the Czech banking sector.
Less well-known is the fact that Tom Boonen’s professional cycling team (Omega Pharma/Quick Step) is largely funded by Czech capital (from the investor Zdenek Bakala).
Belgium attaches great importance to political consultation and cooperation with EU Member States of a similar size. This also applies to the Czech Republic. On the political level the EU Presidencies of the Czech Republic (2nd half of 2009) and Belgium (2nd half of 2010) led to closer political contacts, as illustrated by President Vaclav Klaus’ official visit to Belgium in 2011.
In 2015, Mons and Pilsen will both be European Capital of Culture. Pilsen is also the hometown of composer Bedrich Smetana (‘Ma Vlast’) and of car pioneer Emil Skoda. At the end of World War II, Belgian units also helped to liberate Pilsen alongside the American army. Czechs (and Slovaks) were also involved in liberating Belgium.