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 (as of 2004) and the European Union (as of 2007); the Euro-Atlantic institutions provide a privileged framework for Bulgaria’s relations with Belgium. The two countries consult one another and cooperate on a number of common issues. This affiliation to the same political community forms the backdrop for diplomatic relations that go back to the end of the 19th century.
Indeed, Bulgaria and Belgium recently celebrated the 130th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations in 1879. The same year also saw the adoption by Bulgaria of a constitution inspired by the Belgian model, the proof, if any is needed, of the good auspices under which these relations first came about.
These positive relations today have resulted in the existence of a certain number of important bilateral agreements including: The Preventive Double Taxation Agreement (in force since 1991); the agreement between the Belgo-Luxembourg Economic Union (UEBL) and the Republic of Bulgaria aimed at encouraging and reciprocal protection of investments (1991); the Convention on Police Cooperation (1992) and the agreement between the Benelux states and Bulgaria aimed at the return of illegal immigrants (2005). These relations are characterised among others by a significant number of Belgian investments in Bulgaria. In 2011, the Belgo-Luxembourg Economic Union was the sixth biggest foreign investor in Bulgaria (in 2010 it even had ranked second).
These bilateral relations were enhanced even further by the visit to Belgium from 22 to 24 February 2010, of His Excellency, President Parvanov, when the Bulgarian Head of State met His Majesty King Albert II. This visit was followed in the same year by the visit of Prime Minister Y.Leterme to Bulgaria (24.11.2010) in the framework of the Belgian Presidency of the European Union.
The Kingdom of Belgium established diplomatic relations with the Romanian United Principalities in 1880.
The Republic of Romania that is a member of NATO (since 2004) and of the European Union (since 2007), today shares common political values (Democracy, Human Rights; Rule of Law) and interests (international security, anti-terrorist cooperation, economic and financial crisis management, etc.) which serve as the framework for in-depth consultations and cooperation. These common values enrich and enhance our bilateral relations.
The latter are structured around several bilateral agreements concluded between Belgium and Romania: The Preventive Double Taxation Agreement and the UEBL agreement aimed at the encouragement and reciprocal protection of investments (both in force since 17 October 1998); the Police Cooperation Convention (2002); Benelux-Romania readmission agreement (2003).
Bilateral trade exchanges are also significant; in 2011, Belgian exports to Romania amounted to 1.031 billion euros and imports from Romania amounted to 669.9 million euros.
The intense nature of our bilateral relations is illustrated moreover by a series of high-level reciprocal visits that have taken place since around 2005 : economic mission carried out by His Royal Highness Prince Philippe that focused on the environment and infrastructures (2006); state visit of Their Majesties King Albert II and Queen Paola to Romania (2009); visit to Romania by Prime Minister Leterme as well as Ministers Vervotte and Schouppe (2011); meetings between Prime Ministers Di Rupo and Ponta (September 2012) and between Foreign Affairs Ministers Reynders and Corlatean (May 2013).
We should also like to mention a special aspect of our bilateral relations which has been a symbol of the solidarity between Belgian and Romanian citizens for more than 20 years and that is the support for Romanian rural communities during the last days of the dictatorship of Ceaucescu provided via several NGOs, the most active of which is still Opération Villages Roumains/ Actie Dorpen Roemenië. This cooperative venture continues to mark its presence today thanks to several dozens of local projects. Whilst on this subject, we should like to underline that the year 2010, which celebrated the 130th anniversary of the establishment of Belgo-Romanian diplomatic relations, was also the 20th anniversary of the launch of Opération Villages Roumains.
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.