Belgium country brief
Belgium is one of the smallest EU member states (with a landmass less than half the size of Tasmania) and one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, with a population of over 11 million (2015). The capital of Belgium, Brussels, is home to the European Union (EU) and NATO.
Australia enjoys positive and constructive relations with Belgium, with a growing bilateral commercial relationship. Australia and Belgium share similar approaches to many international issues, including arms control, counter-terrorism, whaling and Antarctica. Belgium is a member of the Australia Group on Chemical Weapons.
System of government
Belgium is a constitutional monarchy, HM King Philippe, who acceded to the throne on 21 July 2013 after his father HM King Albert II’s 20-year reign, is Head of State. The country became a federal state in 1995.
Political power in Belgium is shared between the federal government, the regions and the language communities. The Federal government is responsible for issues such as justice, the interior, foreign policy, defence, social security and some health matters.
Successive constitutional reforms have devolved extensive powers to the three regions – Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital – which are responsible for a wide range of policy areas, including economic and trade policy, industrial policy, transport and public works. Flanders is predominantly Dutch-speaking; Wallonia is mainly French-speaking and Brussels-Capital is officially bilingual.
The three language communities represent the Dutch-, French- and German-speaking populations. They are responsible for education, cultural policy and a range of social services. The Flemish region and Dutch-speaking community are governed by a single set of institutions; in Wallonia and Brussels-Capital, regional and community institutions are separate.
Simultaneous federal, regional and European parliamentary elections were held on 26 May 2017. The elections returned a centre-right government in Flanders, a socialist-liberal-green government in Wallonia and a five-party coalition government in Brussels-Capital. As at December 2019, multi-party talks to form a federal government were still ongoing. In the meantime, the outgoing government (composed of the francophone Reform Movement, Flemish Liberals and Flemish Christian Democrats) remains in a caretaker capacity. Sophie Wilmès (Reform Movement) was appointed caretaker prime minister in October 2019, after former Prime Minister Charles Michel was elected President of the European Council.
The caretaker government holds a minority of seats in the federal parliament. The Flemish nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) remains the largest party nationally following the election, but is not able to form government alone. Longstanding political, economic and cultural divisions between the Flemish and Walloon regions continue to complicate the task of forming a federal government.
Belgium is a major trade gateway to the European Union’s member states, but in particular to the three countries with which it shares a border – Germany, France, and the Netherlands. These three countries are Belgium’s principal export destinations and import sources.
The Belgian economy recorded GDP growth of 1.5 per cent in 2018. Given Belgium’s high level of exposure to the UK market, Brexit is expected have an adverse impact on the Belgian economy.
The contemporary bilateral relationship is underpinned by strong historical ties stemming from World War I. Many Australians served in Belgium between 1916 and 1918, notably during the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917, and the Third Battle of Ieper, from 31 July to 6 November 1917. Of the approximately 12,500 AIF men who died in Belgium, half have 'no known grave'.
Australia has two bilateral MOUs with Belgium on the shared history of the world wars of the twentieth century, signed in 2009 and 2012. The Centenary of World War I (2014-2018) saw an intensification of bilateral commemorative activities. The Australian Government's Western Front Interpretive Trail has developed seven key sites in France and Belgium, in partnership with local authorities, to honour the courage and sacrifice of the more than 290,000 Australians who served on the Front. In Belgium, Remembrance Trail sites have been inaugurated at Ploegsteert, Zonnebeke, and Ieper.
In November 2018 the Australian Government presented full-size replicas of the Menin Gate Lions to the City of Ieper. The original lion sculptures – given to Australia in 1936 by the citizens of Ieper – stand at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
In the 2016 Census there were 6,378 Belgian-born people in Australia, and just over 18,000 who claimed Belgian ancestry.
Australia and Belgium have concluded a number of bilateral agreements. A Working Holiday Maker Arrangement took effect in November 2004. Australia and Belgium have had a Double Taxation Agreement since 1977 (amended in 1984). An Agreement between Australia and Belgium on Social Security entered into force in 2005, providing improved social security protection to people who have lived and/or worked in both Australia and Belgium. The social security agreement also exempts Australian employers from the need to provide Belgian social security support for Australian employees sent temporarily to work in Belgium, provided the employee remains covered in Australia by compulsory superannuation arrangements.
A bilateral reciprocal Agreement on Health Care Insurance entered into force on 1 September 2009. A bilateral Air Services Agreement was signed in 2012.
High level visits
Regular high-level visits and meetings are important in promoting cooperation and understanding between Australia and Belgium. Recent visits include:
- The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon Darren Chester MP, attended ANZAC Day commemorations in Flanders on 25 April 2018. He visited Ieper for the 90th anniversary of the Last Post Association 5-6 July 2018. He attended the unveiling of the Menin Gate Lion sculptures in Ieper on 5 November 2018 and participated in the Last Post ceremony on 11 November.
- Former Governor-General HE General the Hon Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Ret’d) visited Belgium on three occasions: in June 2018 (state visit), September 2017 (centenary of the Battle of Polygon Wood) and July 2014 (commemorations in Ieper, Harelbeke, and Ploegsteert).
- Former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon Dan Tehan MP, visited Belgium in July 2016, April 2017 and September 2017 for events associated with the ANZAC Centenary.
- .Former Trade and Investment Minister, the Hon Steven Ciobo MP, visited Brussels on 28-29 April 2016 where he met with Belgian business representatives.
- Minister for Finance, the Hon Mathias Cormann MP, led the official Australian party at ANZAC Day commemorations in Flanders, Belgium on 25 April 2016.
- Former Foreign Minister, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, visited Brussels in September 2016 and April 2015 for bilateral meetings and commemorations.
- Former Minister for Defence, the Hon Kevin Andrews MP visited Ieper during the Anzac Day commemorations on 25 April 2015.
Bilateral economic relationship
Total goods and services trade between Belgium and Australia in 2018 was $3.4 billion. Belgian foreign direct investment (FDI) in Australia was approximately $5.4 billion in 2018. Australia has traditionally maintained a strong investment relationship with Belgium. Belgian investment into Australia includes infrastructure (dredging); construction; mining and resources; financial services; agribusiness; food technology; transport; ITC; biotech and medical devices sectors.