Belgium and the Netherlands: good neighbours, loyal friends and solid trading partners
As trading partners and historical and political allies, the Netherlands and Belgium are more than just good neighbours. This close relationship is highlighted by the state visit to Belgium by King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima, in parallel with an economic mission headed by foreign trade and development minister Liesje Schreinemacher. Meline Arakelian, deputy head of mission in Brussels, talks about the three-day visit taking place from 20 to 22 June and underlines the importance of economic relations between the two countries.
‘Belgium is vital to our prosperity in the Netherlands,’ she says. ‘It’s our second-largest trading partner after Germany, and an export market for us that’s worth no less than €62 billion. Trade and investment between our countries supports more than 320,000 jobs in Belgium and more than 250,000 in the Netherlands. And for a lot of Dutch SMEs, Belgium is where they first branch out internationally – virtually all major Dutch companies see Belgium as an additional domestic marketplace.’
The reason for this is clear, says the deputy head of mission. ‘When it comes to Flanders, we speak the same language, plus we are geographically close, sharing a 430-kilometre border. All of this makes Flanders a logical, easy-access export market for Dutch companies looking to expand abroad. But the ties between our countries are based on more than that. Our companies and knowledge institutions complement each other well.'
Two things really stand out with regard to economic cooperation, she continues. 'First, both the Netherlands and Belgium are committed to innovation, ranking among Europe’s top five most innovative countries. One example of collaborative innovation is the demonstration project involving hydrogen fuel cell trucks, built by VDL and tested by Belgian supermarket chain Colruyt. Another example is ASML, whose semi-conductor production equipment is tested exclusively at the Imec research hub in Leuven.’
She explains: ‘As two densely populated, highly industrialised countries, the Netherlands and Belgium face virtually identical social and environmental challenges. For instance, the nitrogen deposition problem is just as much a heated topic in Flanders as it is in the Netherlands. This is another area where we can learn from each other, and another good reason for cooperation.’
Climate Tech Forum
With these issues in mind, finding smart technological solutions for reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment is a key focus of the economic mission. The mission is organised around the Climate Tech Forum in Brussels on 21 June, which more than 500 delegates are scheduled to attend. Organised by the Dutch embassy in Brussels and the consulate-general in Antwerp, the event will offer a platform for sharing expertise on green hydrogen, climate-neutral construction, future-oriented approaches to farming and smart, sustainable mobility solutions. ‘The participants, mostly SMEs, are eager to establish connections with Belgian companies in their sectors: some are hoping to forge contacts for the first time, while others want to expand existing networks.’
Ms Arakelian stresses the importance of networking in Belgium. ‘The Netherlands and Belgium face the same kinds of challenges, and we both have a business environment that is driven by innovation. So it makes sense to join forces to gain an even better competitive edge in the global marketplace. That’s where the real potential lies for Dutch companies – much more so than treating Belgium solely as an export market,’ she says.
Focus on sustainability
She offers an example. ‘Take the construction sector, which has a huge carbon footprint. Reusing materials is significantly better for the environment and circular construction is growing fast. Belgian and Dutch companies applying circular methods share their knowledge and experience, and are also working together to develop standards. Circular construction is a relatively new development, and if we want to ensure a level playing field then it’s important that we have EU legislation in place. In this area, the interests of Belgium and the Netherlands are aligned.’
Future-oriented approaches in agriculture are another example, says Ms Arakelian. ‘The future of farming is an urgent concern in both countries. We’re working together to develop good revenue models and increase public support for a transition in this sector.’
‘Both the Netherlands and Belgium aim to be major players in green hydrogen production in Europe,’ she continues. ‘The Netherlands’ ambition is to become an international hydrogen hub . And that requires cooperation with neighbouring countries.’ She gives yet another example: ‘Here in the Netherlands we have a good charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Belgium is taking great strides to catch up – yet another area where we can help each other.’
Business representatives travelling with the economic mission will focus mainly on their Flemish counterparts, but Ms Arakelian urges them not to forget Wallonia. ‘Of course, having a language in common makes it easier for Dutch companies to do business in Flanders. But don’t underestimate Wallonia,’ she says. ‘Remember: for us, it’s a bigger export market than Japan. Moreover, Wallonia is an excellent market for entrepreneurs wanting to break through the language barrier. Once you succeed in doing that, even more opportunities will open up elsewhere – for example in France.’
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