Belgium

Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Report
July 5, 2016

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Executive SummaryShare    

The Belgian economy is expected to grow 1.4 percent in 2016, primarily driven by rising household consumption and external demand. Lower energy prices and interest rates, and a favorable euro/dollar exchange rate are all expected to stimulate economic growth and fuel exports, especially given Belgium’s unique position as a logistical hub and gateway to Europe. However, the recovery remains fragile: weak consumer confidence, low competitiveness and economic slowdown in the euro area may constrain growth prospects, and a highly rigid labor market and complicated tax regime remain liabilities to investment. Since June 2015, the Belgian government has undertaken a series of measures aiming to reduce the tax burden on labor and to increase Belgium’s economic competitiveness and attractiveness to foreign investment. Unfortunately, the EU court decision in January 2016 declaring Belgian tax incentives illegal, the perceived and proven foreign terrorist fighter threat and the recent terrorist attacks on Brussels may cause further downward pressure on Belgium’s growth and further reduce its attractiveness as an FDI destination.

Assets

Belgium boasts an open market well connected to the major economies of the world. As a logistical gateway to Europe, host to the EU institutions and a central location closely tied to the major European economies (Germany in particular), Belgium is an attractive market and location for U.S. investors. The Belgian government was active in the rescue of its major banks and the financial markets have largely stabilized, following reductions in bank debt and exposure to risky derivative markets. Foreign and domestic investors are expected to take advantage of improved credit opportunities and increased consumer and business confidence. Finally, Belgium is a highly developed, long-time economic partner of the United States that benefits from an extremely well-educated workforce, world-renowned research centers, and the infrastructure to support a broad range of economic activities.

Liabilities

Belgium’s international competitiveness has been hindered by a rigid labor market that makes Belgian employees relatively expensive compared to neighboring countries. Belgium’s nominal corporate tax rate, at 33.99 percent, is one of the highest in Europe and is only mitigated by a myriad of subsidies and tax deductions. The on-going Sixth State Reform has slowly been shifting certain responsibilities from the federal to the regional governments. However, it is not yet clear how these evolving responsibilities may affect some of the incentives and deductions in place. A January 2016 EU ruling which voids 36 fiscal rulings between the government and multinational and Belgian companies retroactively to 2004 also creates investor uncertainty and casts a shadow over Belgium’s attractiveness as a preferred FDI location.

On Balance

Belgium has a dynamic economy and continues to attract significant levels of investment in chemicals, petrochemicals, plastic and composites; environmental technologies; food processing and packaging; health technologies; information and communication; and textiles, apparel and sporting goods, among other sectors. Over the past few years, Belgium has lost some of its traditional manufacturing base, which had benefitted from U.S. investment. Over the past five years for instance, the U.S. automotive industry has almost completely pulled out of Belgium. American companies in particular have made recent investments in petrochemicals, health technologies, and information and communication.

Table 1

Measure

Year

Index or Rank

Website Address

TI Corruption Perceptions index

2015

15 of 168

transparency.org/cpi2015

World Bank’s Doing Business Report “Ease of Doing Business”

2015

43 of 189

doingbusiness.org/rankings

Global Innovation Index

2015

25 of 143

globalinnovationindex.org/content/page/data-analysis

U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions)

2015

USD 48,128

BEA

World Bank GNI per capita

2014

USD 47,260

data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign InvestmentShare    

Attitude toward Foreign Direct Investment

Belgium has traditionally maintained an open economy that is highly dependent on international trade for its well-being. Since WWII, foreign investment has played a vital role in the Belgian economy, providing technology advances and employment. It is one of the key economic policies of the current center-right government to make Belgium a more attractive destination to foreign investment. Though the federal government regulates important elements of FDI such as salaries and labor conditions, it is primarily the responsibility of the regions to attract FDI through marketing or investment incentives. Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT), Wallonia Foreign Trade and Investment Agency (AWEX) and Brussels Invest and Export, seek to attract FDI to Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels Capital Region, respectively. Foreign corporations account for about one-third of the top 3,000 corporations in Belgium. According to Graydon, a Belgian company specializing in commercial and marketing information, there are currently more than one million companies registered in Belgium.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

In the past three years, Belgium has not been the subject of an investment policy review through the OECD, WTO or UNCTAD.

Laws/Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Payments and transfers within Belgium and with foreign countries require no prior authorization. Transactions may be executed in euros as well as in other currencies.

Belgium has no debt-to-equity requirements. Dividends may be remitted freely except in cases in which distribution would reduce net assets to less than paid-up capital. No further withholding tax or other tax is due on repatriation of the original investment or on the profits of a branch, either during active operations or upon the closing of the branch.

Business Registration

In order to set up a business in Belgium, one must take the following steps:

  1. Deposit at least 20 percent of the initial capital with a Belgian credit institution and obtain a standard certification confirming that the amount is held in a blocked capital account;
  2. Deposit a financial plan with a notary, sign the deed of incorporation and the by-laws in the presence of a notary, who authenticates the documents and registers the deed of incorporation. The authentication act must be drawn up in either French, Dutch or German (Belgium’s three official languages);
  3. Register with one of the Registers of legal entities, VAT and social security at a centralized company docket and obtain a company number.

In all, the business registration process can be completed within as little as one week.

Based on the number of employees, the projected annual turnover and the shareholder class, a company may qualify as a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) according to the meaning of the Promotion of Independent Enterprise Act of February 10, 1998. For a small or medium-sized enterprise, registration will only be possible once a certificate of competence has been obtained. The person in charge of the daily management of the company must prove his or her knowledge of business management, with diploma’s and/or practical experience.

Each of the three Belgian regions has its own investment promotion agency, whose services are available to all foreign investors.

Industrial Promotion

The regional investment promotion agencies have focused their industrial strategy on key sectors including aerospace and defense; agribusiness, automotive and ground transportation; architecture and engineering; chemicals, petrochemicals, plastics and composites; environmental technologies; food processing and packaging; health technologies; information and communication; and services.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

There are currently no limits on foreign ownership or control in Belgium. There are no distinctions between Belgian and foreign companies when establishing, owning, or expanding a business or setting up a remunerative activity.

Privatization Program

Belgium currently has no ongoing privatization programs.

Screening of FDI

The Belgian federal government does not screen, review or approve foreign investment projects. To the extent this occurs, it is done at the regional level.

Competition Law

The contact address for competition-related concerns :
Federal Competition Authority
City Atrium, 6th floor
Vooruitgangsstraat 50
1210 Brussels
tel: +32 2 277 5272
fax: +32 2 277 5323
email: info@bma-abc.be

2. Conversion and Transfer PoliciesShare    

Foreign Exchange

Payments and capital transfers within Belgium and with foreign countries require no prior authorization. Financial transactions may be executed in euros as well as in other currencies.

Belgium has no debt-to-equity requirements. Dividends may be remitted freely except in cases in which distribution would reduce net assets to less than paid-up capital. No further withholding tax or other tax is due on repatriation of the original investment or on the profits of a branch, either during active operations or upon the closing of the branch.

Remittance Policies

See text above.

3. Expropriation and CompensationShare    

There are no outstanding expropriation or nationalization cases in Belgium with U.S. investors. There is no pattern of discrimination against foreign investment in Belgium.

When the Belgian government uses its eminent domain powers to acquire property compulsorily for a public purpose, adequate compensation is paid to the property owners. Recourse to the courts is available if necessary. The only expropriations that occurred during the last decade were related to infrastructure projects such as port expansion, roads, and railroads. In the future, expropriations to reserve space for nuclear waste storage are still expected, but the sites will not be near areas of existing economic activity. The government of Belgium has decreed that all nuclear power plants will be closed by 2025.

4. Dispute SettlementShare    

Legal System, Specialized Courts, Judicial Independence, Judgments of Foreign Courts

Belgium's (civil) legal system is independent of the government and is a means for resolving commercial disputes or protecting property rights. As in many countries, the Belgian courts labor under a growing caseload, and backlogs cause delays. There are several levels of appeal.

Bankruptcy

Belgian bankruptcy law is governed by the Bankruptcy Act of 1997 and is under the jurisdiction of the commercial courts. The commercial court appoints a judge-auditor to preside over the bankruptcy proceeding and whose primary task is to supervise the management and liquidation of the bankrupt estate, in particular with respect to the claims of the employees. Belgian bankruptcy law recognizes several classes of preferred or secured creditors. A person who has been declared bankrupt may subsequently start a new business unless the person is found guilty of certain criminal offences that are directly related to the bankruptcy. The Business Continuity Act of 2009 provides the possibility for companies in financial difficulty to enter into a judicial reorganization. These proceedings are to some extent similar to Chapter 11 as the aim is to facilitate business recovery.

Investment Disputes

Over the past 10 years, there have been no investment disputes involving a U.S. person.

International Arbitration

Belgium is a member of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) and regularly includes provision for ICSID arbitration in investment agreements. The government accepts binding international arbitration of disputes between foreign investors and the state; a recent example was the international arbitration agreed to by the Belgian and the Dutch governments regarding a railway line dispute, the so-called “Iron Rhine.” Belgian public opinion, as in much of the EU, is generally opposed to investor dispute settlement clauses in international trade agreements, although Belgium is a party to many agreements with such clauses.

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Belgium is a member of the New York Arbitration Convention and also of the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

Duration of Dispute Resolution – Local Courts

The court system is regionalized and the duration of investment and commercial dispute proceedings can vary. There is anecdotal evidence that court disputes can take months or years to resolve. The delays are generally attributed to a shortage of judges to rule on cases resulting in long waits for hearing dates.

5. Performance Requirements and Investment IncentivesShare    

WTO/TRIMS

Belgium is a WTO member and does not maintain any measures that are inconsistent with the TRIMs obligations.

Investment Incentives

Since the law of August 1980 on regional devolution in Belgium, investment incentives and subsidies have been the responsibility of Belgian's three regions: Brussels, Flanders, and Wallonia. Nonetheless, most tax measures remain under the control of the federal government as do the parameters (social security, wage agreements) that govern general salary and benefit levels. In general, all regional and national incentives are available to foreign and domestic investors alike.

Belgian investment incentive programs at all levels of government are limited by EU regulations and are normally kept in line with those of the other EU member states. The European Commission has tended to discourage certain investment incentives in the belief that they distort the single market, impair structural change, and threaten EU convergence, as well as social and economic cohesion. In January 2016, the European Commission ordered Belgium to reclaim up to USD 900 million in tax breaks from 36 companies (12 of whom are U.S. companies) going as far back as 2004. The Belgian Government had given these breaks to companies through a series of one-off fiscal rulings. Belgium is now appealing the EU decision, which it claims is very detrimental to its investment climate image.

In their investment policies, the regions emphasize innovation promotion, research and development, energy savings, environmental cleanliness, exports, and most of all, employment. The three regional agencies have staff specializing on specific regions of the world, including the United States, and have representation offices in different countries. In addition, the Finance Ministry established a foreign investment tax unit in 2000 to provide assistance and to make the tax administration more "user friendly" to foreign investors.

In 2005, the Belgian Federal Finance Ministry proposed a new investment incentive program in the form of a notional interest rate deduction. This was adopted by Parliament, and since January 1, 2006, the new tax law permits a corporation established in Belgium, foreign or domestic, to deduct from its taxable profits a percentage of its adjusted net assets linked to the rate of the Belgian long-term state bond. The law permits all companies operating in Belgium to deduct the "notional" interest rate that would have been paid on their locally invested capital had it been borrowed at a rate of interest equal to the current rate the Belgian government pays on its 10-year bonds. This amount is deducted from profits, thus lowering nominal Belgian corporate taxes (currently 33.99%). The applicable interest rate is adjusted annually, but will never be allowed to vary more than one percent (100 basis points) in one year nor exceed 6.5 percent. For 2016 the rate will be 1.63 percent for large corporations and 2.13 percent for SMEs.

Research and Development

Belgium has made an effort to encourage companies to carry out R&D activities within the country. At both the federal and regional government levels, there are incentives in the form of tax allowances and direct stipends to offset the cost of employing researchers. Regional governments offer incentives to offset the cost of creating patents as well as some exemptions on income generated from the sales of goods subjected to proprietary patents. There are also ways in which a company can deduct a percentage of what it invests in R&D and energy-saving improvements from its taxable base.

More information on incentives by region is available at: www.investinbrussels.com (Brussels), www.flandersinvestmentandtrade.com (Flanders), and www.investinwallonia.be (Wallonia).

Performance Requirements

Performance requirements in Belgium usually relate to the number of jobs created. There are no known cases where export targets or local purchase requirements were imposed, with the exception of military offset programs, which were reintroduced under Prime Minister Verhofstadt in 2006. The government reserves the right to reclaim incentives if the investor fails to meet his employment commitments. For instance, in 2012 with the announced closure of an automotive plant in Flanders, the Flanders regional government successfully reclaimed training subsidies that had been provided to the company.

Data Storage

There is currently no requirement for foreign IT providers to share source code and/or provide access to surveillance agencies. There is for the moment no forced localization, but the European Parliament is currently considering legislative steps in that direction.

6. Protection of Property RightsShare    

Real Property

Property rights in Belgium are well protected by law; the courts are independent and considered effective in enforcing property rights. Mortgages and liens exist through a reliable recording system operated by the Belgian notaries.

Intellectual Property Rights

While Belgium generally meets very high standards in the protection of intellectual property rights (IPR), rights granted under specific American patent, trademark, or copyright law can only be enforced in the United States, its territories, and possessions. The European Union has taken a number of initiatives to promote intellectual property protection, but in cases of non-implementation, national laws continue to apply. Despite legal protection of intellectual property, Belgium experiences a rate of commercial and private infringement – particularly internet music piracy and illegal copying of software – similar to most EU states.

All intellectual property rights are administered and enforced by the Belgian Office of Intellectual Property in the Ministry for Economic Affairs (http://economie.fgov.be/en/entreprises/Intellectual_property/Aspects_institutionnels_et_pratiques/OPRI/). The Office of Intellectual Property, Directorate General Regulation and Market Organisation (ORPI) administers intellectual property in Belgium. The Director General is Mr. Emmanuel Pieters. This office manages and provides Belgian intellectual property titles, informs the public about IPR, drafts legislation and advises Belgian authorities with regard to national and international issues.

Enforcement of IPR is in the hands of the Belgian Ministry of Justice. For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see the World Intellectual Property Organization’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/.

Resources for Rights Holders

Belgium does track and report publicly on the seizure of counterfeit goods. The Embassy’s point of contact for public inquiries on property rights in Belgium is listed in section 19.

A list of English-speaking attorneys in Belgium can be found at this link: http://photos.state.gov/libraries/belgium/8548/cons/Lawyer%20list%202012%20update%20december_001.pdf. The U.S. Embassy in Brussels assumes no responsibility or liability for the professional ability or reputation of, or the quality of services provided by, the persons or firms on the list.

7. Transparency of the Regulatory SystemShare    

The Belgian government has adopted a generally transparent competition policy. The government has implemented tax, labor, health, safety, and other laws and policies to avoid distortions or impediments to the efficient mobilization and allocation of investment, comparable to those in other EU member states. Draft bills are never made available for public comment, but do go through an independent court for vetting and consistency. Nevertheless, foreign and domestic investors in some sectors face stringent regulations designed to protect small- and medium-sized enterprises. Many companies in Belgium also try to limit their number of employees to 49, the threshold above which certain employee committees must be set up, such as for safety and trade union interests.

Recognizing the need to streamline administrative procedures in many areas, the federal government set up a special task force to simplify official procedures, so far with little result. It also agreed to streamline laws regarding the telecommunications sector into one comprehensive volume after new entrants in this sector had complained about a lack of transparency. It also beefed up its Competition Policy Authority with a number of academic experts and additional resources. The American Chamber of Commerce has called attention to the adverse impact of cumbersome procedures and unnecessary red tape on foreign investors, although foreign companies do not appear to be impacted more than Belgian firms.

In 2015, the government and the pharmaceutical sector negotiated an agreement to lower the government’s healthcare costs. In exchange for the government agreeing to an accelerated approval process for new medicines, the pharmaceutical sector agreed to price decreases and price ceilings on certain types of medicine, requesting government reimbursements based on actual quantities of medicine used, paying taxes on marketing activities and decreasing the volume of prescriptions.

8. Efficient Capital Markets and Portfolio InvestmentShare    

Belgium has policies in place to facilitate the free flow of financial resources. Credit is allocated at market rates and is available to foreign and domestic investors without discrimination. Belgium is fully served by the international banking community and is implementing all relevant EU financial directives. At the same time, Belgium ranks 97th out of 189 for “getting credit” on the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings, and in the bottom quintile among OECD high income countries.

Belgium claims to have established the world’s first stock market almost 600 years ago, and the bourse is well-established today. At the end of 2000, the Brussels stock market merged with the Paris and Amsterdam bourses into Euronext, a Pan-European stock-trading platform. In 2006, Euronext and NY Stock Exchange shareholders voted to merge the two exchanges. On Euronext, a company may increase its capital either by capitalizing reserves or by issuing new shares. An increase in capital requires a legal registration procedure, and new shares may be offered either to the public or to existing shareholders. A public notice is not required if the offer is to existing shareholders, who may subscribe to the new shares directly. An issue of bonds to the public is subject to the same requirements as a public issue of shares: the company's capital must be entirely paid up, and existing shareholders must be given preferential subscription rights.

Money and Banking System, Hostile Takeovers

Because the Belgian economy is directed toward international trade, more than half of its banking activities involve foreign countries. Belgium’s major banks are represented in the financial and commercial centers of dozens of countries by subsidiaries, branch offices, and representative offices.

Belgium is one of the countries with the highest number of banks per capita in the world. The banking system is considered sound but was particularly hard hit by the 2008 financial crisis, when federal and regional governments had to step in with lending and guarantees for the three largest banks. Following a review of the 2008 financial crisis, the Belgian government decided in 2012 to shift the authority of bank supervision from the Financial Market Supervision Authority (FMSA) to the National Bank of Belgium (NBB), the country’s central bank.

The developments since September 2008 have also resulted in a major de-risking of the Belgian banks’ balance sheets, on the back of a rising share of exposure to the public sector – albeit more concentrated on Belgium – and a gradual further expansion of the domestic mortgage loan portfolio. At the margin, these changes in banks’ activities towards the financing of households and the public sector may have modified the intermediation role that Belgian banks play in the economy. By fostering “low-risk” activities, this de-risking may also have led to structurally lower, but less volatile, profitability. In recent years, banks have relied to a much greater extent on net interest income to generate profits. However, this increased reliance on net interest income comes at a time when low interest rates and weak economic growth could start to weigh on this income source. This highlights the continuing challenges that banks are facing in restoring an adequate, but sustainable, level of profitability. In spite of the major changes that have already been made, Belgian banks are thus still facing the challenge of having to adapt their business models and activities to new and evolving operating conditions. Since the introduction of the Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM), the vast majority of the Belgian banking sector’s assets are held by banks that come under SSM supervision, including the “significant institutions” KBC Bank, Belfius Bank, Argenta, AXA Bank Europe, Bank of New-York Mellon and Bank Degroof. Other banks governed by Belgian law – such as BNP Paribas Fortis and ING Belgium – are also subject to SSM supervision as they are subsidiaries of non-Belgian “significant institutions”.

Under pressure from the European Union, bank debt has decreased in volume overall, from close to 1.6 trillion euros in 2007 to just over 1 trillion euros in 2015, according to the National Bank of Belgium, particularly in the risky derivative markets. KBC, the country’s largest bank, has total assets equivalent to 250 billion euros. According to the NBB, 3.6 percent of all the currently outstanding loans are considered to be non-performing.

The country's banks use modern, automated systems for domestic and international transactions. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) is headquartered in Brussels. Euroclear, a clearing entity for transactions in stocks and other securities, is also located in Brussels.

Belgium has clear and distinct takeover rules which are applied on a non-discriminatory basis.

In Belgium, there are many cases of cross-shareholding and stable shareholder arrangements but never with the express intent to keep out foreign investors. Likewise, anti-takeover defenses are designed to protect against all potential hostile takeovers, not only foreign hostile takeovers.

9. Competition from State-Owned EnterprisesShare    

Belgium does not have any State Owned Enterprises (SOE) that exercise delegated government powers. Private enterprises are allowed to compete with public enterprises under the same terms and conditions, but since the EU started to liberalize network industries such as electricity, gas, water, telecoms and railways, there have been regular complaints in Belgium about unfair competition from the former state monopolists. Complaints have ranged from lower salaries (railways) to lower VAT rates (gas and electricity) to regulators with a conflict of interest (telecom). Although these complaints have now largely subsided, many of these former monopolies are now market leaders in their sector, due mainly to their ability to charge high access costs to networks that were fully amortized years ago. However, former telecom monopolist Proximus still features on the EU’s list of companies receiving state aid. The country has about 80,000 employees working in SOEs, mainly in the railways, telecoms and general utility sectors. There are also several regional-owned enterprises where the regions often have a controlling majority: for a full listing (including Wallonia, Brusssels and Flanders), see www.actionnariatwallon.be

OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance of SOEs

Corporate governance at the boards of these former monopolies is still deficient: while board seats are occupied by representatives of the governing political parties in proportion to their representation in Parliament, not all board members report directly to cabinet ministers.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Belgium has a sovereign wealth fund (SWF) in the form of the Federal Holding and Investment Company, a quasi-independent entity created in 2004 and now mainly used as a vehicle to manage the banking assets which were taken on board during the 2008 banking crisis. The SWF has a board whose members reflect the composition of the governing coalition and are regularly audited by the “Cour des Comptes” or national auditor. At the end of 2014, its total assets amounted to € 2 billion. Due to the origins of the fund, the majority of the funds are invested domestically. Its role is to allow public entities to recoup their investments and support Belgian banks. The SWF is required by law to publish an annual report and is subject to the same domestic and international accounting standards and rules. The SWF routinely fulfills all legal obligations.

10. Responsible Business ConductShare    

The Belgian government encourages both foreign and local enterprises to follow generally accepted Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) principles such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and has a particularly active National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines who can be contacted through: http://mneguidelines.oecd.org/ncps/belgium.htm. The Belgian government also encourages adherence to the OECD Due Diligence guidance for responsible supply chains of minerals from conflict-affected areas.

When it comes to human rights, labor rights, consumer and environmental protection, or laws/regulations which would protect individuals from adverse business impacts, the Belgian government is generally considered to enforce domestic laws in a fair and effective manner.

There is a general awareness of CSR among producers and consumers. Boards of directors are encouraged to pay attention to CSR in the 2009 Belgian Code on corporate governance. This Code, also known as the ‘Code Buysse II’ was drafted by a group of independent corporate experts and stresses the importance of sound entrepreneurship, good corporate governance, an active board of directors and an advisory council. It deals with unlisted companies and is complementary to existing Belgian legislation. However, adherence to the code Buysse II is not factored in public procurement decisions. For listed companies, far stricter guidelines apply, which are monitored by the Belgian Financial watchdog FMSA.

Belgium is not a candidate country in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

11. Political ViolenceShare    

Belgium is a peaceful, democratic nation comprised of federal, regional, and municipal political units: the Belgian federal government, the regional governments of Flanders, Wallonia, and the Brussels capital region, and 589 communes (municipalities). Political divisions do exist between the Flemish and Walloons, but they are addressed in democratic institutions and generally resolved through compromise.

Strains on public services in absorbing the large increase in migrants from Syria and Iraq, as well as the March 22, 2016 terrorist attacks in Brussels, could fuel the growth of extreme right-wing groups like those involved in violent demonstrations on March 27, 2016 at the site of a memorial to victims of the terrorist attacks.

12. CorruptionShare    

Belgian anti-bribery legislation was revised completely in March 1999, when the competence of Belgian courts was extended to extraterritorial bribery. Bribing foreign officials is a criminal offense in Belgium. Belgium has been a signatory to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention since 1999, and is a participating member of the OECD Working Group on Bribery. In the Working Group’s Phase 3 review of Belgium in 2013 it called on Belgium to address the lack of resources available for fighting foreign bribery.

Under Article 3 of the Belgian criminal code, jurisdiction is established over offenses committed within Belgian territory by Belgian or foreign nationals. Act 99/808 added Article 10 related to the code of criminal procedure. This Article provides for jurisdiction in certain cases over persons (foreign as well as Belgian nationals) who commit bribery offenses outside the territory of Belgium. Various limitations apply, however. For example, if the bribe recipient exercises a public function in an EU member state, Belgian prosecution may not proceed without the formal consent of the other state.

Under the 1999 Belgian law, the definition of corruption was extended considerably. It is considered passive bribery if a government official or employer requests or accepts a benefit for him or herself or for somebody else in exchange for behaving in a certain way. Active bribery is defined as the proposal of a promise or benefit in exchange for undertaking a specific action. Until 1999, Belgian anti-corruption law did not cover attempts at passive bribery. The most controversial innovation of the 1999 law was the introduction of the concept of 'private corruption,' or corruption among private individuals.

Corruption by public officials carries heavy fines and/or imprisonment between 5 and 10 years. Private individuals face similar fines and slightly shorter prison terms (between six months and two years). The current law not only holds individuals accountable, but also the company for which they work. Contrary to earlier legislation, the 1999 law stipulates that payment of bribes to secure or maintain public procurement or administrative authorization through bribery in foreign countries is no longer tax deductible. Recent court cases in Belgium suggest that corruption is most serious in government procurement and public works contracting. American companies have not, however, identified corruption as a barrier to investment.

The responsibility for enforcing corruption laws is shared by the Ministry of Justice through investigating magistrates of the courts, and the Ministry of the Interior through the Belgian federal police, which has jurisdiction in all criminal cases. A special unit, the Central Service for Combating Corruption, has been created for enforcement purposes but continues to lack the necessary staff.

The Belgian Employers Federation encourages its members to establish internal codes of conduct aimed at prohibiting bribery. To date, U.S. firms have not identified corruption as an obstacle to FDI.

UN Anticorruption Convention, OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery

Belgium has signed and ratified the UN Anticorruption Convention of 1998, and is also party to the OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions.

Resources to Report Corruption

Office of the Federal Prosecutor of Belgium
Portalissite
Quatre Brasstraat 4, 1000 Brussels
tel: +32 2 508 7111
fax: +32 2 508 7097

Transparency International Belgium
Emile Jacqmainlaan 135, 1000 Brussels
tel: +32 479 239490
email: infoa@transparencybelgium.be

13. Bilateral Investment AgreementsShare    

Bilateral Taxation Treaties

Belgium has no specific investment agreement with the United States; investment-related issues are covered in the 1951 Treaty of Friendship, Enterprise and Navigation. Belgium does have a bilateral taxation treaty with the United States, the last version of which dates from 2006 but which has been augmented with various MOU’s since then. Furthermore, Belgium has bilateral investment treaties in force with Albania, Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chile, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, El Salvador, Philippines, Gabon, Georgia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Yemen, Cameroon, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Korea, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macedonia, Morocco, Mexico, Moldavia, Mongolia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Paraguay, Romania, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Sri-Lanka, Thailand, Czech Republic, Tunisia, Uruguay, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

Additionally, Belgium and Luxembourg have jointly signed (as The Belgium Luxembourg Economic Union – BLEU) as-yet-unimplemented agreements with Liberia, Mauritania, and Thailand. Belgium and Luxembourg also have joint investment treaties with Poland and Russia, but these are not BLEU agreements. All these agreements provide for mutual protection of investments.

14. OPIC and Other Investment Insurance ProgramsShare    

Belgium, as a developed country, does not qualify for OPIC programs. No other countries operate investment insurance programs in Belgium. Through Ducroire-Delcredere, the country operates its own trade and investment insurance programs.

15. LaborShare    

In 2015, the Belgian government eliminated the differential contractual treatment between blue collar and white collar employees. The main result of this streamlining will be a substantial reduction in the cost of firing employees. The government also increased the retirement age from the current age of 65 to 66 as of 2027 and 67 as of 2030. It remains to be seen whether these changes will be sufficient to cover the growing pension costs of an ageing population.

Under the plan various schemes of early retirement before the age of 65 will be gradually phased out, and unemployment benefits will decrease over time as an incentive for the unemployed to regain employment. Historically, unemployment benefits have not expired and some unemployed have lived off the benefits indefinitely. As a cost saving measure during 2015 budget negotiations the government and labor agreed to skip the 2015 automatic wage adjustment, but the process of automatic wage indexation is scheduled to resume in 2016.

Wage increases are negotiated by sector within the parameters set by automatic wage indexation and the 1996 Law on Competitiveness. The purpose of automatic wage indexation is to establish a bottom margin that protects employees against inflation: for every increase in consumer price index above 2 percent, wages must be increased by (at least) 2 percent as well. The top margin is determined by the competitiveness law, which requires the Central Economic Council (CCE) to study wage projections in neighboring countries and make a recommendation on the maximum margin that will ensure Belgian competitiveness. The CCE is made up of civil society organizations, primarily representatives from employer and employee organizations, and its mission is to promote a socio-economic compromise in Belgium by providing informed recommendations to the government. The CCE’s projected increases in neighboring countries have historically been higher than their real increases, however, and have caused Belgium’s wages to increase more rapidly than its neighbors.

Belgian labor law provides for dispute settlement procedures, with the labor minister appointing an official as mediator between the employers and employee representatives.

The Belgian labor force is generally well trained, highly motivated and very productive. Workers have an excellent command of foreign languages, particularly in Flanders. There is a low unemployment rate among skilled workers, such as local managers. Enlargement of the EU in May 2004 and January 2007 facilitated the entry of skilled workers into Belgium from new member states. However, registration procedures were required until mid-2009 for entrants from some new EU member states. Non-EU nationals must apply for work permits before they can be employed. Minimum wages vary according to the age and responsibility level of the employee and are adjusted for the cost of living.

Belgian workers are highly unionized and usually enjoy good salaries and benefits. Belgian wage and social security contributions, along with those in Germany, are among the highest in Western Europe. For 2015, Belgium’s harmonized unemployment figure was 8.4 percent, below the EU28 average of 10.5 percent (OECD). High wage levels and pockets of high unemployment coexist, reflecting both strong productivity in new technology sector investments and weak skills of Belgium's long-term unemployed, whose overall education level is significantly lower than that of the general population. In Brussels and Wallonia, youth unemployment exceeds 25 percent, while the unemployment levels of the non-native Belgian populations are even higher. As a consequence of high wage costs, employers have tended to invest more in capital than in labor. However, the current government has pledged to reduce the costs of labor through its tax shift program, which aims at substantially reducing the social security employment costs for employers. At the same time, a shortage exists of workers with training in computer hardware and software, automation and marketing, increasing wage pressures in these sectors.

Belgian's comprehensive social security package is composed of five major elements: family allowance, unemployment insurance, retirement, medical benefits and a sick leave program that guarantees salary in event of illness. Currently, average employer payments to the social security system stand at 35 percent of salary while employee contributions comprise 13 percent. In addition, many private companies offer supplemental programs for medical benefits and retirement.

Belgian labor unions, while maintaining a national superstructure, are, in effect, divided along linguistic lines. The two main confederations, the Confederation of Christian Unions and the General Labor Federation of Belgium, maintain close relationships with the Christian Democratic and Socialist political parties, respectively. They exert a strong influence in the country, politically and socially. A national bargaining process covers inter-professional agreements that the trade union confederations negotiate biennially with the government and the employers' associations. In addition to these negotiations, bargaining on wages and working conditions takes place in the various industrial sectors and at the plant level. About 51 percent of employees from the public service and private sector are labor union members. A cause for concern in labor negotiation tactics is isolated cases where union members in Wallonia have resorted to physically forcing management to stay in their offices until an agreement can be reached. In 2015 and again in 2016, the employee organizations and the trade unions failed to reach an agreement preventing aggressive tactics such as blockading entrances to business parks and setting up roadblocks.

Foreign firms, which generally pay well, usually enjoy harmonious labor relations. Nonetheless, problems can occur, particularly in connection with the shutting down or restructuring of operations. During 2015, the country witnessed several one-day symbolic strikes or work slowdowns, which were largely politically-inspired and not directed at particular firms or industries. These labor actions did not appear to affect foreign (including U.S.) firms any more than Belgian firms in recent years.

Firing a Belgian employee can be very expensive. An employee may be dismissed immediately for cause, such as embezzlement or other illegal activity, but when a reduction in force occurs, the procedure is far more complicated. In those instances where the employer and employee cannot agree on the amount of severance pay or indemnity, the case is referred to the commercial courts for a decision. To avoid these complications, some firms consider including a "trial period" (of up to one year) in any employer-employee contract. Belgium is a strict adherent to ILO labor conventions.

Belgium was one of the first countries in the EU to harmonize its legislation with the EU Works Council Directive of December 1994. Its flexible approach to the consultation and information requirements specified in the Directive compares favorably with that of other EU member states.

16. Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade FacilitationShare    

There are no foreign trade zones or free ports as such in Belgium. However, the country utilizes the concept of customs warehouses. A customs warehouse is a warehouse approved by the customs authorities where imported goods may be stored without payment of customs duties and VAT. Only non-EU goods can be placed under a customs warehouse regime. In principle, non-EU goods of any kind may be admitted, regardless of their nature, quantity, and country of origin or destination. Individuals and companies wishing to operate a customs warehouse must be established in the EU and obtain authorization from the customs authorities. Authorization may be obtained by filing a written request and by demonstrating an economic need for the warehouse.

17. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment StatisticsShare    

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy

 

Host Country Statistical source

USG or international statistical source

USG or International Source of Data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other

Economic Data

Year

Amount

Year

Amount

 

Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP)

2014

$531.5 bn

2015

$455.83

bn

N/A

Foreign Direct Investment

Host Country Statistical source

USG or international statistical source

USG or international Source of data:
BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other

U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions)

2013

$51,702

2014

$48,128

N/A

Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions)

2013

$92,197

2014

$89,097

N/A

Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP

2013

89.7%

2014

92.7%

N/A


Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI

Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data 2014

From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)

Inward Direct Investment

Outward Direct Investment

Total Inward

492,365

100%

Total Outward

460,895

100%

Luxembourg

210,344

42.7%

Luxembourg

143,406

31.1%

France

149,746

30.4%

Netherlands

110,131

23.9%

Netherlands

99,814

20.2%

France

40,561

8.8%

Switzerland

18,556

3.8%

US

33,997

7.4%

Japan

13,610

2.8%

U.K.

24,955

5.4%

"0" reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

 

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment

Portfolio Investment Assets 2014

Top Five Partners (Millions, US Dollars)

Total

Equity Securities

Total Debt Securities

All Countries

701,841

100%

All Countries

295,494

100%

All Countries

406,347

100%

Luxembourg

201,419

28.7%

Luxembourg

160,294

54.2%

France

88,796

21.8%

France

126,636

18.0%

France

37,841

12.8%

Netherlands

42,874

10.5%

Netherlands

52,050

7.4%

Germany

22,723

7.7%

Luxembourg

41,124

10.1%

Germany

48,939

7.0%

U.S.

20,433

6.9%

Italy

34,117

8.4%

U.S.

44,318

6.3%

Ireland

10,466

3.5%

Ireland

29,148

7.2%

 

18. Contact for More InformationShare    

Martin Healy
Economic Officer, Political-Economic Section
Embassy of the United States to the Kingdom of Belgium
+32 2 811 4000