Belgium is a constitutional monarchy, with a King on its throne. Belgium gets its name from the Belgae, a Celtic people conquered by Julius Caesar, who subsequently organised the territory as Gallia Belgica. Situated in North Western Europe, Belgium fronts onto the North Sea and shares a total of 1,385 km’s of the border with the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg and France. This small country is home to the European Union (EU) and NATO. It is among the smallest EU member countries and has a population of over 11 million, making it one of the most densely populated European countries.
The Belgian coastal region extends into fertile valleys irrigated by a network of canals and waterways. A good portion of the land is reclaimed, and dikes are a common feature. The Ardennes is a scenic heavily wooded plateau which extends into France. The Schelde and the Meuse Rivers flow through Belgium from France and empty into the North Sea.
Economically, Belgium recovered remarkably from the First World War and was ceded German territories through the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. By 1923 the country’s manufacturing industries were almost back to normal. The country came out of World War II economically better off than after World War I, albeit it politically strained. It exists as a major trade gateway to the European Union’s member states.
Their direct neighbours, Germany, France and the Netherlands, are their primary sources of imports as well as their principle export destinations. The key pillars of the country’s economy, the manufacturing and banking sectors, took a hard knock in the regional downturn brought on by the global financial crisis. Notwithstanding these challenges, Belgium’s GDP grew by 1.4 per cent in 2015.
The Australian Remembrance Trail along the Western Front serves to help Australians appreciate the Australian soldiers’ part in Belgium in WWI. Travellers interested in either world war will have plenty to see here. Belgium is, however, renowned for the statues – Mannenken Pis and Jeanneken Pisbeer, castles, chocolate and fries. It offers over a thousand breweries, chocolate to rival the Swiss, and frites unlike any french fries in the world.
With such rich heritage, Belgium is an important artistic centre with local paintings on display in the many museums and cathedrals across the country. Art Nouveau architecture is widely seen in Brussels, such as the Josef Hoffmann-designed Stoclet House which is a UNESCO World Heritage site as is The Cathedral of Our Lady in Tournai. Besides Brussels, Bruges, Flanders and Ghent, medieval towns, historical sites and parks abound to satisfy a wide range of interests.
Belgium is an original member of the European Union and is also a Schengen country. Following crises such as the devastating terrorist activities in Belgium, the European Commission proposed eliminating such risks by collecting data on potential travellers before they arrive at the European borders.
The European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) proposes to identify possible threats to European security such as refugees fleeing from war-torn regions to escape discrimination. In this way illegal immigration and terrorism will be restricted within Europe.
The ETIAS is similar to Australia’s Electronic Travel Authority (ETA). Current Schengen Area regulations will remain, but visa-exempt nationals like Australians will have to apply online for ETIAS authorisation before travelling to Belgium. Without this electronic authorisation, Australians won’t be permitted to board an aircraft, ferry, cruise ship or train bound for Europe.
Australia and Belgium have similar attitudes towards international issues such as counter-terrorism, arms control, Antarctica and whaling. Belgium serves as a member of the Australia Group on Chemical Weapons. Regular high-level visits between the two countries promote cooperation and understanding on multiple levels.
Their present bilateral relationship was forged during World War I, when a great number of Australians served in Belgium, 12500 of whom never returned home. The two countries have two bilateral memorandums of understanding regarding WWI: The Centenary of World War I, which focuses on bilateral commemorative activities, and The Australian Government’s Western Front Interpretive Trail which has developed key sites in France and Belgium to honour the 290,000+ Australians who served on the Front.
Among their bilateral agreements is the Working Holiday Maker Arrangement, a reciprocal Agreement on Health Care Insurance, an Air Services Agreement and the Double Taxation Agreement. A recent agreement on Social Security ensures social security protection for citizens who have lived and/or worked in both countries.
Australia and Belgium boast a beneficial bilateral economic relationship with trade and direct investment each reaching billions of dollars. Belgian investment includes mining and resources, infrastructure, financial services, agribusiness, food technology, transport, ITC and biotech sectors.
A recent census indicates 10,000 Australians of Belgian ancestry and 5,762 Belgium-born individuals in Australia.
Australian citizens do not need a visa to travel to Belgium for business or personal travel purposes at present. When ETIAS is implemented, however, Australians will need this pre-authorisation before leaving for Belgium. Relevant work or study and long stay visas are necessary.
Australia has a visa-waiver system similar to ETIAS, known as ETA. Belgian citizens with ETA authorisation can visit Australia no more than 90 times over a one-year period. To be eligible, applicants must not suffer from tuberculosis or have been convicted of a crime carrying a sentence exceeding 12 months.