HM Philippe, King of the Belgians, on Turkish-Belgian economic relations through the ages and in the present day.

HM Philippe
HM Philippe became King of the Belgians on July 21, 2013, following the abdication of his father, King Albert II. He is the eldest child of King Albert II and Queen Paola. He is married to Mathilde d’Udekem d’Acoz, and the eldest of their children, Princess Elisabeth, is heir apparent. Following an amendment to the laws of succession, through absolute primogeniture, Princess Elisabeth will become the country’s first female monarch.

Bilateral relations between Belgium and Turkey reach back to the founding years of the Kingdom of Belgium. Less than two months after Leopold I had been enthroned as the first King of the Belgians on 21 July, 1831, industrialists from Liège and Verviers petitioned the King to formalize relations between our young Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire, convinced as they were of the promising future of closer relations between the two countries on the brink of industrial development and modernization. The first step was the conclusion of the bilateral Treaty of Friendship and Commerce in 1838, followed in 1839 by the establishment of the Belgian Consulate in Istanbul. Business relations started to thrive. Maritime links between Antwerp and Istanbul from the 1850s onward strengthened commercial relations further. In 1862, a new bilateral Treaty on Commerce and Navigation entered into force, granting Belgium the status of most favored nation by the Empire and guaranteeing free and toll-exempted passage through the Straits to both Belgian cargo and ships under the Belgian flag. By the early 20th century, Belgian steel mills contributed to the construction of railways, and Belgian companies operated the first electricity and streetcar networks in Istanbul.

It is useful to dwell for a moment on this rich economic history between our countries, because it underscores the solid foundations that Belgium's diplomatic and economic presence in Turkey can build on today.

In the 21st century, our bilateral economic relations started to prosper exponentially. Over the last 10 years, Belgian investment in Turkey has exceeded €5 billion and bilateral trade between Belgium and Turkey approached €8 billion in 2012. Belgium, benefiting from its central location and assets as a logistical and distribution hub, has become Turkey's sixth largest market in the EU.

The future looks promising, as it was in the early days. In October 2012, I had the immense privilege to lead a Belgian economic mission to Turkey. It was the largest mission Belgium organized that year and one of the largest ever. About 300 Belgian entrepreneurs representing nearly 200 companies participated. The mission focused on the construction, energy, and banking technology sectors, but other sectors such as logistics and environmental technologies were also represented. The synergies and complementarities that may be exploited between Belgian and Turkish ports again became evident. I was especially struck by the potential of cooperation between Belgian and Turkish companies in tertiary markets such as Africa and Central Asia, where our mutual experience and know-how can lead to genuine added value.

I was not surprised by the success of the mission. Situated on the crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Turkey has all it takes to be sure of long-term sustainable growth and is already on its way to becoming one of the 10 largest economies in the world. Steady economic reforms and a stable regulatory environment in combination with serious investment policies continue to provide reassuring guarantees for foreign investors. A business-friendly visa policy enabling Turkish guests in Belgium to acquire their visas in the shortest possible time has also contributed to a multiplication of business relations.

My last visit to Turkey also enabled me to witness the strength of our relations beyond economy and trade. During several meetings, President Gül, Prime Minister Erdoğan, Deputy Prime Minister Babacan, and Minister Çağlayan voiced their determination to continue reforms and align legislation with the EU acquis. Belgium has always been a staunch supporter of the Turkish-EU accession process and has consistently supported Turkey in meeting the political requirements and other criteria that will help both Turkey and the EU overcome obstacles and prepare for a new phase in their common history.

Economic, trade, and inter-state relations put aside, what has really allowed our countries to become closer are every-day human relations. People-to-people contact, such as university exchanges that bring more than 400 Turkish students and researchers to Belgium every year, or the yearly increasing number of Belgian visitors to Turkey's cultural and natural treasures, offer ample opportunities to get to know each other better. Most importantly, the significant number of citizens of Turkish descent in Belgium and the quality of their integration into Belgian society have not only contributed to Belgian wealth and prosperity over the years, but also to genuine understanding and the establishment of a mature bond of friendship. The commemoration in 2014 of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 bilateral agreement on the employment of Turkish workers in Belgium will be an appropriate occasion to highlight their valuable role.