Canada and Belgium: Way beyond beer and chocolate

| June 22, 2014 | 0 Comments
The port of Antwerp in Belgium

The port of Antwerp in Belgium

If two Belgian products stand out in the minds of many of our Canadian partners, it is, no doubt, beer and chocolate. Indeed, important quantities of both are consumed in Canada, as more and more specialty beers follow the existing flow of kegged and bottled beer from Belgium to Canada, and increasing numbers of chocolatiers open shop across the country.
But as important as these exports may be, economic relations between Belgium and Canada, two advanced economies, go way beyond beer and chocolate. It is not widely known, for example, that today Belgium is globally the first market for the Northwest Territories. With a share of 65 percent (2013 figures; measured by value) of territorial exports, Belgium has, for several years, been the prime market for one of the most valuable resources this territory produces — diamonds. This connection between Belgium and Canada will only increase as the production of the historic mines elsewhere in the world decreases, and the full potential of the Canadian diamond industry (there are also diamond mines in some provinces) is better understood. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC) has identified Canada as a privileged partner, and that Canadian mining companies see Antwerp as a unique environment to maximise return on investment.
With a strategic location in the heart of Europe and several ports and airports connecting the wider Atlantic region to a “hinterland” of 500 million consumers, the importance of Belgium to Canadian exporters is obviously not limited to precious stones. Over the years, specialisation between the big European ports has encouraged specific patterns of traffic in goods and merchandise. Several of those have become important as a share of total production, whether it is bulk traffic (wooden pellets, mineral products) that moves east from Vancouver, agricultural commodities (grain and seeds) that are shipped from the Great Plains via Belgium to Europe or the seafood (mainly lobster) that requires specialised handling and distribution on its voyage from the Maritimes to the European consumer.
Canadian exports to Belgium amounted to $2.3 billion in 2012. The port of Antwerp is a major point of entry for Canadian goods in Europe. In 2012, Canada’s imports from Belgium were valued at $1.7 billion.
Beyond the logistics involved with trading these commodities, the port of Antwerp is also one of the major petrochemical clusters on this planet. The operators in and around this cluster follow the developments in Western Canada’s oil and gas projects with a lot of interest, and several participate actively in some of the ongoing projects for LNG terminals along the B.C. coastline and the shipment of Canadian gas to Asian markets, either directly through head offices in Belgium or indirectly through Houston-based affiliates.
Natural resources are important in this story, but Belgian investment in Canada is certainly not limited to this sector. Sectors of interest are the pharmaceutical industry (with one major investment in Quebec) and aerospace (with important investments in Vancouver and Montreal). Likewise, Canadian companies appreciate the advantages of a presence in Belgium, and virtually all large companies with an international presence have established a foothold in Belgium, either through acquisitions or greenfield investments.
The history of economic relations between Belgium and Canada, itself only part of a wider and richer narrative, goes back a long time, and Belgian capital, together with U.S. and British investments, played a crucial role in the economic development of various provinces from the late 19th and early 20th Century onwards. Examples include the early development of agriculture in the Okanagan Valley in B.C., through, among other things, the Belgo-Canadian Fruit Lands Company, headquartered in Antwerp, or the expansion of the mining sector in Quebec through various subsidiaries of the Générale holding company (headquartered in Brussels), and various other companies such as Belgo-Canadian Mining Securities Holding. It is interesting to note that one of those early Belgian entrepreneurs, Baron Louis-Empain, was also one of the first to discover the potential of the Laurentians as a tourist destination. He founded the first resort in Belgian art déco style at Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson (devastated by fire in 1945).
Today, a century later, our economies have adapted to a new, globalised environment in which exclusive exchanges between companies that are 100 percent Canadian and 100 percent Belgian have become an exception rather than the rule. But the entrepreneurs who brought our two economies together for the first time have left a solid base on which to build. With the conclusion of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the European Union and Canada, an era of new opportunities lies around the corner. Together with their partners in the various provinces and territories, Belgium’s three regions (Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia) are ready for that moment. As we said at the outset, the relationship goes “way beyond beer and chocolate,” but that surely is an appetizing way to start the conversation.

Bruno van der Pluijm is the ambassador of Belgium. Reach the embassy at
ottawa@diplobel.fed.be or 613-236-7267.

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Bruno van der Pluijm is the ambassador of Belgium. Reach the embassy at ottawa@diplobel.fed.be or 613-236-7267.

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