On the eve of Belgian royal couple King Philippe and Queen Mathilde’s visit to India in November to commemorate 70 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the Belgian government is pulling out all the stops to ensure redefining of bilateral ties between India and the Kingdom of Belgium in post-Brexit Europe.
The visit, which seeks to redefine the parameters of the historically strong ties between India and Belgium which have existed since 1947, Belgium being among the first European countries to establish a diplomatic mission in India after Independence, assumes special significance in the wake of the rapidly changing political and economic landscape in Europe.
Briefing a visiting Indian media contingent at the headquarters of the Federal Public Service’s Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation organisation, Belgian government officials said a large number of bilateral agreements were expected to be inked during the King’s visit, especially in sectors such as clean technology, microfinance, life sciences and healthcare, heavy industries, food processing, diamonds, smart cities and education. The royal couple will be accompanied by a high-powered business delegation comprising CEOs of 86 Belgian companies, 13 chiefs of academic institutions and 29 media representatives.
The Belgian royal couple’s itinerary includes the launch of a book commemorating the sterling role Indian soldiers played in World War I fighting for Belgian sovereignty. Over 8,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives in the Flanders region. On the cards too is a trip to the Taj Mahal. Also on the anvil is the launch of one of Belgium’s most popular beer brands, Chimay. Interestingly, the business delegation is also expected to take up the issue of protection of Belgian investments in India. Though the two countries have an existing bilateral investment promotion and protection agreement (BIPA) for the reciprocal promotion and protection of investments in each other’s territories by individuals and companies situated in either nation, there is an apprehension among Belgian companies about new investments in India, especially against the backdrop of the ongoing Vodafone tax dispute.
Vodafone has initiated proceedings against India under the India-UK and India-Netherlands BIPA on its tax issue. India is the 11th trade partner of Belgium and the third among non-EU states. In 2016, trade totalled €12,36 billion of which export from Belgium to India accounted for € 8,12 billion while imports from India comprised €4,37 billion. Belgium is the second biggest exporter to India within the EU and the third biggest importer. Pertinently though, a whopping 80.8% of Belgian exports to India is precious stones and metals, largely diamond roughs which are sent to Surat for cutting and polishing.
In an interaction with the Indian media at the Antwerp World Diamond Council, senior executives of the council revealed that the bulk of diamond cutting had shifted to India on account of its cheap and skilled workforce. Currently, Surat has around 1.2 million polishers while Antwerp has just 500. Known as “white ravens” these cutters in Antwerp handle only the big stones and unique high-value pieces.
Belgian officials said the king’s visit comes at a critical juncture in bilateral ties in the wake of the US stance on climate change.
The Belgian government has also expressed willingness to provide technical assistance to the Uttar Pradesh government for its ambitious Namami Gange project to clean river Ganga. In addition, it has expressed keen interest in smart city projects in Aligarh, Ghaziabad, Allahabad and other big cities of UP. Consultancy giant Tractabel has bagged consultancy projects for the same.
(Travel for this report was sponsored by the Belgian ministry of foreign affairs)