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March 23, 2023

Belgium-Romania: Diplomatic relations bearing the fruits of a long lasting interaction

When Belgium gained its independence, its economic environment drastically changed. Internally, priority was given to invest in efficient infrastructure. The country had in 1835 established the first rail connection on the continent as well as a close network of canals between the most important industrial zones. Since it lost its export markets, traditionally linked to the Netherlands, it had to find new destinations. In order to promote Belgian exports in this respect, the Ottoman and the Russian Empire were given priority. The Principality of Moldova and the Principality of Wallachia were seen as the best intermediate platforms between southern Russia and the Black Sea Ottoman territories. From 1838 till 1880, different consulates were established in Galați, Brăila, Iaşi, Craiova and Bucharest. After the signing of a Bilateral Trade Treaty in 1877, commercial activities on the Danube and via Sulina and the Black Sea by sea cargo, steeply increased, allowing Belgium to become the first export destination for Romania in the years preceding the First World War. At the time of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Kingdom of Romania and the Kingdom of Belgium, Romania saw itself as ‘la Belgique de l’Orient’. The Romanian Constitution of 1866 copied the modernity of the Belgian Constitution which was seen at that time as the most liberal in Europe. Also part of the modernity which Belgium offered to its oriental counterpart was the organization of the National Bank of Romania, the set-up of the Romanian postal services and with the aid of the General Henri Brialmont, starting from 1882, the erection of a belt of defense fortresses around Bucharest.

Already in 1871, Belgian interests were registered in operating a tramway company in Bucharest. At a later stage in the 19th century other Belgian entrepreneurs were attracted to come to the Romanian capital and invest in the construction of carriages, the casting of railbars and also of the exploitation of new tramlines. The three Belgian companies active at the end of the 19th century in tramways in Bucharest joined forces in 1899 as ‘Les Tramways Unis de Bucarest’. Also in Galați and Brăila, Belgian tramway companies were active, next to electricity companies in Galați, Ploieşti and Cluj. Three other major areas where Belgian investors before the First World War had been active, were sugar refineries, cement production and oil business. An even stronger Belgian economic presence in Romania was acknowledged during the period of the Interbellum when Belgium became the third largest oil operator in Romania, the first cement and sugar producer as well as an important operator in metal works, textiles, tramways and electricity production. Even the Banca Comerciala Română (BCR) was as the third most important bank in Romania, a bank with Belgian shareholders. After difficult negotiations on compensations for the nationalizations in 1948, which were only finalized in 1970, it took quite some time before Belgian business was believing again in economic opportunities that Romania had to offer. The visibility of Belgian companies has grown since 2000 with an increase of the number of operators but also with an expansion of the existing production activities, of the regional market prospection and of stronger cooperation with the local as well as with foreign investors.

History has shown that Belgium, before the First World War but also between the two wars, was an attractive place for Romanian students which in the universities of Antwerpen, Gent, Brussels and Liège were amongst the most important groups of foreign students. Several of them had occupied later on back home important positions at political, economic and administrative level. Belgium was also for Romania an interesting place to showcase its economic strength and opportunities, in particular for wheat and oil. Therefore a participation in the Belgian international fairs starting from 1894 was gladly accepted. For the 1905 International Exhibition in Liège a Brancoveanu style of pavillon was designed by Romanian architect Grigory Cerchez. The Romanian participation in the 1936 International Exhibition in Gent for which Marcel Ianchelevic designed the authentic external ornaments, also had attracted a lot of attention, creating sympathy for Romania as a touristic destination as well as an attractive country to invest in. After a gloomy period which contained an adversed attraction in the 1940’s and a hesitant interaction in the 1950’s, the relations in the 1960’s and 1970’s slowly gained political interest. The visit in 1968 to Bucharest of Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Pierre Harmel, together with the German Chancellor Willy Brandt, as one of the designers of the Détente policy, geared the political relations into a new direction. The presence of President Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1972 in Brussels and of King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola in 1976  in Bucharest, crowned the delicacy of the bilateral avenue. Already in 1986 many people in Belgium questioned the Romanian policy lines. In 1988 Belgian civil society stood up to show solidarity against Romanian baffled human rights. This political engagement that at the grassroot level continued to create an intense support to democratic changes, is after 25 years still bearing its fruits with 150 Belgian municipalities having developed contacts at different levels of intensity, also promoting the European acquis. When Romania entered the European Union, the question of its readiness was advanced. Historians in some future times will have to answer this question. The only relevant observation that matters today, is that Romania together with Bulgaria entered the EU on the 1st of January 2007 with the obligation to respect the rule of law and create an environment which provides quality of life to its citizens as well as transparency and administrative capacities in the functioning of its institutions.


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