The UK’s decision to “Brexit” has caused confusion and concern in Belgium, not only among British citizens living in Belgium but also on the business side. A high-level panel was assembled to discuss “Brexit’s Impact on Belgium” at an event on November 10th at St. John’s International School in Waterloo.
The panel of experts included Thomas Spiller, President, British Chamber of Commerce & V.P. The Walt Disney Company, EMEA, Josephine Wood, Labour, European Parliament, Alan Campbell, Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy in Brussels, Jan De Brabanter, Secretary General, Brussels Chamber of Commerce, BECI and Hans Hack, Senior Managing Director, FTI Consulting, former attaché to the E.U.
The moderator of the panel was Patricia Kelly, communications expert and former CNN Bureau Chief & correspondent, who ensured many different angles of this topic were highlighted and addressed and also coordinated audience questions.
Here are five things we learned from the panel:
1. British citizens in Belgium are very concerned about their future.
British citizens are concerned on many levels, whether it relates to their future eligibility to work, the ability to live in Belgium, consequences to pensions and their human rights in general. Many are considering or are already applying to become Belgian citizens, but are concerned about what this really means and how to go about obtaining Belgian citizenship.
2. There is no clear Brexit plan
Negotiations for Brexit can take many years, as there will need to be negotiations on a very large number of subjects and this will take time, with estimates ranging from two years to “many years”. It also seems unclear how the U.K. plans to handle and approach the exit plan or what it is looking to obtain from these exit negotiations.
3. Trade implications due to Trump’s election as U.S. President
The U.S. will likely take a protectionist approach to trade when Trump takes office in January and this would have further trade implications for both Belgium and the E.U. Partly depending on how easy the Brexit negotiations develop, other E.U. countries may consider and possibly decide to also exit the European Union, with far-right parties gaining momentum in countries such as The Netherlands, France and Austria. These elements combine result in uncertain times for the remaining E.U. countries and the impact of future developments on their economies.
4. Brussels is considering making English its official language
It is imperative that Brussels remains attractive to international companies. In order to do so, it must make changes and one of the possibilities discussed at the event is for English to become the official language of Brussels. Such a change would certainly make Brussels a more attractive location for international companies. This, by itself, will not be enough to ensure international businesses to chose Brussels for their European operations. It will require other adjustments, as well as a more proactive approach, to make Brussels more effective and appealing in an increasingly competitive environment where cities such as Dublin, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt are actively approaching businesses in the U.K. and beyond to invest and relocate to their cities.
5. The British Embassy in Brussels is in a very difficult position
As mentioned, many British citizens are concerned and their expectations on receiving information and guidance from the British Embassy in Brussels are high. On the Embassy’s end, it cannot provide the answers its citizens are looking for, as it needs to wait for decisions by the government and outcomes from the negotiations in order to be able to inform citizens. All in all, this has a negative impact on the expats' view on the U.K. as a whole, it became evident at the panel discussion.
British citizens in Belgium are frustrated and anxious about Brexit and feel they have nowhere to turn to for answers. The panel provided them with useful information on a range of topics and the discussions of attendees with members of the panel clearly showed the eagerness of British citizens to receive facts and guidance. This is an uncertain time for Belgium and the European Union as a whole. The impact will depend on how negotiations unfold and what other developments might happen during that time, including if other countries decide to exit the E.U. and how Trump’s America effectively approaches international trade.
Brussels needs to take action now to remain attractive to international business rather than continue its reactive approach, which may have worked in the past but will not be enough in this new reality. Making English the official language of Brussels would be a good start and it would add a surplus value to the services of HDS too.