There have been many changes in the five decades since the Enterprise Ireland office (previously called the Irish Trade and Technology Board) in Brussels opened in 1971.
Over the past 50 years, many Irish companies have been supported as they entered and scaled the Belgian and Benelux markets.
There is a strong relationship between Ireland and Belgium. For Irish companies wanting to expand their portfolio into Europe, Belgium, with its large ports at Antwerp and Zeebrugge, is the gateway.
Belgium is Ireland’s 2nd largest trading partner globally, with a total of €17.8bn in 2020. And this goes both ways as imports of Belgian goods to Ireland were €2.4bn in 2020 – so there is excellent bilateral trade between the countries.
Equally important for Enterprise Ireland client companies, Belgium is the 4th largest export market in the eurozone and the 8th largest globally. The EU, in particular the eurozone, is of great importance to Irish exporters as its proximity, the single market and single currency, a large customer base, supply chain patterns and our longstanding relationship are just some of the reasons why the region is crucial.
And the location of Belgium, at the heart of Europe, is vital.
It boasts four ports, three airports, excellent rail and road links and water connections, making it a gateway for markets all across the zone – it is also the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. So continuing a solid business relationship with Brussels is very important for Irish companies.
And despite the difficulties faced by every sector during the pandemic, the world is slowly rebuilding. As a result, Irish SMEs have many opportunities to enter or scale their business in the Benelux countries and beyond. There is already an advantage as Irish companies have a strong reputation, with many companies already established in the pharma and life sciences sectors.
Indeed, innovation is something that Irish companies are known for, alongside being flexible, reliable, and adaptable. All of these qualities are respected by Belgian companies, and Irish firms have also shown a solid commitment to EU standards and regulations as well as being adept at solving complex technical challenges.
And, while for the most part, doing business in Belgium is similar to Ireland, the main difference is the language (with French, Dutch and German spoken). So Irish firms doing business here should be aware that while most Belgians are highly proficient in English, it is advisable not to assume so and attempt to learn a word or two – this will serve as an icebreaker and can be very helpful in building a relationship.
Irish companies which are already established in Belgium include RKD Architects, PM Group, Combilift, CXV Global PPI Adhesive, and DPS Engineering, to name a few. Our role in the Brussels office is to assist companies in scaling their business but also to help others enter the market. This help could involve market research, consultancy, getting involved with events (live or virtual), introductions, promotions, or publicity. So if companies have an idea, we can help with getting it into newspapers and online.
We work in conjunction with our Enterprise Ireland colleagues in Amsterdam and have strong relationships with the Embassy of Ireland in Belgium, the Embassy of Belgium in Ireland and the trade agency, Flanders Investment and Trade, and close cooperation with Belgian ports. In addition to this, Enterprise Ireland also supports expansion into the Eurozone with award-winning training courses available to clients.
Minister for Trade Promotion, Digital and Company Regulation Robert Troy opened an Enterprise Ireland webinar in March this year, entitled ‘Belgian/Irish trade: Maximising Trade Flows in a new European Union.' He also visited Antwerp in May, demonstrating the Irish government’s dedication to fostering strong bilateral trade relations with Belgium.
After 50 years in Brussels, the future for Irish businesses continues to look bright. We at the Enterprise Ireland office are looking forward to continued success for the next 50 years and beyond.
Richard Engelkes, Interim Manager of Enterprise Ireland Benelux Region