Economic studies
Belgium

Belgium

Population 11.5 million
GDP 46,237 US$
A3
Country risk assessment
A1
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Synthesis

major macro economic indicators

  2018 2019 2020 (e) 2021 (f)
GDP growth (%) 1.5 1.2 -7.3 4.4
Inflation (yearly average, %) 2.3 1.2 0.4 1.4
Budget balance (% GDP) -0.8 -1.9 -11.5 -8.2
Current account balance (% GDP) -0.8 0.3 0.5 0.7
Public debt (% GDP) 99.8 98.1 118.0 118.5

(e): Estimate (f): Forecast

STRENGTHS

  • Optimal location between the United Kingdom, Germany and France
  • Presence of European institutions, international organisations and global groups
  • Ports of Antwerp (second-largest in Europe) and Zeebrugge, canals, motorways
  • Well-trained workforce through vocational education, multilingualism

WEAKNESSES

  • Political and financial tensions between Flanders and Wallonia
  • Complex institutional structure and multiple administrative levels
  • Heavily dependent on the Western European economy (exports of goods and services = 107% of GDP, of which more than 70% to the rest of the EU)
  • Exports concentrated on intermediate products
  • High structural unemployment
  • Heavy public debt
  • Tight housing market
  • Saturated transport infrastructure

RISK ASSESSMENT

A rebound limited by the lagged recovery in world trade

Belgium will make a return to growth in 2021, after being one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic in 2020, both in terms of health (highest number of deaths per inhabitant at the end of 2020) and the economy. To limit the spread of the virus, the country’s governments were forced to impose a lockdown and close non-essential businesses in spring and again in November, leading to an unprecedented drop in activity. As the health situation gradually improves, domestic demand is expected to rebound sharply in 2021. Households, whose purchasing power was boosted by government measures (short-time work scheme, aid for self-employed people), will consume some of the large precautionary savings (18% of gross disposable income by mid-2020) built up during the crisis. With household consumption dictated by the uncertainty surrounding the health situation, the rebound should accelerate in the second half of the year. Companies are also expected to step up their investment after receiving extensive government support (state-guaranteed loans, postponement of social security and tax deadlines). However, the resumption of investment will be limited by economic uncertainty, less fluid trade between the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU) - despite the signing of an agreement in December 2020 - and the gradual reorganisation of production chains. Heavily dependent on regional trade - even though 40% of exports to the rest of the EU are transit imports - the economy will be affected by the lagged catch-up in trade. Furthermore, the government is planning to introduce new measures (estimated by the European Commission at 0.6% of GDP), including increases in health sector wages and the minimum pension, to support the economic recovery.

 

Public accounts still deep in deficit to support activity

The public deficit will remain very large in 2021, after deteriorating sharply in 2020 due to the expenditure incurred to curb the economic and health consequences of the epidemic (total cost estimated at 3.9% of GDP in 2020), coupled with a fall in revenue linked to activity. As most support measures have been extended at least until the beginning of 2021, the slight reduction in the deficit will essentially be due to a rebound in revenues resulting from economic growth, plus an increase in excise duties on tobacco. After rising sharply in 2020, like in other Eurozone countries, public debt is set to stabilise, albeit at a very high level.

The current account is expected to remain relatively balanced in 2021. Because of the country's integration into European production chains and its status as a regional hub, imports move in line with exports, such that the balance of goods and services has been fairly balanced in recent years. Concomitantly, the income balance has been slightly in deficit (-0.4% of GDP in the first half of 2020), with dividends on foreign investments in the country exceeding those from Belgian investments abroad. Although very large, the external debt (268% of GDP, three-quarters of which corresponds to private liabilities) is much lower than the substantial assets held abroad, with the result that the country had a net external surplus position of 45% of GDP at the end of June 2020.

 

A disparate coalition made up of four groups

The triple elections (federal, regional and European legislative elections) held in May 2019 led to further fragmentation of the political landscape and were followed by long months of fruitless negotiations. Then, in March 2020, a minority government (38 seats out of 150) led by Sophie Wilmès of the French-speaking Reform Movement (MR, centre-right), was set up as an emergency measure to combat the pandemic. However, it was not until 1 October 2020 that a majority government coalition was formed under the leadership of the Dutch-speaking liberal Alexander De Croo. This coalition, which has 87 seats in the house of representatives, is made up of four groups (socialists, liberals, environmentalists and Christian Democrats), divided into seven parties: the French-speaking (PS, 20 seats) and Dutch-speaking (SPA, 9) socialist parties, the French-speaking (Ecolo, 12) and Dutch-speaking (Groen, 8) environmentalists, the French-speaking (MR, 14) and Dutch-speaking (Open VLD, 12) liberals and the Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V, 12). In spite of their rapid progress in the elections, the parties at either end of the political spectrum, namely the VB (far-right Flemish nationalists, which went from 3 to 18 seats) and the PTB (unitary far-left, from 2 to 12 seats) are therefore in the opposition, as is the leading party, the N-VA (Flemish conservatives, 25 seats). While the pandemic emergency and the fear of holding new elections in this setting made it possible to form a government coalition 494 days after the legislative elections, the disparate nature of the alliance makes it vulnerable. Political instability seems destined to continue in the country, as the landscape is so fragmented, with a growing divergence between Flanders, which is heading increasingly towards the right, and Wallonia, which is moving left.

 

Last updated: February 2021

Payment

Bank transfers (SEPA & SWIFT) and electronic payments are the most frequently used methods of payment for businesses.

Cheques are seldom used and only in certain sectors (e.g. transport, fruit and vegetable wholesale). As cheques no longer benefit from a guarantee from the issuing bank, the cheque issuer’s account needs to contain sufficient funds in order to be for the cheque to be cashed. Issuing a cheque with insufficient funds is a criminal offence.

Bills of exchange are no longer used for payment in Belgium, except in certain sectors and in international transactions.

Payment defaults are no longer recorded in the Moniteur belge (MB, Belgian Official Journal), but they can be consulted on the National Chamber of Bailiffs’ website, where data is available to banks and professional organisations.

Debt Collection

Amicable phase

There are no special provisions for out-of-court debt recoveries between businesses. Creditors should attempt to gain payment from debtors by sending written reminders. Before beginning legal action against a debtor company, it is often worthwhile asking a lawyer to check the database of seizures.

 

Legal proceedings

Judgments are normally delivered within 30 days after closure of the hearings. A judgment is rendered by default in cases where debtors are neither present nor represented during the proceedings.

 

Fast track proceedings

This procedure is rarely used in business-to-business cases, and cannot be implemented when the debt is disputed. A 2016 law implemented a new set of procedural rules, creating an out-of-court administrative procedure for non-disputed debts. When an order of payment has been issued, the debtor has a month to pay the amount. If the debtor refuses, the creditor can request a bailiff to issue a writ of execution. Moreover, under the new rules, lodging an appeal against a judgment will no longer suspend the enforceability of this judgment. Consequently, even if the debtor starts appeal proceedings, the creditor will be able to pursue the recovery of the debt.

 

Retention of title clause

This is a contractual provision stipulating that the seller retains title of goods until receipt of full payment from the buyer. Unpaid creditors can make claims on goods in the debtor’s possession. It therefore follows that the retention of title clause is enforceable in all situations where creditors bear losses arising from insolvencies, whatever the nature of the underlying contract. When goods sold under retention of title are converted into a claim (after a sale), the seller-owner’s rights referring to this claim (the selling price) are known as real subrogation.

 

Ordinary proceedings before the commercial court

All disputes between companies can be tried by the Commercial Court in Belgium. In cases of cross-border claims using European legislation, a European execution for payment proceedings can be enabled. Claimants also have recourse to European small claims proceedings.

 

Summon on the merits

The bailiff assigns the debtor a court date for the introduction of the case. If discussions do not take place, judgement will follow within four to six weeks. If there are discussions pending, parties need to put their intentions in written conclusions. After judgement, there is a possibility to appeal – if no appeal is filed, the execution will follow through the bailiff.

 

Attachment procedure

This judicial proceeding is conducted for the benefit of only one party (ex parte). There are three essential conditions to proceed with an attachment:

  • urgency of the measure;
  • prior authorisation of the judge is required to lay a conservatory attachment;
  • the debt must be certain, collectable and liquid.

A debtor may request the cancellation of the attachment if it has been unjustly imposed. However, once an attachment has been imposed, it remains valid for a period of three years. Subsequently, a conservatory attachment may be transformed into an execution order. 

Enforcement of a Legal Decision

A judgment becomes enforceable once all venues of have been exhausted. If the debtor refuses to execute payment, a bailiff can attach the debtor’s assets or obtain payment through a third party (Direct Action).

Foreign awards can be recognised and enforced in Belgium, provided that various criteria are met. The outcome will vary depending on whether the award is rendered in an EU country (in which case it will benefit from particularly advantageous enforcement conditions), or a non-EU country (for which normal exequatur procedures are applied).

Insolvency Proceedings

Bankruptcy proceedings

Debtors can file for bankruptcy when they have ceased making payments for some time, or when the creditor’s confidence has been lost. If bankruptcy is granted, creditors must register their claims within the time prescribed in the court’s insolvency declaration. Failure to do so on the part of a creditor will result in the cancellation of their priority rights. The court then appoints a trustee, or official receiver, to verify the claims. The retention of title clause can be cited by the creditor, in order to claim his property.

Since 2017, submissions of claims where bankruptcy procedures are involved must be made electronically, via the Central Solvency Register (www.regsol.be), which records all bankruptcies over the last 30 years.

 

Judicial restructuring process

The judicial restructuring process (reorganisation judiciaire), designed to reorganise a company’s debts with its creditors, can be granted by the court upon request of any debtor facing financial difficulties that threaten its continued business in the short- or medium-term. The debtor makes a reasoned application to the Registry of the Commercial Court in order to be granted an extended period to pay the debt. This extended period is normally set at six months, during which the debtor must propose a reorganisation plan to all of its creditors.

Outstanding creditors (those whose claims arose before the commencement of the extended period) cannot begin any execution procedure for the sale of real or personal property of the debtor, but can request enforcement of their retention of title clause. Nevertheless, the extended period does not prevent the debtor from making voluntary payments to any the outstanding creditors. In addition, the extended period does not benefit co-debtors and guarantors, who are still required to meet their commitments.

Insolvency trend Belgium
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