major macro economic indicators
|2020||2021||2022 (e)||2023 (p)|
|GDP growth (%)||-5.4||6.1||3.1||0.4|
|Inflation (yearly average, %)||0.7||2.4||9.6||4.5|
|Budget balance (% GDP)||-9.0||-5.6||-5.2||-5.9|
|Current account balance (% GDP)||1.1||0.4||-4.0||-1.7|
|Public debt (% GDP)||112.0||109.3||106.0||109.0|
(e): Estimate (f): Forecast
- Optimal trade-strategic location between the United Kingdom, Germany and France
- Ports of Antwerp (second-largest in Europe) and Zeebrugge
- Presence of European institutions, international organisations and global groups
- Well-trained workforce thanks to vocational education, multilingualism
- Political and financial tensions between Flanders and Wallonia
- Complex institutional structure and multiple administrative levels
- Very dependent on the Western European economy: exports of goods and services = 86% of GDP, of which almost 60% goes to the rest of the EU
- Exports concentrated on intermediate products
- High structural unemployment
- Heavy public debt
Higher prices for longer (compared to European neighbours) due to automatic wage indexation
The 2023 economic outlook for Belgium is specific, but, nonetheless, roughly in line with that of the rest of Western Europe. One special factor is the energy mix. In 2021, the main source of energy was oil (47.7%), followed by natural gas (22.4%). What is striking is that nuclear energy takes a big share of the mix with 16.8%, while renewables make up 8% of total energy consumption. Looking at the natural gas situation, Belgium was not very dependent on Russia prior to the war in Ukraine, with only 6% coming from the Russian Federation. Instead, the Netherlands, a direct neighbour, is sending Belgium 33% of its gas requirements, followed by Norway (30%) and Qatar (20%). The LNG terminal in Zeebrugge plays an important role on that score, as a stable gas supply is crucial to the Belgian economy. With its focus on the chemical and pharmaceutical sector, the Belgian industry is the most gas-intensive in Europe. To reduce pressure on the energy sector, the government decided to delay the phasing-out of two nuclear power plants by ten years to 2035, and, consequently, to exit the nuclear energy sector the same year. In addition, further investments in renewables are planned as well as the construction of additional smaller nuclear reactors to ensure energy security. While these measures will help the future energy supply, they were unable to make an impact on the sharp hike in energy prices in 2022 that brought the inflation rate up to a peak of 12.3% in October 2022, its highest level since 1975. While the inflation rate stabilised at the end of 2022, automatic wage price indexation in individual sectors and in public-sector wages, and the adjustment of pensions over the first few months of the year 2023 will fuel the Belgian inflation rate to some extent and keep it persistently high for longer compared to the rest of Western Europe. This has the advantage of boosting households’ purchasing power with a time-lag effect while consumption can technically remain strong. However, if high inflation persists for a longer period of time, consumers may become cautious and save more. The labour market was doing surprisingly well in 2022 with the unemployment rate almost returning to its pre-pandemic low. In 2023, the limited growth of the economy and a possible increase in job losses could be balanced out by continued retirements of the baby-boomer generation, which will generate a lack of qualified workers. Another source of support for the Belgian economy, particularly private households and companies, will come from the Belgian state. The 2023 budget includes a €3.6bn fiscal stimulus package representing 0.6% of GDP to address the energy crisis, including vouchers to households that using heating fuel, a gas and energy price cap, as well as the possibility for companies to defer the payment of social security contributions and taxes. Furthermore, Belgium is eligible for €6bn (1.2% of GDP) under the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility. The majority of the funds has been earmarked for infrastructure. The outlook for foreign trade, a steady and significant source of revenue, is however being clouded by expected economic stagnation all over Western Europe. Weaker European demand (even though 40% of Belgian exports to the rest of the European Union are transit-oriented imports) will add to higher borrowing costs. European central bankers in Frankfurt increased interest rates 2022 and early 2023 by 350 basis points up to 3.5% (the main refinancing rate). Interest rates could rise further and reach 4% in 2023. Furthermore, the ECB will actively start reducing its balance sheet from March 2023 by €15 million per month, and may increase the monthly amount throughout the year.
Persistent double deficit
The public deficit is expected to increase in 2023. In 2022, the deficit was already higher than originally envisaged with more expenditure related to the energy crisis. In addition, revenues decreased on back of a small tax cut for single working individuals and a reduction in VAT on electricity prices from 21% to 6%, amongst others. The situation should worsen even more this year when the automatic indexation of public wages and pensions kicks in. Public debt should accordingly increase further.
The current account should remain in deficit, but is expected to improve. The main driver of the deficit remains foreign trade with goods due to weaker demand in Western Europe together with tighter terms of trade.
Threats from the extremes keep the Vivaldi coalition going
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, a Flemish Liberal, is leading a widespread coalition with 87 out of 150 seats in the House of Representatives. This coalition, known as the “Vivaldi” coalition due to its four-group composition: socialists, liberals, environmentalists, and Christian Democrats. It includes seven parties: the French-speaking PS, with 19 seats and the Dutch-speaking socialists, Vooruit (with 9); the French-speaking Ecolo (13) and the Dutch-speaking environmentalists Groen (8), the French-speaking MR (14) and the Dutch-speaking liberals Open VLD (12), as well as the Flemish Christian Democrats, CD&V (12). The parties’ ideologies are not aligned, but the government has managed to hold on to power, and, for example, locked in major consensus over the 2023 budget that included measures to fight spiking inflation. One reason for this resistance is the fear of extremist parties coming to power, after the far-right Flemish nationalists (VB) registered its sharpest gain in votes during the last election in 2019.
Looking at the next election in 2024, the overall direction of the next parliament is very difficult to predict as the already fragmented political landscape is drifting even further apart. Flanders is veering increasingly to the right (VB together with the Flemish conservatives were the clear frontrunners in spring 2023) while Wallonia is tending to the left (PS is in the lead).
Last updated: April 2023
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.