“The risk of a no-deal has never seemed so high,” said Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit, following the crushing defeat of British prime minister Theresa May’s proposed agreement on Tuesday. Across Belgium, that view seems to be widely shared, as companies, institutions and even ordinary people gear up for the possibility the UK will leave the Union without an agreement in place.
Among them: Brussels Airport, whose CEO Arnaud Faust said, “We have no idea where we’re going”. The UK is due to leave in March this year – a deadline May yesterday stressed would be met. There is in place an agreement between the EU and the UK over the regime governing flights, but it only operates until March 2020. After that, what happens is anyone’s guess. The UK is not an especially important destination for Brussels Airport (photo), but administrative issues, as well as the effect on the economy in general of Brexit, are concerns.
As federal finance minister Alexander De Croo revealed yesterday that four out of five companies are not prepared for a hard Brexit – one with no agreement in place – the Port of Antwerp has suggested the UK’s departure could be postponed to allow businesses time to get organised. “The simple question is, what now?” asked Wim Dillen, international development manager for the port authority. As well as the problems of businesses, the port itself will have to come up to speed in matters such as customs and excise and food inspections.
The UK is Belgium’s fourth-largest individual trading partner, representing 5% of imports worth 15.5 billion euros, and 7.5% of exports, for a value of 31.6 billion euros.
For Voka boss Hans Maertens, new customs regulations for the UK will be a problem mainly for small and medium-sized businesses. Larger companies are among those who are already well prepared, he said.
Meanwhile, what at one time appeared to be a flood of applications for Belgian citizenship from British expats fearful of where Brexit would leave them, turns out to have been something of a damp squib. In Brussels-City, Uccle and Ixelles, three of the four communes in Brussels with the largest number of British residents, the numbers in 2018 in fact went down slightly. The exception was Etterbeek, where a small increase was recorded, Bruzz reports. It would appear that the majority of British people who either fulfil the conditions or had a mind to take Belgian citizenship did so already in 2016, with a peak in 2017. No figures were available for Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, the fifth of the communes popular with Brits.