Established in 1971 as the Irish Trade and Technology Board Belgian department, the Enterprise Ireland office in Brussels is celebrating its fiftieth birthday. And while there have been many changes in the five decades since its opening, one thing has remained constant and that is the level of support and assistance Irish companies continue to receive as they enter and scale the Belgian markets.
There has long been a strong relationship between the two countries and Richard Engelkes, Interim Manager of Enterprise Ireland Benelux Region, says 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 second largest trading partner globally (the first being the US), with a total of €17.8 billion in 2020,” says Engelkes.
“In fact, it goes both ways as imports of Belgian goods to Ireland was €2.4bn in 2020 – so there is a very good bilateral trade agreement between Ireland and Belgium.
“Equally important for Irish exporters, 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.”
Location is key
And, according to Engelkes, thanks to its location at the heart of Europe, Belgium, is key.
“It boasts four ports, three airports, very good 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,” he says. “So continuing a strong 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 and there are many opportunities for Irish SMEs wanting to enter the market or scale their business in the Benelux countries and beyond. There is already an advantage for Irish companies as their reputation is good, with many firms well established in the pharma and life sciences sectors. There is also a lot of opportunity in the construction sector as well as engineering, precision engineering and packaging. Hydrogen is also a growing opportunity and there is a strong interest in building smart cities with an emphasis on sustainability, so innovative solutions will do well in the region.”
A reputation for innovation
The acting regional manager says innovation is something which Irish companies are known for, so this reputation is advantageous to firms who are looking to enter the market. They are also known for being flexible, reliable, and adaptable, qualities respected by Belgian companies.
“Irish firms have also shown a strong commitment to EU standards and regulations as well as being adept at solving complex technical challenges.” says Engelkes.
“But I would say that 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 although most Belgians are highly proficient in English, it is advisable not to assume so and to at least attempt to learn a word or two – this will serve as an icebreaker and can be very helpful in building a relationship.”
Enterprise Ireland support
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 – and the role of the Enterprise Ireland Office in Brussels is to assist companies like this in scaling their business but also to help others enter the market. This could involve market research, consultancy, getting involved with events (live or virtual), introductions and promotions or publicity – so if they have an idea, Richard and his colleagues can help with getting it into newspapers and online.
“We also 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, as well as close cooperation with Belgian ports, such as the Port of Antwerp and Zeebrugge,” he says. “In addition to this, Enterprise Ireland also supports expansion into the Eurozone with award-winning training courses, which are available to clients.
“Robert Troy, Minister for Trade Promotion, opened an Enterprise Ireland webinar in March, entitled ‘Belgian/Irish trade: Maximising Trade Flows in a new European Union’. He also visited Antwerp in May which shows the Irish government’s dedication to fostering strong bilateral trade relations with Belgium.
“So, after 50 years in Brussels, the future for Irish businesses continues to look bright and we at the Enterprise Ireland office, are looking forward to continuing success for the next 50 years and beyond.”