On Tuesday 31 August 2021, the Grand Duchy hosted the 11th "Gäichel" bilateral meeting between the Luxembourg and Belgian governments, under the joint presidency of Prime Ministers Xavier Bettel and Alexander De Croo.
This particular meeting, held at the European Convention Center Luxembourg (ECCL), fell within the context of celebrations of the centenary of the Belgium–Luxembourg Economic Union (BLEU); the agreement was signed on 25 July 1921.
Luxembourg and Belgium today renewed their desire to work together for a united and resilient European Union (EU), which protects its citizens and their shared universal values. Faced with the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the European economy, they stressed the need to deepen the single market in order to stimulate a strong recovery in a competitive and sustainable Europe. The two countries expressed their full support for the efforts made within the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe, stressing that this should result in bringing the European institutions and citizens, especially young people, closer together.
The two countries welcomed their close consultation on the management of the COVID-19 pandemic and the arrangements they made to ensure the free passage of cross-border workers at the height of the crisis. They reaffirmed the importance of ensuring full freedom of movement within the Schengen area and assumed their responsibilities to contain the pandemic and protect their citizens, while preserving the freedoms of movement of people and of movement of goods and services. They agreed that particular attention should be paid to the specific needs of cross-border living areas in decision-making processes at the national, regional and European levels.
On Tuesday, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel and Belgium's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health Frank Vandenbroucke, together with interior ministers Annelies Verlinden (Belgium) and Taina Bofferding (Luxembourg), signed a joint declaration on cooperation in matters of crisis management, civil security and urgent medical aid. On this occasion, Belgium thanked Luxembourg for its rapid and effective support following the floods of July 2021.
Likewise, the two governments noted that cooperation between their respective health authorities has been excellent throughout the health crisis, particularly in the context of cross-border tracing of contact cases. Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Frank Vandenbroucke and Luxembourg's Minister of Health Paulette Lenert took this one step further by signing a joint declaration on cross-border healthcare cooperation (beyond the health crisis), with a view to facilitating access to local and quality care.
The Belgian and Luxembourg governments also welcomed their concluded tax and social security agreements aimed at facilitating teleworking for cross-border workers and eliminating its impact on social security and taxation for both workers and businesses, within the framework of of the fight against the spread of COVID-19. Beyond the context of the pandemic, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Vincent Van Peteghem and Luxembourg's Minister of Finance Pierre Gramegna agreed to continue to promote and facilitate teleworking for cross-border workers. As such, the so-called “24-day” rule will be relaxed; from 2022, cross-border workers will be able to exercise their professional activity for a period of 34 days outside their usual State of activity, while remaining taxable in that State, i.e. ten days more than currently.
Ministers Vincent Van Peteghem and Pierre Gramegna also reached an agreement on the revision of the current system within the specific framework of the BLEU common revenue regime.
The social security affiliation of cross-border workers was also discussed, particularly with regard to the transport sector.
The two governments recalled the importance of working together for the conclusion of the multilateral treaty on the fight against social fraud, on which negotiations within the Benelux have been underway since April 2021. This treaty is deemed important in providing a legal basis and a common framework for joint and coordinated inspections and the exchange of information between countries.
Moreover, several investment protection agreements were concluded on behalf of the BLEU with third countries. Recent developments in arbitration and sustainable development prompted the two countries to modernise their approach in order to align it with the new standards. They confirmed the development of a new model agreement on the basis of a project under discussion.
Foreign and European affairs
The Luxembourg and Belgian governments also emphasised their close cooperation in the field of consular assistance, including repatriations during the health crisis and, most recently, repatriations from Afghanistan.
In addition, the two parties agreed to sign a letter of intent in order to deepen cooperation between their foreign and European affairs administrations, particularly through joint training and secondments. They also agreed to conclude a bilateral agreement on the modalities of exercising remunerated employment by family members of diplomatic agents in the country of assignment.
Belgium and Luxembourg praised their long and fruitful cooperation in defence, namely regarding joint officer training, joint deployment on missions and satellite cooperation. On Tuesday, Luxembourg's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, François Bausch, and Belgium's Minister of Defence, Ludivine Dedonder, signed a treaty which regulates the operation of the A400M aircraft within the new binational air transport unit. They also adopted a declaration of intent on the creation of a common reconnaissance battalion in order to further intensify their military cooperation and contribute to NATO's increased demands.
With the exception of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 48,000 workers residing in Belgium travel to Luxembourg every day. Mobility therefore plays an important role and both countries aim to increase the number of travellers using rail transport, thus contributing to sustainable development and climate goals.
Deputy Prime Ministers and Ministers of Mobility François Bausch (Luxembourg) and Georges Gilkinet (Belgium) recalled the particular importance they both attach to an accelerated modernisation of the Luxembourg-Brussels rail line in order to strengthen the international vocation of this axis. Funding has been requested under the new European instruments: the Green Deal and national recovery plans. The rapid modernisation of this line is considered decisive for the mobility of Luxembourg and Belgian residents, the transport of goods and the development of a viable direct link Brussels-Luxembourg-Strasbourg. On Tuesday, the two Deputy Prime Ministers affirmed their desire to update the Belgian-Luxembourg railway letter of intent in order to increase and improve rail connections between the two countries.
The two governments noted that the railway working group created during the 10th Gäichel in 2017 meets regularly and continues its work to reduce the journey time between Luxembourg and Brussels and improve the quality of service to passengers. In addition, following the introduction of free public transport in Luxembourg in 2020, the price of cross-border tickets to Belgium has been reduced.
Digitalisation is one of the priorities of both governments. Luxembourg's Prime Minister and Minister for Communication and Media, Xavier Bettel, and Belgium's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Telecommunications, Petra De Sutter, discussed the establishment of 5G coverage along major road, rail and river axes. At the same time, Luxembourg and Belgium will develop the exchange of good practices concerning how individuals are informed, both on 5G and the roadmap for the deployment of 5G, as well as on questions regarding the health impact of waves used in telecommunications.
In the field of energy, Belgium and Luxembourg expressed their desire to diversify and make their energy mix green. Energy ministers Tinne Van der Straeten (Belgium) and Claude Turmes (Luxembourg) will cooperate in establishing the renewable hydrogen network. Together with the Belgian Minister of the North Sea, Vincent Van Quickenborn, a collaboration for the development of wind power in the North Sea will be established. In addition, by building an energy island off the Belgian coast by 2025, the two countries will be connected to a renewable and cheap energy network. Such projects could benefit from funding under the Belgian recovery plan.
Luxembourg and Belgium welcomed the positive experience of bilateral and multilateral cooperation within international networks in the field of the civil service and public administrations. Civil service ministers Petra De Sutter (Belgium) and Marc Hansen (Luxembourg) announced their intention to strengthen their good relations and expressed the ambition that their cooperation contributes to the modernisation of their public services and to the reinforcement of the exchange of good practices in this matter.
Agriculture ministers Romain Schneider (Luxembourg) and David Clarinval (Belgium) welcomed their good cooperation and communication in the fight against African swine fever. Due to the risk of the virus spreading rapidly across borders by wild boars, Belgium, France and Luxembourg immediately took preventive measures and put up fences along the borders. Wild boar hunting has also been intensified and practised cross-border in certain areas.
The Belgian and Luxembourg governments also reiterated their commitment to eliminate territorial restrictions on supply. Many Luxembourg and Belgian companies face recurring problems in sourcing freely from the supplier of their choice within the EU's internal market. This often leads to a triple penalty: in terms of price, supply, and adequacy of ancillary services. After carrying out studies to corroborate these findings within the Benelux Union, the two countries are continuing their efforts to find a solution to the territorial restrictions on supply at the European level.
In 2019, Belgium and Luxembourg made a joint declaration to work together to develop an international framework for the use, exploration and exploitation of space resources. On Tuesday, the two countries welcomed the regular Belgian-Luxembourg exchanges in the forums of the European Space Agency (ESA), the EU and the United Nations (UN). A possible collaboration with the recently created European Space Resources Innovation Centre (ESRIC) was considered. The issue of security from and through space infrastructure is an increasingly visible subject that will require new initiatives in the near future. Belgium has for many years supported the development of the European Space Security and Education Centre (ESEC) of the ESA in Redu (Belgium); Luxembourg has been associated with it through SES support for site operations. The competent ministers will work together to identify and support initiatives or programmes of common interest prepared by the ESA for the next meeting of the ESA Ministerial Council at the end of 2022.
The representatives of the two countries reaffirmed their willingness to meet at regular intervals in this so-called “Gäichel” format.