Relations with the United Kingdom
There have always been close ties between Flanders and the United Kingdom. These are even more intense than one might suppose.
Maritime and commercial contacts play a crucial role in its joint history. Flanders’ strategic location, and above all that of its major cities such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, has contributed to making our region a highly desirable partner for England, Scotland, Wales and subsequently the UK. The impact of Flemish art and culture, mainly in Tudor and Stuart England, was considerable.
A third of William the Conqueror’s army was made up of Flemish mercenaries. Many English and Scottish (noble) families can trace their ancestry to these Flemish knights. In the following centuries, another considerable number of Flemish nationals emigrated to England, Wales and Scotland for commercial or religious reasons. The Flemish guilds stimulated English industry, from Scotland tons of wool and fish were shipped to Flanders. Many Flemish and Walloon Protestants fled to England to escape the Spanish rule. Painters such as Rubens and Van Dyck were working for the Royal Court and the development of book printing and engraving in the Low Countries ensured that numerous intellectual manuscripts and cartography had an impact on British society. Examples include the intense correspondence between Thomas Moore and Erasmus, Mercator’s influence, etc. The influence of Dutch on the English language and in Scottish especially, is obvious.
In more recent times, Britain helped create Belgium, a strategic buffer state, and guaranteed the independence of its borders. The direct consequence of this action was the British declaration of war after the German invasion of a neutral Belgium in 1914. Around 200.000 British soldiers died in our country during the two World Wars (especially in Flanders Fields during WWI) and every year, thousands of relatives commemorate their fate during a visit to the “Commonwealth” war cemeteries.
As a neighbouring country and European partner, the UK is regarded as a priority country in Flemish foreign policy. But Flanders and the UK are also important trade partners. The UK has been firmly anchored in fourth place among Flanders’ export markets, after the Netherlands, Germany and France, with Flemish exports amounting to more than €20 billion. The UK is also Flanders’ fourth most important supplier, with Flanders importing British products to the amount of €17,5 billion (2011). Our four ports, Antwerp, Ghent, Zeebruges and Ostend have traditionally been oriented towards the British Isles. The UK uses Zeebruges as a hub to Europe for the transport of natural gas and the city is home to the Interconnector gas terminal. The UK is also our fourth most important market with regard to tourism.