Axelle D’heygere, dual qualified lawyer in Belgium and England & Wales, shares her insights on practising in Belgium
Why did you choose to practise in Belgium?
I am Belgian, but studied law in London and Hong Kong before qualifying as a solicitor in England & Wales. Having always been drawn to practise competition law, and given the fact that the best place to do so is Brussels, I had a good excuse to come home after having lived abroad for over six years.
Tell us a bit about your firm and practice area there.
Clifford Chance is a leading international law firm with 32 offices in 21 countries worldwide. We have been in Belgium since 1968 and have a leading reputation in the Belgian market. We are known for our strength in high-profile and multi-jurisdictional transactions, as well as our exceptional antitrust and regulatory expertise.
Our competition practice specialises in merger control, behavioural antitrust, state aid and regulatory matters and is the go-to team for high-profile, bet-the-company antitrust work in Brussels. We have excellent relationships with the key EU institutions and in-depth knowledge of the technical and practical aspects of the relevant EU laws, allowing us to provide our clients with practical, comprehensive advice that covers all jurisdictions in which they have business interests.
What are the main opportunities for foreign law firms and lawyers in Belgium?
Due to its central location, Belgium is often considered as the heart of Europe. The EU institutions are based in Brussels and one can easily travel to other European cities, including Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, and London. This brings many advantages for lawyers practicing European law.
Are there any challenges or obstacles?
Given that the majority of our clients are international players, they are often not familiar with European law and the European system. This can sometimes be a challenge in my day-to-day work.
Do clients tend to prefer smaller local firms or larger international networks?
This very much depends on the type of client. Given the international network that large firms such as Clifford Chance can provide, our clients are often big global players – particularly in antitrust, given the nature of the practice.
Furthermore, from experience I have observed that large international clients tend to distinguish between critical work and run-of-the-mill matters – the latter our clients will deal with in-house, whereas for the demanding work, they tend to approach large international firms, such as Clifford Chance.
What recent legal developments you have seen in Belgium?
The scope and pace of new developments in EU-level regulation is increasing, notably in data privacy and financial regulation. Stricter risk management requirements in ICT and cyber resilience are also visible on the horizon.
In Belgium, a recently adopted law replaced the existing Belgian competition law rules. The main purpose of this new law is to simplify, clarify, and refine some of the existing procedural provisions; it does not change the structure of the Belgian Competition Authority. However, it is important to note that, under the new law, fines will be calculated on the basis of worldwide turnover instead of turnover generated in Belgium and by export.
Another recently adopted law will add to the Belgian competition law rules a prohibition on the abuse of a position of economic dependence that may affect competition on the relevant Belgian market or in a substantial part thereof. The Belgian Competition Authority will be responsible for the enforcement of this prohibition. This new law will enter into force on 1 June 2020.
How do you think your firm or practice might be impacted by Brexit?
Brexit has been an opportunity for our firm, as we have been to the forefront in assisting various clients in assessing the risks associated with Brexit.
With respect to antitrust specifically, the UK’s Competition Act 1998 and Enterprise Act 2002 largely mirror EU legislation so Brexit would not necessarily entail an immediate divergence in competition policy. In general, antitrust enforcement with a pure UK dimension will continue to be enforced by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the various sectoral regulators. Any activities including mergers with an impact outside the UK would continue to be subject to EU law. If the UK leaves the EU, UK courts will cease to be bound by judgments of the EU Courts, so divergences in the interpretation of the prohibitions on anticompetitive agreements and abuse of dominance could arise over time.
What is your top tip for a lawyer moving to Belgium?
Don’t just stay in the Brussels expat bubble, but get to know the real Belgium – it has a lot more to offer than Brussels. Consider learning to speak either French or Dutch. It will be a lot easier to integrate with Belgians and get to know the local culture. That being said, don’t assume Belgians won’t interact with you because you don’t speak French or Dutch. Many Belgians speak English and will be happy to make English-speaking friends.
Do you have any insights for non-Belgian, and non-EU 27 nationals, wanting to come and practise in Belgium?
There are a significant number of non-Belgian, and non-EU 27 lawyers working in Brussels on EU and international law matters (e.g. from the U.S.), either in private practice or in-house at international companies, so there are opportunities for non-EU 27 lawyers. Nevertheless, the non-EU qualified private practice lawyer might face disadvantages and risks related to not being qualified in Europe and hence not enjoying EU legal privilege.
Finally, what is the one must-see or must-do thing you would recommend to a lawyer visiting Belgium as a tourist?
While a very small country, Belgian has lots to offer. Make sure not only to visit Brussels and Bruges, but go and see other, and perhaps less touristy cities like Antwerp, Ghent, and Ypres, or go and have a stroll in the Ardennes in autumn – in 1.5 hours you will have traded the busy city for peaceful and breath-taking nature.
These views are the views of the author and not those of the Law Society