HomeNewsBelgium's promise of free water in restaurants fails to materialize

    Belgium’s promise of free water in restaurants fails to materialize

    Free drinking water is a particularly sensitive issue in Belgium. In 2019, the Walloon government – ​​composed of socialists, liberals and ecologists – surprised its population by announcing that it would ask restaurant owners to serve free tap water. But the government will not honor its promise, as was revealed by Belgian newspaper The Free Belgium on Wednesday, March 1.

    “The idea was to democratize access to water,” said liberal Vice-President and Walloon Finance Minister Willy Borsus. However, given the current difficult economic situation, “we did not want to add this element of constraint” for restaurants and cafés, he added, not excluding that the subject might return one day to the political agenda.

    For a few years now, Belgians have demanded better access to water, a basic necessity. The idea is to reduce the use of plastic and glass bottles and help counter alcohol-induced dehydration. The Free Tap Water Belgium app was created, now listing more than 900 eateries that offer free tap water all over Belgium.

    “It’s a societal responsibility. In addition, making water free is a better way to protect alcoholics who would not spend their money on water. This is also true for young people,” said Martin de Duve, alcoholologist and director of the organization Univers Santé , promoting healthy lifestyles among young people. He added that in Belgium “water is sometimes more expensive than beer.”

    A series of crises

    Eateries make a lot of money out of water bottles. A bottle bought for 80 cents can be sold for two or even 10 times as much, depending on the type of restaurant. This also makes mineral water producers happy, as 30% of their turnover is linked to restaurants and cafes, according to the Belgian Water and Soft Drinks Industry (FIEB) association.

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    In 2018, the hospitality sector protested when the European Commission proposed a directive imposing free water in restaurants. The Walloon region then revived this idea, which was described as “preposterous” by Luc Marchal, president of the hospitality industry federation Fédération HoReCa Wallonie, which reminded that free water has a cost in terms of table service and cleaning.

    Since 2019, Walloon restaurant owners have faced a series of crises, related to the Covid-19 pandemic, the floods that hit the region in 2021 and soaring energy and food prices. “Margins are shrinking. Many businesses are going under,” said Marchal. Although no impact analysis was carried out on the introduction of free water, the Walloon government preferred to abandon this popular measure. According to De Duve, “special interests were favored over the interests of all.”

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