Come to Belgium! That was one of the main messages emerging from an industry event held by the Belgian occupational pension fund association in Brussels last week.

The PensioPlus-organised seminar was dedicated to the opportunities for cross-border pension activity under revised EU pension fund legislation – the new directive on Institutions for Occupational Retirement Provision (IORP II).

Boosting cross-border activity is a key objective of the directive.

Attendees at the event were given a European Commission run-through of the genesis and meaning of the IORP II provisions on cross-border pension activity and transfers, and also heard a member state view courtesy of Luk Behets, legal adviser at the Belgian supervisor, the Financial Services and Market Authority (FSMA).

The following two presentations, about ExxonMobil OFP and Resaver, showcased the establishment of cross-border pension funds in Belgium – the drivers behind these projects, the benefits and what is involved.

Belgium has been keen to position itself as a, if not the, prime location for cross-border pension funds – or pan-European pension funds, as they are frequently also referred to.

There are currently around 80 cross-border IORPs.

That the Belgian regulator is a soft touch – the argument often heard from the Dutch – is “a total misconception”, said Ton van der Linden, business services manager and treasurer at ExxonMobil for the Benelux and chair of the ExxonMobil OFP, the cross-border IORP in Belgium.

Asked to comment on the charge that Belgium’s bid to host cross-border pension funds rests on regulatory “arbitrage”, van der Linden said “it is a common misunderstanding in the Netherlands that the Belgian regulator is easy-going”.

“I can assure you this is not the case,” he said.

He said the two regulators had a different “attitude”, with the Dutch regulator – DNB – taking a more rules-based approach and offering “no flexibility at all”, and the Belgian regulator – FSMA – taking a more principles-based approach.

ExxonMobil has cited financial-buffer requirements in the Netherlands as one of the reasons for wanting to relocate its Dutch pension scheme to Belgium.

Van der Linden also said the Belgian regulator was “cheaper” than the Dutch one.

He said ExxonMobil had also considered the UK and Luxembourg as potential sites for a cross-border pension fund but that the existence of the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) in the UK was a deterrent.

As a strong company, ExxonMobil did not see much point in paying a premium to insure its fund against default, he said. 

The ExxonMobil cross-border fund is close to going live in early 2017 subject to “a few wrinkles being ironed out”.

It obtained approval from the Dutch regulator, De Nederlandsche Bank, this month. 

IORP II leader

Tom Feys, senior adviser on the financial sector in the Ministry of Finance, told delegates the Belgian government was aiming to be at the vanguard of EU member states implementing the new IORP Directive, just as it was among the “first movers” to transpose the previous directive back in 2006. 

It has established a task force to do this.

Feys also reiterated the government’s commitment to promoting cross-border pension funds in Belgium, highlighting FSMA’s “open-minded, solutions-orientated” approach and a favourable tax regime as some of the attractive aspects.

He said the finance minister, Johan Van Overtveldt [corrected], aimed to take advantage of every trip abroad to promote cross-border pension funds to multinationals.

The Belgian government is going cold on the financial transaction tax (FTT) it has been negotiating with nine other EU member states, according to comments from Feys.

He said the latest text from the European Commission failed to take into account the conditions of the Belgian government, such as pension funds and insurance companies being excluded from its scope, and that “there is also a growing concern, since Brexit” that going ahead with a tax that would only apply to 10 countries – not including neighbouring Luxembourg and the Netherlands – would “divert financial activity”.

The Belgian government is of the view that this is contrary to the Capital Markets Union (CMU) project, and it is going to take this up with the Commission, according to Feys.

“We are more and more convinced this should be done at the right level, meaning at least at the level of EU 28 – 27 – countries, or even at the OECD level, because it would distort competition in an incredible way,” said Feys.

PensioPlus has argued strongly against the FTT, saying it would have a “devastating” impact on Belgian pension funds.

The financial transactions tax was on the agenda of a meeting of member state finance and economy ministers in early December; a new proposal is awaited from the Commission but has yet to be released, IPE understands.