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Belgium to scrap subsidies for newspaper distribution from 2027

09:03 14/12/2023

The Belgian government has reached an agreement regarding newspaper distribution following backlash at the awarding of subsidies to French competitors, rather than Belgium’s own bpost.

Bpost had previously handled the distribution of newspapers, an arrangement that the postal service said it heavily relied on both in terms of the €125 million in funding that came with the contract and also in providing jobs for its workers.

The newspaper contract, which allowed publishers to distribute their papers for free thanks to subsidies, is being scrapped. Instead, there will be a reduced sum of €50 million in fiscal support per year.

The federal government will retain subsidies for the next three years only for delivery in sparsely populated areas and for publications within the non-profit sector.

From 2027, the support will cease completely, according to an announcement from prime minister Alexander De Croo and federal budget secretary Alexia Bertrand (Open VLD).

To prevent distribution from grinding to a halt from 1 January 2024, bpost will be used for another six months, receiving €75 million in support. After that, it will be up to the publishers themselves to strike a deal with a distributor.

Publishers will still receive tax support for distribution in municipalities with less than 225 inhabitants per square kilometre over the next few years – roughly 10 to 15% of the population, according to De Croo, who prefers the tax support to “over-subsidisation”.

A quarter of those municipalities are in Flanders with the remaining three quarters in Wallonia. Subsidies for the distribution of papers from the non-profit sectors, such as trade unions, will remain across the country.

Bertrand said that scrapping the subsidies programme will save the government €125 million a year from 2027.

Prime Minister De Croo said he does not expect newspaper subscription prices to suddenly go up sharply as a result of shutting down the subsidy programme.

“We continue to provide a piece of support in areas that are more difficult commercially,” De Croo said.

The consequences for bpost, which has already been struggling with financial difficulties, remain to be seen.

Publishers are worried and business association Unizo said it was important that individual press sellers are adequately supported to compensate transport costs.

“An annual amount of €2 to €3 million would be allocated for this,” said Danny van Assche, Unizo's managing director, adding that years of subsidies have created a competitive disadvantage.

"We assume that this concession will apply to all press vendors who pay transport fees, such as newspaper retailers and supermarkets.

"This finally restores a level playing field in which economic logic can flourish. We will examine whether these funds are sufficient, but an important step in principle has been taken."

Written by Helen Lyons