High energy bills deal heavy blow to Belgian glassware business
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When energy prices blew up last year in the wake of Russia's war in Ukraine, Belgian glassblower Christophe Genard had no other option but to close for three months.
The 45-year-old's gas bill had hit a whopping 6,000 euros ($6,500) a month.
Faced with the prospect of giving up his beloved 20-year career as a glassblower, he was forced to adapt to survive by using a smaller oven to produce his glassware.
"While I was closed, between July and September 2022, I thought about how I could keep earning a living, so I merely changed what tool I used," Genard said at his studio in Liege, where he also hosts classes.
Genard told AFP that he now uses propane gas cylinders to fire up his smaller oven for a couple of days a week.
"That comes to around 3,000 euros a month, half the cost, but I no longer work every day," Genard said, adding that he produces half of what he used to.
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Late last year, the Walloon regional government announced measures worth around 175 million euros to support businesses with rising energy costs, but some worry it might not be enough.
"We'll see if it will be sufficient in terms of amount," Walloon Union of Companies chief Olivier de Wasseige said in an LN24 channel interview on January 22.
He called on Belgium's federal government to have a "structural energy policy" that matches neighbouring countries and take serious measures including a transition to renewable energy.
Belgium has allocated just 4.3 billion euros to help households and businesses with the energy crisis -- equivalent to 0.8 percent of its gross domestic product, according to a study published by the Bruegel think tank in November.
It was the fourth lowest level within the 27-nation EU, well behind other nations such as the neighbouring Netherlands, which spent 43.9 billion euros, or more than five percent of GDP on such aid.
Even smaller economies have spent bigger shares of their GDP on such assistance, with Romania earmarking 8.5 billion euros (3.5 percent).
Businesses feel the heat
Genard is one of many independent business owners in Belgium forced to change how they work to meet soaring energy costs, even if it means producing less.
The Federation of Belgian Enterprises (FEB) warned this month of spiralling costs for businesses because of higher energy prices and inflation-related wage hikes.
The first half of 2023 will be "extremely difficult" for Belgian companies, the FEB said, as fixed contracts for gas and electricity prices end during this period.
"They will face energy costs three to seven times higher than usual," the federation warned, adding that it would cost businesses an additional 10 to 25 billion euros.
Another survey published last month showed that over 76 percent of Belgian retailers fear they will go bankrupt, citing several threats including higher energy bills.
Three-quarters of the retailers surveyed said they had reduced heating in their shops while 66 percent said they turned off neon signs outside opening hours.
No more pressure
Genard said he wanted to keep his prices unchanged "because already most people's purchasing power is falling", he said, surrounded by gold-specked glass apples and vibrant glass hens.
One decorative glass apple costs 60 euros, the same price as in 2022.
"I want to keep producing pieces and welcoming everyone to my workshop," Genard said.
He added he tried not to think about what may happen in the future.
"I find it difficult to look too far ahead. When we think too much about the future, it puts us in uncomfortable situations, feeling fear and anxiety," he said.
But the changes are not all bad for the glassblower.
"I no longer feel constant pressure to be profitable. I have more time to design, to create, to think of ways to develop partnerships."
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